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NFL Preview - New Orleans (2-1) at Jacksonville (1-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Oh sure, it's just what he needed.
As if the arsenal of on-field weapons that have helped him to three straight three-touchdown passing games wasn't enough, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees may be getting a little additional help this week as he and his team heads to Jacksonville for a Week 4 matchup with the Jaguars on Sunday.
Out since the season opener with a broken collarbone, standout wide receiver Marques Colston -- he of the 375 receptions in just 73 NFL games -- returned to practice during the week and may be able to play this weekend, according to head coach Sean Payton.
A seventh-round discovery out of Hofstra in 2006, Colston caught six balls for 81 yards in New Orleans' Week 1 Thursday night curtain-raiser against the Green Bay Packers, but had neither played nor practiced since sustaining the injury on a 23-yard toss from Brees in that 42-34 loss.
The signal-caller hardly suffered in his main target's absence, however, with Brees completing 57-of-81 passes for 618 yards and six touchdowns against just two interceptions while leading the Saints to defeats of Chicago and Houston in Weeks 2 and 3.
He's also been traditionally successful against the Jaguars, hitting on 65.5 percent of his throws for 952 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 113.9 rating in three previous games. Brees was even better in the teams' most recent go-around, performing at a 35-of-49 clip for 445 yards, three touchdowns and a 119.9 rating in a 41-24 New Orleans win in 2007.
Not surprisingly, those numbers make Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's mouth water.
"I've always been a fan of scoring more and scoring a lot," Del Rio said. "And, yeah, I would like to see that part of our football team improve dramatically."
Jacksonville's prospects are mixed toward that end, with Sunday's game to be just the second in the NFL starting career of young quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was drafted 10th overall in April's draft and thrust into the spotlight when long-time starter David Garrard was released days before the season opener.
Gabbert caddied for journeyman Luke McCown for two games, but took over as No. 1 last week and was 17-of-27 for 191 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the team's 16-10 loss to fellow rookie Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers.
The throwback Jaguars ran more times than they passed against the Panthers and have a league-high 108 rushes in three weeks, while averaging just 9.7 points over that span.
Those numbers, just as predictably, leave Del Rio's taste buds bitter.
"We were a little too conservative, quite frankly," he said after the game. "It really wasn't the kind of look I'd like us to have. I thought we were a little too conservative, and I'd like us to see us increase our aggressiveness in attacking defenses and attacking scheme and attacking personnel and going after them."
The Saints and Jaguars have split four previous meetings in their history, with New Orleans evening the set with the above-mentioned 41-24 decision at the Superdome in 2007. The Saints have never won in two lifetime trips to Jacksonville, however, being dealt a 41-23 setback at EverBank Field in 1999 and a 20-19 setback there in 2003.
Del Rio, a former linebacker for New Orleans in 1985 and 1986, is 1-1 against his former team as a head coach, while Payton won his only previous meeting with both Del Rio and the Jaguars with that 2007 result.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Running back/return specialist Darren Sproles had a 30-yard touchdown run for New Orleans in last week's win over Houston and has scored in all three games with the Saints -- recording both rushing and receiving touchdowns as well as on a punt return. Rookie Mark Ingram had his first rushing touchdown last week and fellow running back Pierre Thomas has five scores (four rushing, one receiving) in his past seven games against AFC foes. Among the pass targets, wide receiver Devery Henderson is averaging 22.1 yards per catch and counterpart Robert Meachem has 20 career touchdown receptions, 13 of which have gone for 25 or more yards. Wide receiver Lance Moore had a touchdown catch in the Saints' last meeting with Jacksonville and tight end Jimmy Graham had a career-high 100 receiving yards in Week 3. Graham has scored six touchdowns in his past six games.
Defensively for Jacksonville, linebacker Daryl Smith leads the team with 19 tackles and safety Dawan Landry had a career-best two interceptions against the Saints while with the Ravens in November of 2006. Up front, defensive end Matt Roth seeks a third consecutive game with a sack and is hopeful to play after sitting out last week's loss with a neck injury.
Through three games, the Saints are third in the NFL in points scored (34.7 per game), second in total yards (437.7 per game) and passing yards (338.0 per game) and 14th in rushing yards (99.7 per game). On the other side, Jacksonville is tied for 13th in scoring defense (20.7 ppg), fourth in yards allowed (280.0 ypg), seventh against the pass (196.3 ypg) and fifth in rushing defense (83.7 ypg).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 102.3 rushing yards per game this season and aims for a fourth straight outing with 100-plus yards against an NFC opponent after netting 122 on 22 carries against the Panthers. He has three 100-yard games in his past four at home as well. In addition, wide receiver Mike Thomas has three touchdowns in his past four games against the and registered his first scoring catch of the season last week, the sixth of his career. At tight end, Marcedes Lewis has five touchdown catches in his last nine home games and needs two scoring receptions to surpass Reggie Williams (18) for the third-most in franchise history, behind only Jimmy Smith (67) and Keenan McCardell (30).
Since entering the NFL in 2006, Saints safety Roman Harper has 12 sacks, the most in the league by a defensive back. Cornerback Jabari Greer had an interception last week and defensive end Turk McBride aims for a third straight game with a sack. Jo-Lonn Dunbar leads the linebacking corps with 15 tackles, while Harper has compiled a team-best 23 stops along with 2 1/2 sacks.
Statistically, Jacksonville is just 31st in the league in scoring (9.7 ppg), 28th in total yards (261.0 ypg) and dead last in passing yards (126.7 ypg), but jumps to sixth in rushing yards (134.3 ypg). On defense, New Orleans is 29th in points allowed (29.3 ppg), 21st in total yards surrendered (372.7 ypg), 27th in pass defense (282.0 ypg) and ninth against the run (90.7 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
He's not the most well-known player in the league, but dynamic Saints newcomer Sproles has been as important an offseason acquisition as anyone through three games and can beat a team in many ways. The Jaguars need to pay attention when he's in the game.
In just game two of the Gabbert Era, expect the Jaguars to continue to lean on Jones-Drew, who faces a so-far stout New Orleans run-stopping unit.
Brees has so many weapons, it's almost unfair. If Jacksonville is to have any chance, it's going to have to make it difficult for him to spread the ball around by playing sound coverage and getting pressure up front.
Don't look now, but the Saints are starting to have that prolific look they had when they won it all two seasons ago. The Jaguars are at home, but with a newbie quarterback and a point-challenged offense, they don't figure to fare well if the scoreboard approaches shootout range. Del Rio might find a way to not get beat by 40, but it's still hard to see his team having enough to hold off some kind of onslaught.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Jaguars 14
09/29 09:53:06 ET