On one hand, the Saints defense is comfortable with the prospect of facing a Lions’ offense coordinated by Joe Lombardi, New Orleans’ former quarterbacks coach, in Detroit on Sunday.
The Saints defense clashes at every practice with the philosophies Lombardi learned with the team before leaving for Detroit, and he’s stayed true to them in his first year as the Lions offensive coordinator, as far as New Orleans defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks could tell Tuesday.
On the other hand, that also means Jordan, Hicks and their teammates realize how devastating that kind of offense can be when it clicks wholly, such as the six times the Saints (2-3) have finished within the top two in the NFL in total yards since coach Sean Payton took charge in New Orleans in 2006.
“They share a lot of the same schemes ... the same approaches to the game; and it’s something we look forward to playing against, because we play against this offense regularly,” Hicks said during a Rotolo’s Pizzeria Literacy Program Visit at Ella C. Pittman Elementary School in Harvey.
But Jordan added, “That’s the dangerous part of it, too, because we know how explosive they (can be), and how much potential they have on offense.”
Lombardi worked with the Saints from 2007-13 and spent the last five of those seasons coaching the quarterbacks. The grandson of the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi was in that position when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV after 2009 and when Drew Brees posted three of his four seasons with 5,000+ passing yards (no other quarterback has more than one such campaign).
Armed with the lessons taught to him by Brees, Payton and Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Lombardi’s Lions attack hasn’t been as spectacular as some may have expected it would be six games into his tenure.
Averaging 265.3 passing yards per game this year, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is on pace to throw for 4,244 yards, which would be his lowest since 2010, when he missed 10 games with a hurt shoulder. Coupled with a rushing game picking up 86.3 yards per outing, Detroit’s offense is ranked 23rd in the NFL.
Even so, no one on a Saints team that is surrendering the 10th-most yards per game in the league and is tied for 29th in turnover differential at minus-8 is going to interpret those facts as a sign that Detroit is lagging with Lombardi in charge of the offense.
Three-time first-team All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, for one, was essentially limited to decoy duty for two of the past three games with an ankle sprain and was sidelined completely for Detroit’s latest game because of the injury. It’s no matter — Detroit is still 4-2.
Though he’s been sacked more times (21) than any other quarterback in the NFL, Stafford has thrown just four interceptions this season, putting him on pace to toss about eight fewer than the 19 he had in 2013. That has Detroit 15 spots above the Saints in turnover differential.
The defense complementing Stafford is holding opponents to the fewest points, passing yards and total yards per game, and it’s the second-best at stopping the run.
“Their defense is doing a lot to help them out, (even if) their offense has struggled in some areas,” Hicks said.
Nonetheless, for Jordan and Hicks, the Saints’ trip Sunday to Ford Field is more than merely an opportunity to match wits with an offense ascribing to principles that are familiar to any player who’s plied his trade in New Orleans in the past eight-plus years.
That’s because the presence on the Lions’ roster of former Saints such as running back Reggie Bush (2006-10), fullback Jed Collins (2010-13), safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (2011-13) and running back Joique Bell (mostly on the 2011 practice squad) slightly give the game a feeling resembling that of one surrounding a scrimmage, Hicks said.
While Bush left before Hicks (a third-round draft choice in 2012), Jordan (a 2011 first-round pick) and most of the current members of the defense joined the Saints; Collins, Abdul-Quddus and Bell did not.
Jordan joked that defensive guys were all especially “pretty excited” to lay hits on Collins, who has a touchdown reception this season. Collins logged 47 regular-season games for the Saints before leaving for the Lions in the spring, and Jordan teasingly referred to the fullback by his somewhat uncommon full first name, “Jedidiah.”
Hicks remarked, “These guys are gone now, but they’re players that we played against on a daily basis. ... I’m sure there’s going to be times where we make that eye contact and say, ‘Hey, I remember you.’ It should be fun.”
The Saints lost at Atlanta (2-4), at Cleveland (3-2) and at Dallas (5-1) while winning at home against Minnesota (2-4) and Tampa Bay (1-5) before having their open date this past weekend.