As is the case with any AFC team, the New Orleans Saints only see them once every four years (excluding preseason and possible Superbowl meetings). The black and gold last faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 when the Saints traveled to Florida and won a 23-10 ball game. The two teams have only met five times since Jacksonville’s inaugural season in 1995, with New Orleans leading the series 3-2. The last time the Jaguars beat the Saints was back in 2003 in the famous “River City Relay” game. Former Saint wide receiver Jerome Pathon capped off a crazy 75 yard touchdown after three desperate laterals, pulling New Orleans within an extra point with no time left on the clock. John Carney then missed the extra point, negating the near miracle that had just happened.
Moving on to the current times, both teams come in with a 5-9 record. As crazy as it seems, the Jaguars are still in contention to win the AFC South if they win their final two games. The Saints, on the other hand, were officially eliminated before they even stepped foot on to the field last Monday night after the Seattle Seahawks won on Sunday. New Orleans’ season continues to be a gigantic disappointment filled with injuries, bad breaks, and under achieving. The latest injury comes from Drew Brees, who tore his plantar fascia in Monday night’s loss to the Detroit Lions. It still appears as if he is set to suit up today, once again proving to be one of the toughest players in the NFL. As for the Jaguars, despite their 5-9 record, this is not the typical Jacksonville team that we have all become accustomed to seeing for years. They have a lot of young talent and a very bright future. The Saints have to win their final two games to avoid their worst record in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era and it will not be easy, starting with this one.
Let’s get rolling…
Saints Offense vs. Jaguars Defense
Saints Team Offense
- Total offense: 395.3 yards per game (3rd in NFL)
- Scoring offense: 25.0 points per game (9th)
- Pass offense: 302.2 yards per game (1st)
- Rush offense: 92.1 yards per game (27th)
Jaguars Team Defense
- Total defense: 361.5 yards allowed per game (20th in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 27.1 points per game (30th)
- Pass defense: 260.5 yards per game (24th)
- Rush defense: 101.0 yards per game (13th)
As I just mentioned, Drew Brees appears all but set to play despite suffering a torn plantar fascia in his right foot just six days ago. Reports from medical experts have stated that his injury is not one that can be made worse, but is simply an issue of pain tolerance. Regardless, my personal opinion is that he should sit down for the final two games of the season, but he is too much of a competitor to do that. Sure, he may not be at risk of further injuring that foot, but a quarterback with limited mobility to avoid big hits is a big risk, especially behind an offensive line that has allowed him to be crushed throughout the season. Nevertheless, #9 will likely be on the field today. Brees is the NFL’s second leading passer averaging 318 yards per game. His 67.6% completion percentage is third among the top 20 quarterbacks this season. Second year receiver Brandin Cooks has emerged as Brees’ top target over the second half of the season, catching seven of his eight touchdowns in the past seven games. He only needs 7 more yards to hit the 1,000 yard mark, while fellow young receiver Willie Snead needs just 126 to accomplish the same feat. Ben Watson continues to be a very reliable target for Brees, as his 67 receptions and five touchdowns are both second on the team.
The Jacksonville Jaguars defense is largely to blame for their 5-9 record. If you watch their offense, you see a young, explosive unit that can score on any given play. The defense, though, has struggled. With 33 sacks, they are just so-so at getting to the quarterback, but only seven teams have forced fewer turnovers than them. Jared Odrick is the team’s leading sacker with 5.0. Aaron Colvin, a cornerback, is next up with 4.0. Opposite of Colvin is Davon House, who is fourth in the NFL with 20 passes defended. His three interceptions are tied for the team lead with middle linebacker Paul Posluszny.
The Jaguars are not a huge threat to force constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the fact that both Terron Armstead and Zach Strief are very iffy to suit up could change things. Armstead is still battling his injured knee, while Strief is dealing with an elbow injury. Both are listed as questionable and did not practice this week. Andrus Peat will likely see reps back at his natural tackle position at some point, at the very least. Assuming Brees does play like everyone anticipates, he and his receivers should have no problem moving the ball though the air, as long as he can get it to them. The Jaguars allow a nice chunk of passing yards each game, so the Saints will have the opportunity to do what they do best.
With two games now under his belt as the team’s bell cow running back, Tim Hightower has done just as much as anyone could ask for as a running back who did not make the final 53 man roster and was not brought back until halfway through the season. In his two starts, he has totaled 41 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown. The 3.4 yards per carry is not terribly efficient, but the lack of open field remains a problem for the Saints rushing attack. Despite losing his top two running backs to season ending injuries, Sean Payton has still relegated C.J. Spiller to the same minimal role that he has played all year. His 36 carries are less than what Hightower has received in just the last two contests.
