The New Orleans Saints finally find themselves at close to full strength, and now they face an opponent under siege by its own rash of injuries.
New Orleans on Sunday night likely gets back Drew Brees, Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, pushing the Saints close to full health for the first time all year.
But Dallas is limping into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome without quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant and a trio of key defenders in Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain and Orlando Scandrick, rendering a team that made the playoffs last year largely unrecognizable — save for one tough Cowboy who happens to play a position that has given the Saints fits this season.
Thirteen seasons into his career, tight end Jason Witten is battling through a pair of sprained ankles and a sprained knee to serve as a security blanket for new starting quarterback Brandon Weeden.
“You’re looking, again, at a very good route runner, a guy that has a great sense of how to get open in zone coverage,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He has a really good feel inside and makes plays in traffic.”
Tight ends have been a problem for New Orleans all season. Arizona’s Darren Fells, not normally a big-time receiving threat, caught four passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. Carolina’s Greg Olsen hurt the Saints even worse last week: Despite a rash of injuries to wide receivers that left Olsen the focal point of the Panthers’ passing attack, the Carolina tight end got free for eight catches, 134 yards and two touchdowns.
Witten, no longer the vertical threat Olsen presents, is an expert at getting free for the kind of throws over the middle that keep the chains moving.
“He probably doesn’t receive the external plays maybe that Olsen gets. What I mean by that is that oftentimes Olsen will be the one receiver to that side,” Payton said. “But he’s a real savvy route runner. He’s a very talented player, in the run and passing game. He’s smart, tough, dependable.”
The New Orleans defense must find a way to lock down Witten if the Saints want to pressure Weeden into making mistakes down the field. Weeden completed just four passes to wide receivers in his first start of the season last week, preferring to check it down to Witten and running back Lance Dunbar.
Playing against Weeden could open some options for the Saints. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s mobility forced the Saints to play a lot of zone coverage last week, forcing New Orleans’ linebackers to try to keep track of Olsen over the middle — a disadvantage for any of the linebackers the Saints had available.
The Saints need to find a new option.
Always comfortable near the line of scrimmage, strong safety Kenny Vaccaro had some success against Olsen, although the tight end did catch a perfectly thrown ball from Newton despite Vaccaro being in good position. The biggest problem is that Vaccaro is at his best when the Saints have him playing a wild-card role, blitzing and moving all over the formation.
If the Saints want to use a defensive back-heavy personnel grouping, rookie nickel back Damian Swann also is an option. Swann broke up two passes to Olsen last Sunday.
“You might get those matchups at a receiver, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone against a tight end that could run routes as good as a receiver,” Swann said. “You’ve just got to be physical. You can’t let him throw you around; you can’t let him get to his spot. You’ve got to get your hands on him.”
The Saints also could deploy an option that wasn’t available last week.
For starters, Ellerbe is at his best in coverage. One of the reasons the Saints chose the weakside linebacker as compensation in the Kenny Stills trade over the offseason was the linebacker’s ability to cover tight ends; on tape, the Saints saw Ellerbe running with Patriots star Rob Gronkowski down the field.
Ellerbe also might be a factor in covering Dunbar, who caught 10 passes out of the backfield last week.
“I’m confident (in coverage),” Ellerbe said. “I did it a lot in Baltimore. In Miami, that’s all I did. I’m kind of confident. As long as you know where your help is, you can play to your strengths.”
One last option remains. Brandon Browner, the big, physical cornerback who last week was forced to play in a zone scheme that doesn’t suit him, gave up one long deep ball to Olsen.
Placed in a man-to-man setting, Browner is still an ideal threat to combat tight ends — particularly a player like Witten, who does most of his work in the short area of the field where Browner thrives. With Lewis back, the Saints have the option to shift Browner inside.
Any and all of those options might be on the table Sunday night. Whatever New Orleans decides, the Saints have to find a way to fix their tight end problem, an issue their defenders seem quietly confident has been addressed.
“We’ve got a good game plan for the tight end this weekend,” Browner said. “It’ll show on Sunday.”