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Coaching chess match between Payton, Ryan takes center stage

"If I had to choose one non-playoff team from last season that has a chance to make it into the 2009 postseason, it would be the New York Jets. I think Rex Ryan will do a great job of creating a culture that lends itself to winning. I also love Mark Sanchez as a young quarterback prospect. We will find out soon enough."
-- Saints coach Sean Payton, on SI.com in July

METAIRIE, La. - He might not be Nostradamus, but Sean Payton sure knows football.

He knows all the intrinsic details that go into winning -- the most important, outside of talented personnel, being confidence and discipline. That's why, in his opinion, the New York Jets -- whom he has been preparing his New Orleans Saints to beat this week in a matchup of undefeated teams -- were a sensible playoff pick.

Bill Feig / Associated Press
With Saints TE Jeremy Shockey (left) making more plays this season, coach Sean Payton has a more balanced offense that's hitting on all cylinders.

Sure, Payton hedged things by throwing out the odds and trends of a certain number of non-playoff teams making it to the postseason, but he knew Ryan, after years of leading the Baltimore Ravens' defense, brought the acumen and swagger to a Jets team that simply needed the proper push. Having a young quarterback playing ahead of his years has been an added luxury.

Payton forecast the Jets because he saw a similar transformation with his own team. Highly regarded defensive coordinator Gregg Williams joined the staff, and in a matter of a few minicamps, he rallied most of the same defensive players that had been step-Saints -- and an albatross in the team's failures the past two seasons -- into a unit that felt as regal as New Orleans' high-octane offense.

In turn, an offense that had used the defense as pawns in practice had to work now. Accurate and cerebral quarterback Drew Brees had to be even more precise with his reads, throws and pre-snap alignments because he was seeing players, now unmasked, running a plethora of schemes that forced him to react instead of dictate. Wide receivers and running backs were forced to block more physically and expand their peripheral vision because defenders were going to strike first and strike hard.

The finesse has been exorcised out of New Orleans, and now the Saints have shown on both sides of the ball more toughness and, frighteningly, more options to thwart even the cleverest schemers and heartiest of bravehearts. In addition, there is a sense of purpose about the Saints. Despite their 3-0 start and impressive statistical rankings, they very much feel they need to add more seasoning to the gumbo because it's still a ways from tasting just right.

The Saints are "as balanced as we've been running and passing," said Brees, who threw nine touchdown passes in the first two weeks but none in a 27-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday as New Orleans pounded the ball on the ground. "We've shown that you have to be ready for both and have to have an answer for both. In the end, we're going to execute our offense. We're going to take our shots. We're going to try to throw for completions. We're going to try to run the ball effectively. We're going to try to formation you to death and personnel you to death.

"We go into every game with the attitude that we're going to dictate the tempo of the game and you're going to have to worry about us and not the other way around. Certainly (the Jets) do so many things that, what can I say? It's going to be a heck of a game."

The only time Brees cracked a semblance of a smile was when he uttered those final nine words.

As much as the refreshingly confident and unforgiving Ryan feels about his team's machismo, so too does Brees, and his teammates and his head coach. Of all the Xs and Os that will go into this game of infrequent opponents, the battle of wills and execution is what could make this early season game so riveting.

"We don't adjust," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said. "We do what we do. We respect the opponent, but we're not going to change the way we play for an opponent. We have to believe in our system like they believe in theirs."

Brees and Payton say they admire how the Jets play. New York's aggressiveness on defense is something the New Orleans offense has yet to experience this season. Yet the Saints, averaging a stunning 40 points per game, are almost daring the Jets to do what the Jets do: blitz, man cover, raise the roof if they want. The Saints will occupy the area you vacate and they will vacate an area you try to occupy.

Four Saints players have at least 11 receptions after three games, and three of those players have at least one touchdown catch. And those players are better than average: Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Jeremy Shockey and Reggie Bush.

New York has some darn good defensive personnel to counter. Darrelle Revis has been able to lock down Houston's Andre Johnson and New England's Randy Moss -- feats that have made the cornerback, if not a household name, a clubhouse name. Payton actually singled out Revis as a player he has devised a game plan for should the Jets assign him to Colston or the hot receiver or if they leave him on a particular side most of the time. Revis is suddenly receiving the Champ Bailey treatment.

While the Saints' passing prowess is nothing out of the ordinary, the ground game is. Powered by Mike Bell (currently sidelined with a knee injury), Pierre Thomas and Bush, New Orleans has the NFL's second-ranked rushing offense (170.7 yards per game), having exploited defenses that sit back for the pass and leave running lanes open.

While many defenses in years past backed off the blitz and dared the pass-first Saints to run, New Orleans has augmented its personnel and approach to make future opponents reconsider. For years, the Saints based their running game and blocking schemes on bulldozing tailback Deuce McAllister and Bush. They were so varied and their health was so unstable, there was no consistent manner in which to attack opponents on the ground.

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With their current running backs, the Saints have used more zone-blocking schemes, which play to the cutback abilities of all three. Those schemes also create angles for the more power-styled Bell and Thomas to find spaces to pound instead of pushing piles forward, like McAllister -- now out of football -- used to do. Bush is being used more as a change-of-pace back/receiver, which best suits his skill set.

"We allow the field to open up for Drew for the deep passes (by running so effectively)," said Thomas, who returned from an early season knee injury to run for 126 yards and score two touchdowns in the Saints' victory last Sunday.

That they do. Brees, who has completed nearly 70 percent of his throws this season, has 11 passes of more than 20 yards. Five receivers have catches of at least 22 yards. New Orleans, at least for three games, has found the Holy Grail of offensive football: Balance.

There's also an edge, an instinct to not only win but win by knockout.

"I'm sure we're going to see some things we haven't seen before," Brees said about the matchup with the Jets. "Every week in a game plan they have something new, and it's about being able to react to it when you see it. When teams do pressure you, you want to be able to make them pay."

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