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Nath Debriefs the Saints: Weeks 4 and 5

Analyzing both the dominant win in London and the moves the Saints have made on their bye week.

Well, that happened fast.

After week two, I was lamenting how the Saints’ roster had been hollowed out by years of bad drafting, bad contracts, and panic moves, to the point where even Drew Brees hadn’t been able to carry them beyond 7-9 for several years now. Against Minnesota and New England, the team seemed to show they were still a work in progress and not ready to compete, a bad sign with Brees running out of time in his career. I was optimistic about the new class of rookies, but didn’t expect them to make an impact right away; I thought they laid a solid foundation for the future, especially on defense, but I didn’t expect much from them this year.

It seemed the future arrived even sooner than I expected.

Everything came together for the Saints in London, with a 20-0 win over the Chicago Bears allowing both the offense and the defense to provide highlights for its young players and showcase a glimpse of what this team will really be able to do in a year or two (if Brees is still around).

The first two weeks of the Saints’ season seemed to be handicapped by the team’s misuse of personnel– playing the wrong players too many snaps, putting them in situations that didn’t help them succeed, and the like. Two of the more obvious examples were the heavy use of Adrian Peterson and playing De’Vante Harris over Ken Crawley at cornerback. By week 3, though, these mistakes had largely been corrected; Peterson was sidelined as Alvin Kamara got more and more work, and Crawley moved into the starting lineup in week 3 (while Marshon Lattimore was out) and in week 4 came up with a crucial interception in the end zone on the first Bears’ drive, scuttling the best chance to score points Chicago would have all game. After these two games, Crawley rated as the #1 cornerback on Pro Football Focus. (As of week 5, with the Saints on a bye, he currently ranks fourth.) He probably isn’t the best cornerback in the league, but at the same time, his interception wasn’t a fluke– he’s been consistently excellent in coverage the last two weeks.

Ken Crawley beats Julius Thomas to the ball for the interception in the end zone.

His performance was reflected in the divide in playing time: Crawley played every snap of the game, Marshon Lattimore played all but one, and P.J. Williams filled in on the one snap. That’s it. (Sean Payton announced before the game that Williams would start on the bench for disciplinary reasons; I don’t know if the intent was to keep him benched all game, or if Crawley played so well on the first drive that Payton decided to leave him out there.) The team spent almost the entire game in the same “big nickel” alignment they played more of in week 3, with two cornerbacks on the outside, Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell in the more traditional safety roles, and Kenny Vaccaro as the versatile hybrid player, who this week primarily matched up on Jarvis Landry. (The coaching staff noted afterward that this gave the Saints enough speed in coverage to keep up with the Dolphins’ receivers without compromising the run defense.)

Granted, the Miami offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders, having gone from their 29-year-old franchise QB to a 34-year-old retiree who was planning to announce games this year until Adam Gase gave him a call. But any shutout against an NFL team is impressive– there have only been two so far this season– and this game emphasized one of the hidden potential strengths of this year’s Saints defense: Their diverse range of personnel allows them to adapt with creative lineups and to scheme to whatever’s needed to stop the opposition.

On the offensive side of the ball, Alvin Kamara had a bit of a coming-out party. Though he only had 5 carries for 25 yards, he was targeted an astounding ten times, leading the team, and caught all of them, for 71 yards and a touchdown. It’s that kind of athleticism and receiving ability that convinced the Saints to trade up for Kamara. The snap counts reflect Kamara’s increased role and Peterson’s declining one: Out of 74 offensive snaps, Mark Ingram played 46, Kamara 26, and Peterson just 6. (He received four carries on those six snaps, for just four yards.) I expect Kamara’s role to continue to grow going forward, ending up in a 60/40 or perhaps even 50/50 timeshare with Ingram.

In an early draft of this column, I wrote:

I don’t think Peterson has anything left; honestly, if I were in charge of the Saints, I’d be looking over the bye week to find a backup power running back who can replace him on the roster. (Though if I were in charge, I wouldn’t have signed him to begin with.)

