Red-hot Saints visit Jacksonville for the first time since 2011
New Orleans puts its three-game winning streak to the test when the Saints visit Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars on Sunday. Teddy Bridgewater improved to 3-0 in relief of an injured Drew Brees with last week's win at home over Tampa Bay as he broke out with 314 passing yards and four touchdowns in the 31-24 victory. New Orleans (4-1) is tied for the second-best record in the NFC and is a game up on Carolina in the NFC South.
Speaking of the Panthers, last week Jacksonville (2-3) fell behind early to them at home as Christian McCaffrey ran wild on the Jaguars' defense. Jacksonville never quit, however, and pulled to within one with less than six minutes left in the game, but the offense wasn't able to come up with the big play late as Carolina held on for a 34-27 win. Jags rookie wide receiver D.J. Chark Jr. was outstanding in the loss, finishing with 164 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions.
The Saints lead the all-time series, 4-2. For games played in Jacksonville, the Jaguars hold an advantage of 2-1. The Saints have won the three most recent meetings.
New Orleans at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints +1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Leonard Fournette run successfully against the Saints’ front seven?
Fournette has served as the key component in the Jaguars’ running attack. His 95 rushing attempts are more than three times the combined total of the rest of his teammates. He has rushed for 512 yards, more than twice as much as all the other Jaguars combined. He has scored the only touchdown on the ground so far this season. His average of 102.4 rushing yards per game ranks as third highest in the league. His average per carry, 5.4 yards, is the ninth-best in the NFL.
The Saints’ rushing defense has improved over the course of the season. They allowed 180 yards on the ground in the season opener but reduced that amount to 115 and then to 108 in the second and third games, respectively. New Orleans has held its last two opponents to 45 and 94 yards. They rank 16th in rushing defense but are tied for most rushing touchdowns allowed (seven).
2. Is Jacksonville ready for the Saints’ multiple multi-tasking players on offense?
Alvin Kamara has contributed to the Saints offense in multiple ways. Against Tampa Bay, he rushed for 62 yards on 16 carries, caught six passes for 42 yards and completed a pass to Josh Hill for 13 yards. He leads the team in average rushing attempts (15) and yards per game (68.4) and is second on the team in receptions per game (5.2) and receiving yards per game (48.2).
Taysom Hill is a Swiss Army knife for New Orleans. Against the Buccaneers, he connected on his only passing attempt for 18 yards to Michael Thomas. He also ran the ball twice for 14 yards. For the season, he has run the ball seven times for 43 yards in addition to catching four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Other Saints diversified their contributions vs. the Buccaneers. Ted Ginn Jr. caught two passes for 35 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball once for a yard. Latavius Murray rushed seven times for 28 yards and hauled in both passes thrown his direction for six yards.
3. How will D.J. Chark Jr. fare against the Saints’ secondary?
Chark leads the Jaguars in receptions (27), touchdowns scored (five) and average receiving yards per game (97). His 485 receiving yards are almost twice as many as the second-highest total on the team (Chris Conley's 243). He is tied with Dede Westbrook for most targets on the team at 37 apiece. In other words, Chark is enjoying a very impressive start to his first season in the NFL.
The Saints’ defensive backs have been viewed as the weakest segment on that side of the ball. New Orleans has allowed an average of 255 passing yards per game, 19th in the league. The defense has recorded just two interceptions, which is tied for the third fewest. Their 15 passes defended rank near the bottom as well. The pass rush has done its part, registering 16 sacks (tied for fifth) in five games.
However, the Saints showed improvement last week, allowing a net total of 158 yards through the air after deducting the yardage lost due to sacks. More impressively, they prevented Mike Evans from catching a pass for the first time in his six seasons in the NFL. Are they capable of repeating such a performance against Chark and Jacksonville's other pass catchers?
So far, the Saints have exceeded the expectations of the most wildly optimistic of their fans. Drew Brees was diagnosed as needing at least six weeks to recover from his thumb injury. Realistically, the fans hoped to split the six games during his absence. After three straight wins, the Saints have already achieved that goal at the minimum. They won have two games against opponents who made the playoffs last season during that span.
Despite the loss at Carolina, the Jaguars remain firmly in the race for the AFC South title. They trail the Colts and Texans by only one game for first place. They need this game to remain on the heels of their division rivals.
Prediction: Saints 30, Jaguars 20
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.