With quarterback Drew Brees poised to break Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (47), permission was granted for coach Sean Payton, interim coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis — all in the midst of suspensions related to the bounty scandal — to attend the Sunday Night Football game.
Saints players are sure to have extra juice in the step with Payton looking on, and the natives continue to be restless as the Saints finally try to get back into the win column.
The Chargers (3-1) will be ready. They’re 2-0 on the road so far this season and are coming off their most impressive victory, a 37-20 victory against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
The teams’ records might be headed in the opposite directions, but expect this to be a well-fought affair.
Here are three keys to the game for each team.
Keep track of Darren Sproles
When Brees needs a play on third down or in the red zone, he most often looks for diminutive running back Darren Sproles. Sproles is a nightmare matchup because of his speed. If there’s any team that will know how to control Sproles, it’s the Chargers.
Sproles played his first six years with the team before signing with the Saints in 2011. So the Chargers know how opponents have best handled Sproles in the past, and they’ll rip out copies of those playbooks. Expect the Chargers to try to get a body on Sproles before he can get out of the backfield, and any opponent of the Saints must be on high alert for screen passes. The Saints run more of those than most teams.
Run the ball
The best tactic would be to control the clock and keep Brees and Co. off the field by running the ball. The Saints are dead last in the league in rushing yards allowed, and total yards. The Saints signed tackle Broderick Bunkley from the Broncos to stop the run, but he only plays about a quarter of the snaps. And left defensive end Cameron Jordan has played the run well. But everybody else in the Saints’ front seven, including the linebackers, has been atrocious against the run because they lack discipline, which appears to be a constant theme on the Saints’ defense.
Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is starting to get more time after his fumbling problems, so this could be his breakout game.
Get Brees off his spot
After struggling in a home loss to the Chiefs with just a 55.6 completion percentage and four sacks, Brees was at his best last week against an active Packers defense. Brees completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns. Brees is like every other quarterback: he wants to stay in his comfort zone, which for Brees is the pocket. Saints left guard Ben Grubbs had trouble with bull rushes against the Packers, giving up two sacks.
The Chargers have been good up front this season, and right end Corey Liuget, rookie end Kendall Reyes and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin got find a favorable matchup against Grubbs. The Chargers are getting pressure with a variety of overload rushes, and they likely won’t sit back and let Brees pick them apart. Brees prefers to go down the middle of the field to tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Marques Colston, so the Chargers will have to devote extra attention there.
The Saints have just six sacks this season, and their pass rush is actually less effective than that. The defensive line lacks discipline against the run, and athletic ability against the pass. Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo knows his unit must affect the quarterback more often, of they’ll continue to get picked apart. Spagnuolo is likely going to have to blitz more because Rivers is a much different quarterback under pressure.
Left alone, Rivers is completing over 80 percent of his passes, according to profootballfocus.com. The Saints can’t let him do that.
Two to stop
Rivers is really starting to develop a rapport with receiver Malcolm Floyd that is reminiscent of his work with now-Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson. And Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, while he has lost a step, is still very dangerous. But that’s really it for the Chargers’ weapons in the pass game. The good defenses get physical with Gates off the line of scrimmage because Rivers will quickly look elsewhere.
Couple that tactic with a safety rolled over the top of Floyd all the time, and Rivers won’t have many more options — but only if the Saints can finally find a way to stop a team from running on them. Stop the run. Bang Gates around. Double Floyd. Execute that plan, and the Saints can have success.
Press the issue through the air
The Saints will use an effective running game, but where the Chargers can be hurt is down the field if Brees has protection. The Chargers only have three healthy cornerbacks in left corner Quentin Jammer, right corner Antoine Cason, and nickel back Marcus Gilchrist. The Chargers signed former Ravens corner Chris Carr off the street to help. They need it.
Jammer is talented but inconsistent. Cason is very suspect and is susceptible for double moves. Gilchrist is limited, and strong safety Atari Bigby. Outside excellent free safety Eric Weddle, the Chargers’ secondary is ripe for the taking by Brees and his many weapons.
Greg Bedard is a contributor to NBCSports.com and the NFL writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Jets 'throwing the kitchen sink at the offense'
Jets coach Rex Ryan talks to the media following Wednesday's OTAs and says New York's defense is much further along than the offense, but they're throwing everything they can at the offense to get them ready for Week 1.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.