Every so often during an NFL season, the schedule bestows on us a significant, unpredictable matchup between opposite forces.
Last weekend in Foxborough, Mass., it was the old lion, Tom Brady, against the young lion, Patrick Mahomes. This Sunday, it’s the Ravens defense — leading the league in fewest points and yards allowed — against the New Orleans Saints offense — first in points per game and an institution atop the league’s leaderboards.
It’s a heavyweight title fight, and even in the conservative-lipped NFL, no one tried to deny it in the run-up.
“It’s not fair at all,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale lamented as he surveyed the Saints’ array of threats. “I wish they were just good one way or the other.”
On the other side, what does Saints quarterback Drew Brees — recently minted as the NFL’s all-time passing leader — think of Martindale’s crew?
“There’s really no weakness,” he said.
It adds up to one of the most anticipated games on the Ravens’ schedule and a world-class test for a defense that has exceeded expectations through six weeks.
Martindale and Ravens coach John Harbaugh have no trouble pinpointing why the Saints (4-1) have been a fixture near the top of the league’s offensive rankings.
“Sean Payton and Drew Brees have stayed together year after year after year,” Martindale said.
The coach-quarterback partnership has thrived since 2006, putting it in a rare firmament with the winning bond between the New England Patriots’ Brady and Bill Belichick. But the Brees-Payton union is arguably deeper, because Payton designs and calls the New Orleans offense.
“There’s just a lot of trust and confidence there, and great communication,” Brees said. “Sean and I have been together for 13 years, so we’ve watched this offense grow and develop and evolve and, obviously, been in a ton of different football games together. I feel like there’s so much communication between us throughout the week.
“Obviously, making sure that we’re seeing the same things, making sure that we’re anticipating the same things, and then, by the time that game time rolls around, I feel like we’ve discussed just about every situation and are kind of ready for whatever the opposing team will throw at us.”
We’ve all heard by now that the Ravens (4-2) are the only NFL team Brees has never beaten in his 18 seasons. But the matchup occurs infrequently enough that no one in the Baltimore locker room is likely to overrate the importance of that statistic.
More relevant are Brees’ efficiency numbers at age 39, some of which look like misprints. Who completes 77.9 percent of his passes? At any age?
Because he has such confidence in Payton’s schemes and in his own ability to thread the ball through tight spaces, Brees has thrown his share of interceptions over the years — 15 or more in nine different seasons. But he’s even cut that out in 2018, throwing none on 190 attempts through five games.
Week after week, Payton finds new tricks to get his skill players open. And Brees is so in tune with the plan that his throws seem to anticipate where each receiver will move.
What do you do against a guy who commands his craft at that level?
Ravens receiver Willie Snead IV benefited from Brees’ mastery as a rising young talent for the Saints. The key to upsetting the New Orleans machine, he said, is deception.
“If he knows what you’re doing, or what you’re going to do, you’re going to have a long day,” Snead said. “I think disguise is going to be huge … because they do have a great offense. Drew Brees is one of the best. You guys know that. But I think the way you get him off his game is … you bring pressure. You have to mix it up, and you have to make sure that he doesn’t know what you’re doing.”
Analytic studies have backed Snead’s claim over the years, suggesting Brees faces pressure on a relatively low percentage of attempts but his performance drops significantly when he is bothered by pass rushers.
That high-stakes battle of wits before the snap should make for a great show, said Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
“Our looks, our secondary, the whole defense, we’ve got to do our best to not let him know what we’re in before the snap, because it’s going to be dead if he does know,” he said. “It’s a fun challenge. The great ones always bring out the best in you and they can bring out the worst in you, too. If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown. That’s the pressure you like.”
The way Payton described it, Martindale’s defense is almost a mirror of his offense, with the looks constantly changing and attacks coming from so many different points.
“I think that the talent level is outstanding, and they do a great job with their scheme in their base 34 front and then their sub-packages,” he said. “They give you a lot of looks. But the safeties do a great job with disguise; I think the corners are playing well. When you watch them play, you can see the confidence level they’re playing with.”
Of course, the Saints’ story — “the kind of explosive offense that gives you nightmares,” as Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs put it — hardly ends with two people.
Though Harbaugh started with Brees and Payton, whom he described as “a great builder of offenses and schemer,” he quickly moved to extolling the Saints’ ridiculously long list of offensive standouts.
Start with wide receiver Michael Thomas, the 6-foot-3 former second-round draft pick who has caught 46 passes on 49 targets (again, that efficiency looks like a misprint) this season.
Then go to running back Alvin Kamara, whom the Saints somehow found in the third round last year.
The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year averages 4.8 yards per carry and is good for more than seven catches and 70 receiving yards a game, numbers that would make most wide receivers proud.
Martindale compared him to a major league ace with four “plus” pitches in his repertoire.
Kamara is that much more potent now that his power-oriented running mate, Mark Ingram, has returned from a four-game suspension to start the season. Ingram scored two touchdowns in his first game back as the Saints piled up 43 points against the Washington Redskins.
Former Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson has also gotten in on the fun, with 17 catches for 187 yards.
Protecting this embarrassment of skill-position riches are two of the top tackles in the league, Terron Armstead on the left side and Ryan Ramczyk on the right. They grade, respectively, as the sixth- and seventh-best players at their position, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Ravens are coming off one of their best defensive performances ever, a road shutout of the Tennessee Titans in which they accumulated a franchise-record 11 sacks.
But they’ll face a different animal on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, one that will show them where they stand. With future dates looming against six top-10 scoring offenses (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers), the game could also offer a preview of how the Baltimore defense might fare over the second half of the season.
“We’re going to have to take it to a new level,” Martindale said. “I told our guys that they’re going to show us something new, we’re just going to have to see it when it happens, and they’ll build off of it, because that’s the genius of Sean Payton offensively. He’ll find something new, and it’s something that we haven’t seen yet. So, be ready for the unexpected.”