Apparently management agreed, and on Tuesday Peterson was traded to the Arizona Cardinals for a conditional 2018 sixth-round pick. From my perspective, this was a great deal, because the team got something for a player that has no value to them. I think Peterson is just out of gas at 32 and with his injury history– and without any burst, he lacks the big-play ability that offsets his surprisingly low success rate — but even if I’m wrong, he was obviously a poor fit from the get-go. His defenders will say Peterson needs a heavy load of carries to “get into a rhythm,” but that’s exactly the opposite of what the Saints should be doing: An offense can’t both be a high-volume, up-tempo passing attack headed by Drew Brees, and a power rushing game predicated on getting Peterson into a rhythm and using him to wear down defenses. A Peterson-centered offense would hinder the Saints’ ability to score from anywhere on the field and on every possession. Thankfully, pop culture has given us a term that perfectly describes this trade, with the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm: Adrian Peterson was just Foisted!

It’s not clear who will pick up Peterson’s snaps for the Saints. The team declined to add a fourth tailback to the roster, suggesting that it will be entirely Ingram and Kamara from here on out, with no short-yardage power back a la Mike Bell or Chris Ivory. 2016 seventh-round pick Daniel Lasco remains on the practice squad in case of emergency.

Unfortunately for the Saints, these two weeks have been rife with injury news. Zach Strief and Alex Anzalone both went to injured reserve after leaving the week 4 contest during the game, after fullback John Kuhn did the same last week after getting hurt during a London practice. The Saints now have eleven players total on injured reserve– counting Nick Fairley, who is technically on the non-football injury (NFI) list– which includes five projected starters (counting Delvin Breaux, who hasn’t played yet this year, and Fairley, who won’t) plus two other players who received regular-season snaps in Mitchell Loewen and David Parry. (This doesn’t include left tackle Terron Armstead, who hasn’t played a snap yet but whose expected recovery time from a shoulder injury was not considered long enough to merit IR.)

Fortunately for New Orleans, they’ve demonstrated the depth that may allow them to survive these injuries. The Lattimore / Crawley / P.J. Williams cornerback trio has performed well (Lattimore missed week 3, but he’s already playing like one of the better cornerbacks in the league), and Ryan Ramczyk, who was filling in for Armstead at left tackle, will now fill in for Strief at right tackle, as Armstead is expected to return in week 6. Craig Robertson, one of the few good surprises on last year’s defense, filled in capably for Anzalone at linebacker in week 4 and will continue to do so. And with Willie Snead finally expected to play his first snaps this week, New Orleans will be even deeper at their skill positions and better positioned for a dynamite offense.

Marshon Lattimore (23) strips the ball from ex-Saint Kenny Stills on a tackle. (The Dolphins retained possession.)

Luckily for the Saints, bye weeks are not just a good time to rest players and get injured players back, but also to install new schemes that take advantage of the players that are clearly showing out to be the better ones on the roster. I’d expect them to come out for week 6 healthier, with more plays on offense designed for Kamara, and on defense, to play that 4-2-5 combination more often and take advantage of Vaccaro’s versatility against the run and pass– and for Crawley to become a permanent fixture of the starting lineup, if he isn’t already. That said, the Saints’ offseason processes need to be re-examined, because this isn’t the first season they’ve come out with sub-optimal personnel and scheming and dropped a couple of games before adjusting.

While the Saints are 2-2, many indicators going forward for them are positive. The two losses came in two of their toughest matchups of the season, at Minnesota and against New England, and despite those losses the team currently rates ninth in DVOA per Football Outsiders. The Saints still have some tough matchups coming up, but they also have seven of their home games remaining and will be getting closer to full strength for the stretch run. It’ll probably take 10 wins for the Saints to make the playoffs this year, which means they’d have to sweep their home schedule and steal at least one win on the road. That would mean beating other playoff contenders like Atlanta, Detroit, and Washington at home. It might be a tall order, but the Saints have a shot: If they use the bye week to get healthy and to install more concepts that maximize their players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses, I’d expect that top-ten Football Outsiders rating to be more accurate than not, and for the team to continue to play at a high level. And from there, we can only let the chips fall where they may.

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