A team in turmoil is on its way to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this weekend.
Earlier this week, the Tennessee Titans fired coach Ken Whisenhunt, handing the reins to Mike Mularkey and its hopes to rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who will return to the starting lineup Sunday.
But the Titans, even in the muck and mire of their 1-6 start, bring one asset to the table that none of the four teams New Orleans has beaten this season can boast: a dangerous pass rush.
“They can play the run, they’re physical and I’d say that they are very good at rushing the passer,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think part of that pass defense that has been so good for them is tied with how they play on the back end and how they play on the front end, and the timing that the ball has to come out.”
New Orleans has won four of five by keeping quarterback Drew Brees upright and giving him room to operate. In the Saints’ four wins, Brees has been sacked just six times — and only three times during the Saints’ three-game winning streak. By contrast, Brees was sacked 12 times in the team’s four losses.
A variety of reasons have allowed Brees to keep his jersey a little cleaner the past three weeks.
For starters, the offensive line started getting healthy after the win over Atlanta. Handed 10 days to recuperate, the Saints got guards Jahri Evans and Tim Lelito back in the lineup full-time, and the Saints also got back the services of left tackle Terron Armstead, a rising star who has played well enough to be mentioned among the top tackles in the league.
That, and Brees has done a good job climbing the pocket and finding open spots.
“A lot of times, he knows where the ball’s going, and he’s got a good route concept queued up, and he gets the ball out quickly,” center Max Unger said. “And he’s done a great job directing us.”
New Orleans also has been able to race out to a lead in several games. Early in the season, with the Saints playing from behind often and struggling to run the ball, opposing pass rushers could ignore the run and tee off on Brees.
Now, the Saints are averaging 122.3 rushing yards per game in their past three, and New Orleans finds itself better-positioned to keep defenses off balance.
“I would say that it has been a combination of the protections and guys doing their job and doing a great job, and then also being in a position where you’re in a little bit more control of the game, as opposed to the game being dictated to you,” Payton said.
The other factor is the opponent. Atlanta, Indianapolis and the New York Giants all rank among the bottom five defenses in sacks this season.
Tennessee, on the other hand, has no such problem. Led by the interior pressure of Jurrell Casey, who has 4.5 sacks, and flanked on the outside by Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo, the Titans have sacked opposing quarterbacks 18 times, tied for 14th in the NFL despite being a game behind half the league since the Titans already have had their bye.
No matter what the Titans’ fortunes have been elsewhere this season, Tennessee can get after the passer.
And the Titans will be a good test for an offensive line that has gotten better as the season progresses.
“We obviously want to have no sacks,” Unger said. “We’re constantly working, figuring stuff out and getting to know each other a little bit more. Obviously, we’ve got some veteran guys who are in the know a little bit more, and Coach has done a good job of getting us in good situations.”