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Dealing Cards: Saints game presents matchup of top units

FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 file photo, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in New Orlean. Welcome to the NFC South, where two games over .500 gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a share of first place and two under has the New Orleans Saints in a position to make up ground in the division race in a hurry. The Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 .(AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Statistically, the Arizona Cardinals have the NFL’s best defense.

Conversely, by the same metric, the New Orleans Saints boast the league’s best offense.

Sunday afternoon in Glendale the teams — and their top-ranked units — will meet, and as the cliche goes, something has to give.

“This offense, the things I think (Drew) Brees does such a great job of is distributing the ball and moving it around,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “You look at the number of targets and where the ball goes on the field, whether it’s outside, in the slot, to the tight end — obviously they’ve got a bunch of weapons at all those positions.”

Bettcher pointed to rookie receiver Michael Thomas, who is second on the Saints with 831 receiving yards but first in receptions, with 69, and receiving touchdowns, with seven, but praised Brees’ willingness to throw the ball to whoever is open.

Of the 541 passes the quarterback has thrown this season, 89 have gone to Thomas, while 94 have gone to Brandin Cooks, 84 to Willie Sneed, 68 to Coby Fleener and 43 to Mark Ingram. Travaris Cadet has seen 41 targets, while Brandon Coleman has had the ball come his his way 34 times. Tim Hightower has seen 22 passes come his way, while Josh Hill has had 22.

Thomas, Cooks, Sneed and Coleman are receivers; Fleener and Hill are tight ends, while Ingram, Cadet and Hightower are running backs.

“Just does a great job of managing the offense,” Bettcher added on Brees. “A guy that’s seen every look, that’s seen everything in the league defensively that people can throw at him. You’ve got to be smart and sound with what you doing.”

In his 16th season, Brees is completing 70.6 percent of his passes for 4,170 yards with 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He has struggled the last two weeks, though, being picked off six times without throwing for a single touchdown.

“It was just like one thing after another. All the bad things that could have happened happened,” Brees said. “I’m a confident guy. I know how to correct things when they occur. A lot of it’s just with my process and how to prepare, and then how I take that to game day. I know I’ve got to be better in certain ways. I’ll do that.”

In the Cardinals’ defense, Brees sees a group that he said has been “very opportunistic,” and does a nice job of creating turnover opportunities.

“Everybody in the secondary is guys that have ball skills.,” he said. “They play very well together. I think they’ve got a really good scheme. They can get after you with the pass rush as well, so obviously that plays a role in that. All in all, I think it’s a very solid group.”

It’s a group that figures to be tested by one of the game’s best quarterbacks.

“Just try to get as many tendencies as possible on him,” Tyrann Mathieu said of planning for Brees. “Obviously he’s having another great year; he does a great job of spreading the ball around. He looks like he’s 25. He’s got a lot of weapons on offense. It’s going to be a challenge for us up front to get to him, harass him, and then on the back end, to really control the deep balls and take away the seams.”

That will be all the more challenging as the Cardinals deal with injuries, specifically the one suffered by dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon. The versatile player was placed on injured reserve, and Bettcher said Sio Moore will start in his place while they also work in different sub packages.

As Mathieu said, however, getting to Brees would go a long way toward helping the cause, and after a performance in Miami where the Cardinals generated just two sacks and struggled to get pressure, a re-emergence from Chandler Jones would be most helpful.

After notching eight sacks in the first 10 games of the season, Jones has gone the last three without one.

“Just continue to move him around like we have, continue to get him in the best matchups we can,” Bettcher said, pointing out that the rain the team played in against Miami made life more difficult. “Some of it is we needed to push the pocket and close the throwing windows. When you play quarterbacks that the ball comes out fast it’s hard to get there on every down, but there’s a disruption factor that you need from your pass rush when you play those kind of quarterbacks.

“I’m anticipating him to play well this weekend.”

While the Cardinals and Saints may not be quite as good on defense and offense, respectively, as the statistics say, they are still two of the better groups in the league. Neither team is poised to make the playoffs, but if nothing else, this game can serve as a bit of a measuring stick.

“I guess that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?” Brees said. “It will be a great challenge for us in a lot of different areas, our ability to execute. We look at the statistical categories of this defense, and they’re tops in the league in just about every category. When you look at that, you say, wow it’s a big challenge for us to run the football, it’s a big challenge for us to protect, to get open and to make plays and get points.

“At the end of the day, it’s our team against their team, but our offense against their defense just poses a great challenge for us.”

Injury update

The official report can be found here, and for the Cardinals, John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Jermaine Gresham and Carson Palmer all returned to practice Thursday. D.J. Humphries (concussion) was still absent, while Patrick Peterson was limited due to an illness.

Banking on Boehm?

The Cardinals drafted a couple offensive lineman last April, though neither have made much of an impact. That was by design, though injuries across the O-line have led to both Evan Boehm and Cole Toner working their way up the depth chart.

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said both players are coming along, but that he doesn’t want to play anyone until they are ready.

“I’ve got to have a certain comfort level with you to put you in the game, but it’ll come in time, it’ll come in time,” he said. “They’re working hard, they’re getting smarter as far as the things that we do and how we want to do it. They’ll be ready, hopefully, in the future.”

A fourth-round pick out of Missouri, Boehm said he is progressing with help from his coaches and teammates.

“I think if my name is called upon then yeah, I can step up and I don’t think we’ll skip a beat,” he said. “I’m getting work at guard and center so I’ll be comfortable either way they put me.”

With D.J. Humphries trending toward missing this week’s game due to a concussion, center A.Q. Shipley would be left as the only offensive lineman to not miss a game this season. Noting that, Boehm said it would be tough to fill in for the veteran because he’s the only one who has held the job, but while he feels capable of contributing at guard, he still sees himself as a center.

“I want to play center, but ultimately I want to play anywhere that allows me to play and to help this team out and help win football games,” he said. “If that’s at center it’s at center, if it’s at guard it’s at guard. If I have the flexibility to play both guards and center, then that’s a plus for me.”

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