It’s not a huge surprise that the New Orleans Saints have a chance Sunday at home against the Arizona Cardinals to improve to 3-0 for the first time since they won the Super Bowl four seasons ago.
But what is surprising is that the Saints have that opportunity thanks to a defense that is within striking distance of a top-10 ranking, bailing out an impotent running attack and a red-zone offense that has been inefficient.
Arizona (1-1) will make it difficult for New Orleans to patch up its ground game issues. But the Saints, who are 6-4 the past 10 times they’ve played the Cardinals in the regular season, will be operating under favorable conditions as they try to get other aspects of their offense rolling.
“There is a big sense of urgency around here despite the fact that we are 2-0,” quarterback Drew Brees said this week. “We know if we are going out and scoring 30-plus (points) that we have a great chance to win, and taking care of the football and doing some of the other things we need to do to help our defense.”
The Saints running backs, averaging just 76.5 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry, will face a Cardinals defense that has held opponents to 58 rushing yards per game, third-best in the league. The Saints’ Mark Ingram has managed just 31 yards on 17 carries and failed to convert fourth-down, short-yardage situations against both Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
Ingram (toe) was held out of team drills all week and was listed as questionable, meaning the Saints could activate undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson to add depth behind Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet. Robinson led the NFL in the preseason with 228 rushing yards on 49 carries.
Brees, who already has been sacked six times, will line up behind an offensive line that could be without right guard Jahri Evans, a four-time Pro Bowler, for the first time in 122 games. Evans missed practice all week with a hamstring injury and was questionable for Sunday; the Saints could resort to undrafted rookie Tim Lelito in that spot.
But Brees — who has thrown for three touchdowns and three interceptions and averaged 318.5 yards through the air in his first two outings — otherwise has a manageable matchup against a pass defense that’s 21st in the league. That’s good news for a Saints offense that is hoping to sort out uncharacteristic difficulties inside the red zone: The unit’s efficiency is a league-worst 14.3 percent (1 for 7) with a single touchdown, five field goals and one turnover on downs.
“Eventually that will bite us if we don’t get it fixed,” Brees said. “We pride ourselves on being able to sustain drives and convert third downs and obviously punch it in the end zone in the red zone. We have always been tops in the league in that regard.”
The Saints were second in the red zone in 2012, scoring touchdowns on 68.4 percent of their trips. The defense surrendered the most yards in NFL history last year, prompting the firing of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the hiring of Rob Ryan.
Ryan is no doubt encouraged that his defense has figured prominently in two victories, but it finished Week 2 with three healthy linemen — John Jenkins, Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. The defense, ranked 11th in the NFL, has recovered two fumbles, intercepted two passes and posted four sacks — all reasons why New Orleans has won despite scoring just 39 points in its first two games.
What’s better for the Saints is that the defensive line appears as if it will have more men at its disposal. Defensive ends Glenn Foster (ankle), the undrafted rookie who led the Saints in the preseason with four sacks, and Tyrunn Walker (knee) participated in team drills in a limited capacity this week.
“It definitely works ... to have as many guys as you can working with you,” Hicks said. “You’re just happy to have those guys back and rolling with you.”
The Saints defense will face a Cardinals offense led by quarterback Carson Palmer, who has thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions and averaged 282.5 passing yards.
Palmer’s main target, seven-time Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald, has been dealing with a hamstring injury. Also, running back Rashard Mendenhall was working through a toe injury as the Cardinals prepared to test a generous New Orleans run defense that’s allowing 124 rushing yards per game. Both are questionable for Sunday.
The most versatile weapon the Cardinals count on is ex-LSU standout Patrick Peterson, who made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist and cornerback in his first two seasons in the NFL. In last week’s 25-21 victory against Detroit, Peterson had four tackles, a pass break-up, a 17-yard reception, a 17-yard completion and three punt returns, becoming the first defender in the league to catch and complete a pass in the same game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Saints coach Sean Payton said he will task his Pro Bowl punter, Thomas Morstead, with limiting Peterson’s touches.
“(Morstead) understands distance, hang time and location are critical,” Payton said. “It’s going to be important in this game.”