As much as Jacksonville has struggled against the pass this year, their run defense has actually played pretty well. Linebacker Telvin Smith is third in the NFL with 128 tackles, but is doubtful to play with a couple of injuries. Fellow linebacker Paul Posluszny is not far behind him with 114 tackles, which is seventh in the league. The two make for the most proficient tackling duo of any linebacker core in the NFL. Second year player Johnathan Cyprien has provided solid run support from his strong safety position, adding in 85 tackles of his own.
The Saints will be catching a big break if Telvin Smith does indeed miss the game. He has been one of those players that has quietly been one of the best in the league at his position, but has garnered little to no attention due to playing on a 5-9 team. He suffered both a separated AC joint and a dislocated finger in the team’s loss last week, so even the doubtful designation seems hopeful. The possibility of being without Armstead and Strief affects the pass protection more than the rushing attack, but it would still hurt. The Saints tend to run the ball inside quite a bit, though, especially with Hightower carrying the ball. As it always does, the ability to establish the rushing attack could be hampered if New Orleans falls behind early, just like last week. Against an offense like the Jaguars with a poor defense, that is certainly a possibility.
Saints Defense vs. Jaguars Offense
Saints Team Defense
- Total defense: 413.5 yards allowed per game (31st in NFL)
- Scoring defense: 30.9 points per game (32nd)
- Pass defense: 276.4 yards per game (30th)
- Rush defense: 137.1 yards per game (32nd)
Jaguars Team Offense
- Total offense: 353.9 yards per game (16th)
- Scoring offense: 24.5 points per game (12th)
- Pass offense: 255.6 yards per game (12th)
- Rush offense: 98.3 yards per game (2nd)
The roller coaster of performances under Dennis Allen continued a week ago. In his fourth game since taking over as defensive coordinator following Rob Ryan’s firing, Allen has seen his defense go from good to bad to good and back to bad. Matthew Stafford may have only thrown for 254 yards, but his 148.6 passer rating was pretty close to perfect. His unit is still struggling to get to opposing quarterbacks and/or force turnovers. Their 28 sacks are tied for 23rd in the league with 14 of those coming from just two players. Cam Jordan leads the team with 9.0, while Kasim Edebali follows behind with 5.0. Edebali sacked Stafford twice on Monday night, moving him in front of rookie Hau’oli Kikaha. Kikaha has not taken down a quarterback since Week 6 when he recorded his fourth sack in the first six games. Delvin Breaux continues to be the best coverage man in the Saints secondary, but actually struggled a week ago, allowing Golden Tate to score twice. He has played very poorly this season, but Brandon Browner actually did a fine job holding Calvin Johnson to just one catch. He did have the help of Jairus Byrd over the top, but it was refreshing to finally see a glimpse of what the coaching staff seems to see in him.
Aside from defensive struggles, Jacksonville’s biggest issue this season has been turning the ball over. Having given the ball away 22 times, they are killing themselves by giving away opportunities. Of course, every team is giving away an opportunity when they turn the ball over, but the reason that I stress this issue for the Jaguars is because they are a much better offense than their 16th ranking shows. Second year quarterback Blake Bortles looks to have the potential of being a very good quarterback in the NFL, as he is tied for fifth in the league with 31 touchdown passes. His 14 interceptions and 57.7% completion percentage leave a lot to be desired, but both of those low numbers are very common for young quarterbacks. Another issue for Jacksonville has been pass protection. Bortles has been sacked 41 times this season, which is second most in the NFL. Also part of the team’s 2014 draft class, Allen Robinson has quickly risen to be one of the best young receivers in the NFL. Much like Telvin Smith on their defense, Robinson is not getting the recognition that he truly deserves for what he has done on the field this season. He leads the league with 13 touchdown receptions, while hauling in 69 receptions for 1,141 yards. The yardage lands him as the NFL’s seventh leading receiver. Surprisingly enough, those numbers were not good enough to get Robinson in to the Pro-Bowl. As an even bigger surprise, Allen Hurns is also in his second year, but has emerged as an undrafted free agent that the team signed following the 2014 NFL Draft. Hurns is second on the team in the big three receiving categories with 53 receptions, 907 yards, and 8 touchdowns. His 17.1 yards receiving leads the Jaguars and is eighth highest in the entire NFL. Rounding up Bortles’ trio of main targets is big tight end Julius Thomas, who was signed to a big contract in the off-season after busting on to the scene with the help of Peyton Manning in Denver. Thomas missed the first four games of the season after breaking his hand in a preseason game. In his ten games played, he has caught 42 passes for 431 yards and 5 touchdowns.
