Analysis  

 

Week 2: New Orleans Saints' defense down; Andrew Luck shines

The New Orleans Saints might want to throw Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel a welcome party prior to next Sunday's game in the Superdome. After seeing their defense pulverized by a pair of ultra-athletic signal-callers in the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, the Saints will be elated to finally play against a stationary passer like Cassel.

There are plenty of reasons that the Saints have started the 2012 season with back-to-back losses, but the most glaring issues are on the defensive side of the ball. Prior to Monday night's matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, the Saints' defense ranks 32nd in total yards allowed per game (461), 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game (186) and is tied for 31st in scoring (allowing 37.5 points per game). The unit has yet to record an interception and has forced just one fumble.

These struggles can partly be attributed to the difficulty of defending the Redskins' and Panthers' multi-faceted offenses. Both teams found success against the Saints with the zone-read play and other designed quarterback runs, as evidenced by the 113 combined rushing yards from RG3 and Newton. Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should be grateful to face the Chiefs' more traditional offense this week.

But there are other reasons to be concerned. First and foremost, there just aren't many difference makers on New Orleans' defense. Defensive end Will Smith is a solid pass rusher, but he's only recorded double-digit sacks in two of his previous eight seasons. There are several functional players on the defensive line, but none of them are dynamic.

The secondary lacks both speed and ball-hawking skills. In addition to the unit's inability to pick anything off, it has broken up just four of 46 passing attempts. This isn't a new issue for the Saints, who intercepted just nine balls in 2011.

The Saints' offense hasn't been quite as good as last season, though it's still performing at a high level. Through Sunday, the unit ranked third in yards per game (422) and seventh in scoring (29.5 points per game), numbers that should hold steady behind quarterback Drew Brees. But this team must drastically improve its defense to have any chance of returning to the postseason.

Lights-out Luck

After an uneven opening-day performance against the Chicago Bears, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was very impressive in the Indianapolis Colts' 23-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, completing 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Luck capped off his second NFL start by engineering a game-winning drive that began, with 31 seconds left, on his own 20-yard line and ended with a 53-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

Luck played with more poise, and threw the ball with more velocity and accuracy, than he did in Week 1. His mobility was a factor on third downs; he repeatedly escaped pressure, finding open targets or picking up the first down on his own. After telegraphing several throws last week, Luck was much better at looking off Vikings safeties on Sunday.

If Luck can continue to improve from week to week, the Colts have a real chance at winning eight or nine games. Indianapolis matches up very favorably with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans in the AFC South, and there are several other winnable games on the Colts' schedule.

Coughlin has a legitimate beef

I like the attitude and structure that new coach Greg Schiano has brought to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But there is no excuse for what happened at the end of Sunday's 41-34 loss to the New York Giants, when several Bucs defensive linemen tried to submarine the Giants' offensive line and get to quarterback Eli Manning on a game-ending kneel down. New York coach Tom Coughlin was rightfully ticked off.

The NFL doesn't have as many unwritten rules as, say, Major League Baseball, but a few things are understood by all 32 teams. For one, the health of an opponent is not to be risked after the game has already been decided. I can't recall the last time I witnessed an NFL quarterback fumble a snap before kneeling down. It just doesn't happen.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay
will re-air the New York Giants' 41-34 win over the Tampa Bay  Buccaneers in Week 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET.

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It has been widely reported that Schiano has a strong relationship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and it might be a good idea for Schiano to seek Belichick's advice on this issue. I have a feeling Belichick might be able to explain that things should be handled a little differently when playing against a team from the NFC East as opposed to a team from the Big East.

NFC West on the rise

Remember when the NFC West was considered the softest division in the NFL? Those days are long gone. Between the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, the division features three of the NFL's top defenses, and while the St. Louis Rams aren't at that level defensively, they have gotten better. All four teams scored impressive victories on Sunday: The 49ers bullied the Detroit Lions on both sides of the ball, the Cardinals' defense dominated quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the Seahawks and Rams toppled the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, respectively.

The 49ers have the deepest and most talented defense in the NFL -- it doesn't have an exploitable weakness that I can see. San Francisco's defensive front is so destructive, the safeties can focus solely on defending the pass, which is an incredible advantage. The Niners don't give up big plays in the secondary, and they do tackle better than any team in the league. The Cardinals' defensive line features the potent duo of Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Both players excel at getting off blocks in the run game, and they're incredibly quick pass rushers. The Seahawks are very deep across the defensive line, and can hold the point of attack against the run; Seattle has allowed just 92 rushing yards total over two games.

The Rams' defense, meanwhile, is still a work in progress, but the unit has two quality defensive ends (Chris Long and Robert Quinn) to build around. St. Louis also has two talented new cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan, who have accounted for three interceptions in the first two weeks of the season.

Impressive in defeat

Despite losing their games, the following teams have reasons to be encouraged:

» Cleveland Browns: Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden rebounded from a dreadful opener by throwing for 322 yards and two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. Unlike in Week 1, Weeden made quick decisions and took care of the football. Rookie running back Trent Richardson had his coming out party, racking up 145 total yards and two scores. He provided a level of explosiveness that Cleveland's offense has lacked for a very long time. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was outstanding, notching three sacks and collecting his second interception of the season. Jackson is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, and he is playing better than ever.

» Minnesota Vikings: The story of the Vikings' loss to the Colts was Luck's play, but Minnesota's signal-caller was also impressive. For the second straight week, Christian Ponder was very efficient, completing 27 of 35 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Ponder doesn't have any traits that will wow you, but he has proven to be very steady in his second NFL campaign, during which he has yet to throw an interception. Once running back Adrian Peterson gets rolling, this offense is going to be difficult to defend.

» Washington Redskins: A boneheaded play by receiver Josh Morgan killed the Redskins' comeback bid against the Rams, but Washington's rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, put together another impressive performance. RG3 completed 20 of his 29 pass attempts for 209 yards and a touchdown, and also ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He is making the transition from college to the NFL look easy. While RG3 has put up jaw-dropping statistics, I've been even more impressed with his poise and confidence in the pocket. He didn't get jittery, despite facing heavy pressure on several throws.

Didn't see this coming

I wasn't all that shocked that the Miami Dolphins beat the Oakland Raiders, but I was floored by how they did it: running the ball right down Oakland's throat.

After allowing the San Diego Chargers to rush for just 32 yards in Week 1, the Raiders defense let the Dolphins rack up 263 yards on the ground. This is the same Dolphins team that managed to rush for just 79 total yards in its opener against the Houston Texans. Reggie Bush was outstanding on Sunday, running for 172 yards and two scores. He showed an explosive burst, making defenders miss and breaking several tackles.

The Raiders have plenty of holes on their roster, but I had thought they were set in the front seven. Led by defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, Oakland usually dominates the line of scrimmage and limits long runs. Well, that wasn't the case against the Dolphins; Miami's offensive line consistently created wide creases for Bush and company that resulted in several explosive gains.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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