The New Orleans Saints are trying to kick off their season on a good note for the first time since 2013 when the Houston Texans come to town for Week 1’s Monday Night Football matchup inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The reigning AFC South champions are coming off their third playoff appearance in four years, while New Orleans is the two-time defending NFC South champion and is coming off its second-straight playoff appearance.
A look at all the Saints and Texans’ position groups, the intangibles and who has the edge:
QUARTERBACK: It’s 19-year vet Drew Brees vs. third-year quarterback Deshaun Watson. The edge goes to Brees, but let’s analyze the stats.
Watson played a full season last year after missing the rest of his stellar start of a rookie campaign due to a tore ACL. The Clemson alumnus tossed for 4,165 yards — ranking 11th in the league — with 26 touchdowns and rushed for 551 yards with five touchdowns last season. Watson’s quarterback rating came out to 103.1, which was sixth among all quarterbacks.
Saints coach Sean Payton knows Houston’s dual-threat quarterback, who he likened to Carolina’s Cam Newton, isn’t to be looked over.
“The thing that’s impressive about Deshaun, he’s able to make plays outside the pocket when a play breaks down,” Payton said Thursday. “You have to be able to try as best you can to keep him from really hurting you in all areas of the field outside the pocket.”
Brees, as a 39-year-old, threw for 3,992 passing yards and 32 touchdowns with a league-leading 74.4 completion percentage. In total, Brees’ quarterback rating last year was a league-leading 115.7.
To quote Houston head coach Bill O’Brien, “He’s one of the best ever do it.”
The backups: New Orleans’ Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill. Houston’s AJ McCarron.
OFFENSIVE LINE: New Orleans’ offensive line returns both its starting guards and tackles, with the only new face to the pipeline being rookie center Erik McCoy. Payton said on Thursday that the team won’t announce the starter until gameday, but McCoy has solely taken reps with the ones since early in training camp.
The talent of Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk speaks for itself. New Orleans quarterbacks were only sacked 20 times last season, the second-lowest number in the league.
Compare that to the Texans, who led the league in sacks. Watson was sacked 62 times last season. That’s tied for the fifth-most ever for a single season.
To their credit, the Texans have made some personnel changes since last season. The Texans traded for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a first round draft pick out of Ole Miss in 2016. The Texans also drafted left guard Tytus Howard out of Alabama State with their first round pick in 2019, and he’s listed as the starter at that position on the game’s flipcard depth chart.
Even with a new-look offensive line for the Texans, it’s not even close. Edge goes to New Orleans.
The backups: New Orleans’ Nick Easton, Will Clapp, Patrick Omameh, rookie Ethan Greenidge. Houston’s Roderick Johnson, Senio Kelemete, Greg Mancz, rookie Max Scharping.
The Saints start two-time Pro Bowler, do-it-all back Alvin Kamara. The starting running back listed on Houston’s depth chart is former Cleveland Brown Duke Johnson, after 2018 Pro Bowl running back Lamar Miller ended up on injured reserve for the season with an ACL injury.
Kamara totaled 1,592 yards from scrimmage last season (708 receiving, 883 rushing), while Johnson was primarily used as then-rookie Nick Chubb’s backup, totaling 630 total yards (429 receiving, 201 rushing).
Edge goes to New Orleans.
The backups: New Orleans’ Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington, full back Zach Line. Houston’s Carlos Hyde, Taiwan Jones, Buddy Howell, rookie fullback Cullen Gillaspia.
The Saints and the Texans were neck and neck in the middle of the pack last year in reference to regular season receiving yards. New Orleans came in at No. 15 with 4,174 and Houston was No. 16 with 4,165.
So what makes or breaks the edge here is the individual talent. And both teams have plenty of that.
Fourth-year Saints receiver Michael Thomas used his statline and All-Pro and Pro Bowl accolades from last year as leverage to earn a blockbuster contract that’s set to begin next year. He had a league-high 125 receptions that went for 1,405 yards receiving on the season, which ranked sixth among league wideouts.
Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins brought in a career-high 1,572 yards receiving on 115 catches last year, earning his second first-team All-Pro distinction for his efforts. Hopkins’ yards receiving ranked second among NFL wideouts and his catches were third.
“I think he’s got very strong hands in traffic,” Payton said of Hopkins. “He’s very confident, a lot of catches in contested areas. (Watson) has got that confidence in him. And so the timing of watching those two work is very impressive.”
In all three phases of offensive production, the Saints ranked eighth last year in average yards per game (379.2). Comparatively, the Texans ranked 15th (362.6).
This one’s a close one, but based on last year’s stats, Hopkins gets the slight nod in Houston’s favor.
The rest of the WRs: New Orleans’ Ted Ginn, Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, rookie Deonte Harris. Houston’s Keke Coutee, Will Fuller V, Kenny Stills, DeAndre Carter.
One of the other new faces to the Saints offense is veteran Pro Bowler Jared Cook. The 11-year pro comes to New Orleans from Oakland and he’s coming off a career-high 896 yards receiving on a career-high 68 catches. He also had a career-high six touchdowns receptions last year from Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Cook didn’t play much in the preseason, seeing just 31 snaps and one catch for 4 yards, but fans shouldn’t worry about that. Cook and Brees’ chemistry was apparent at practice all camp long.
Houston’s starting tight end is listed as Darren Fells, who came to Houston from the Cleveland. Fells had 117 yards receiving last year, catching all but one pass thrown his way.
Edge goes to New Orleans.
The backups: New Orleans’ Josh Hill, Taysom Hill. Houston’s Jordan Akins, Jerrell Adams, Logan Paulsen.
The Saints defensive line will look different for a bit. Starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles tendon during the playoffs and was limited in Thursday’s practice. Though, it is a good sign that the Saints elevated him to the active roster from the physically unable to perform list ahead of the roster deadline. Behind him on the depth chart is defensive tackle Mario Edwards Jr., but he was not observed at practice on Thursday during the media viewing window and did not practice due to a hamstring injury.
In addition to Rankins, major role player David Onyemata is suspended for the first game of the season.
The Saints have All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and PFWA All-Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport anchoring the outside.
The Saints rush defense last year ranked second-league wide in total rushing yards allowed and average yards per opponent carry.
The key piece on the Texans’ three-man front is five-time All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt led the league — alongside Kansas City defensive end Dee Ford — in forced fumbles last year with seven. Watt was second league-wide in sacks with 16. He was tied with Jordan for sixth in tackles for loss with 18, too.
“Number one, he’s a really athletic and talented player,” Payton said Thursday. “He can get on an edge. He can beat you with speed. He has great stamina, so you know you’re going to be in for a battle all day long. All those things, whether he’s lining up inside or outside, make him challenging to play against.”
Other than Watt, nose tackle D.J. Reader and defensive end Angelo Blackson round out the Texans’ line. The trio up front last year led the league in rushing defense, allowing opposing ball carriers just 3.4 yards per touch. As far as total rushing defense, the Texans allowed the third-fewest yards.
This one’s a push.
The backups: New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson, Taylor Stallworth, Wes Horton, rookie Shy Tuttle. Houston’s Brandon Dunn, Carlos Watkins, rookie Charles Omenihu.
Saints starting linebacker Alex Anzalone returned to practice in a limited role on Thursday, due to a shoulder injury he sustained during training camp. And earlier this week, Payton said Anzalone is “going to be healthy” for the start of the season.
The third-year middle linebacker had 59 total tackles, six quarterback hits, two sacks, an interception, two passes defended and three forced fumbles in 2018. Those three forced fumbles were tied for 10th in the league last season.
Anzalone is joined by his fellow base defense starters, Demario Davis and A.J. Klein.
Davis had 110 total tackles last season and added 11 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, five sacks, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Klein totaled 70 tackles in 2018, adding two sacks, seven tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, one interception and three passes defensed.