This is a scary matchup for the Saints pass defense. They have made just about every quarterback they have faced this season look like an All-Pro, including ones that have not excelled in racking up yardage and touchdowns. Bortles and the Jaguars have the ability to do both. Allen Robinson will be another stiff test for Delvin Breaux, should Dennis Allen choose to put his best cornerback on him. Robinson is a bigger receiver at 6’3, so it is very possible that Allen decides to use Brandon Browner on him due to his size and strength. Allen Hurns is much smaller, which makes that situation even more possible. Another scary matchup lies with Julius Thomas. The Saints allow more production to opposing tight ends than any defense in the NFL, so an athletic, talented player like Thomas poses a big problem. I say this just about every week, but the pass rush has to show up. Being sacked second most in the NFL, many of Bortles’ turnovers come from trying to force passes while under pressure. I also always say that a bad pass rush can make a mediocre quarterback look great, but I can assure you that Bortles and this passing unit very well could light the Saints up if he has all day. Honestly, I am sort of expecting something like that to happen.
The pass defense has been bad and drawn most of the attention, but it is the run defense that ranks last in the NFL. As you saw above, teams are rushing for 137.1 yards per game against this team. That is a lot of yardage, which is turning in to points and chewing up clock, taking possessions away from Brees and the offense. As for the good, Stephone Anthony continues to establish himself as this team’s center of it’s defense for years to come. The rookie has 101 tackles, which is the most of any rookie this year. For comparison, that is also the same amount as Bobby Wagner, an All-Pro on Seattle’s yearly dominant defense. Kenny Vaccaro is another of the silver linings on this struggling unit, following closely behind Anthony with 95 tackles of his own. He made quite a few nice plays against the Lions on Monday night. An honorable mention player in run support is actually Jairus Byrd. His 49 tackles don’t jump off of the stat sheet, but he has quietly been solid when coming down from his free safety position to defend the run. With that being said, he still has not come close to justifying the large contract that was given to him, but at least he is trending upwards.
Jacksonville has been just so-so on the ground this year, but they will be likely be without starting running back T.J. Yeldon for the second straight game. The rookie running back missed his first game of the season last week with a knee injury and is doubtful to suit up today. Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has converted in to a solid running back for Jacksonville and is set to get his second start. Against the Atlanta Falcons last week, Robinson carried the ball 14 times for 41 yards. Despite struggling on the ground, though, he always presents a risk as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He added in eight receptions for 46 yards and is capable of breaking a short pass in to a large gain at any given moment. Aside from Bortles, Robinson was the only player to receive a carry last week, so it appears as if the job of an every down back is all his until Yeldon returns.
Denard Robinson certainly poses as a potential problem for the Saints for a couple of reasons. First, he is an elusive player that can cause nightmares against a team that is prone to missed tackles. Second, he is a running back that excels in catching passes out of the backfield, which New Orleans also struggles with. Just like tight ends, the Saints allow more production in the passing game to opposing running backs than any other team in the NFL. You can bet that Jacksonville will recognize that and do everything they can to use Robinson as a big part of their game plan.
I am actually quite afraid to go back and look at my game to game predictions throughout the season and see just how bad I did. Fortunately for my own confidence, I am almost certain that the results will be close to the same for most that have covered this team in 2015. Just when you think that they are just a bad team that will struggle to win a few games, they come out and look like the Saints of old. Then, just when you start to have some confidence in them, they regress back to the team that has made bad teams look like world beaters. They have certainly been the most perplexing New Orleans Saints team that I have watched in my 27 year old life. With that being said, I am picking against them, but I will not be one bit surprised if I am wrong. As far as why I am picking against them, I simply believe this is a bad matchup for the Saints. Like I mentioned, Jacksonville’s offense is better and a much bigger threat than they look on paper. I believe that the trio of the two Robinsons and Julius Thomas are going to cause big issues. Also, as amazing as he has been, it is hard to believe that Brees will be at anything better than 75% of his usual self with a torn plantar fascia in the foot that he plants in to the ground to stop his drop back and step up to make a throw. Granted, Brees at 75% is still better than quite a few quarterbacks, but in a game that I believe would have all of the makings of a shootout if he were healthy, I believe that the Saints could end up struggling to keep up.
Prediction: Jaguars-34, Saints-23
Though they are officially eliminated from the playoffs, I advise anyone going to the game to do everything you can to enjoy the final home game of the 2015 season. It has been a very rough year, possibly the worst in the Sean Payton era, but remember that this will be the last time to watch the Saints in the Superdome for nine months. Again, I’d like to wish a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you that stop by to read our content. I truly appreciate you and you guys are why I love to do this. Enjoy the game and for the second to last time this season…Who Dat?!
Follow David Billiot Jr on Twitter @DCBilliotJr