The Texans run a 3-4 base defense, and have Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham and Brennan Scarlett listed as starters.
Mercilus, who’s been with the Texans since 2012, had four sacks, five tackles for loss, 14 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and 39 total tackles last season. McKinney was second on the team last year in total tackles with 105, adding 1½ sacks, five tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, seven passes defended and a forced fumble.
Cunningham led the team with 107 tackles, and added three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Scarlett started in just three games last season, totaling 18 tackles in his third season with the Texans.
If Anzalone plays Monday, the edge goes to New Orleans. If not, push.
The backups: New Orleans’ Craig Robertson, Kiko Alonso, Kaden Elliss. Houston’s Barkevious Mingo, Peter Kalambayi, Dylan Cole, Jacob Martin.
New Orleans’ trio of Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams and safety Vonn Bell have all played together for three seasons now. And the chemistry between them is there. The fourth starter in the Saints’ base defense is safety Eli Apple, who came to the Saints from the Giants via a mid-season trade after cornerback Patrick Robinson broke his ankle and was placed on the injured reserve.
Collectively, the Saints gave up the fourth-most passing yards in the league last year and averaged the fourth-highest allowed passing yards per game. When it came to interceptions, the Saints were in the middle of the pack (T-18th with 12).
Lattimore led the league in one category: most interception return yards.
Houston’s starting secondary looks vastly different than last year.
Their starting unit is made up of two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph, new-to-Houston corner Bradley Roby, new-to-Houston safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. and second-year safety Justin Reid.
Roby spent the first five seasons of his career in Denver and started in all 15 games he played in last season. In those games, he had two forced fumbles, 12 passes defensed, one tackle for loss and 50 total tackles. Gipson comes to Houston after a 3-year stint with the Jaguars. He started all 16 games last season, hauling in one interception, seven passes defensed, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and 54 total tackles.
As a rookie, Reid had three interceptions with one pick-6, 10 passes defensed, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and 88 combined tackles.
Edge goes to New Orleans.
The backups: New Orleans’ P.J. Williams, rookie C.J. Gardner-Johnson, rookie Saquan Hampton, Patrick Robinson, Justin Hardee, J.T. Gray, Ken Crawley. Houston’s Aaron Colvin, Keion Crossen, Jahleel Addae, A.J. Moore Jr., Cornell Armstrong, rookie Xavier Crawford, rookie Lonnie Johnson Jr.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead ranked sixth in the league last year in punting average (46.4) and made his lone field goal and lone PAT kick. Kicker Wil Lutz ranked fifth in field goal percentage at 93.3 percent, only missing two during the regular season Lutz also ranked fourth in PAT percentage, only missing one last season.
The new face to the specialists’ squad is rookie returner Deonte Harris. Harris went undrafted out of Division II’s Assumption College and had a stellar start to the preseason, leading the league in kickoff return yards and punt return yards. He was also one of four returners to return punts for touchdowns throughout the preseason.
Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn made 95.1 percent of his PATs last season (39-of-41) and converted 88.1 percent of his field goals (37-of-42). Punter Trevor Daniel was tied for 29th in punting average, booting the ball 43.7 yards per punt.
As a rookie playing for two teams, return specialist DeAndre Carter totaled 249 punt return yards and 425 kick return yards, ranking eighth in the league in combined return yardage.
Edge goes to New Orleans.
The backups: New Orleans’ holder Taysom Hill; punt returner Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn; kick returner Kamara, Ginn. Houston’s kick returner Taiwan Jones; punt returner Keke Coutee.
The Saints haven’t won a season opener since 2013. Though, the Saints are in the Superdome for the first game since the NFC Championship game.
The Texans are in win-now mode, as they acquired both left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills during roster cuts weekend. They also have several additional new faces to the team, whether that be veterans or a few rookies.
Edge here goes to the Saints.