The Black and Gold Brief, 9/16

On Monday night the New Orleans Saints took the field at Minnesota for the season opener against the Vikings. While hopes that the roster overhaul of the offseason would lead to a more balanced team still able to score on offense while having enough defense to keep games from becoming shootouts, those hopes were dashed after three hours and a 29-19 loss, as the team looked, in quality if not composition, more or less like the Same Old Saints that have gone 7-9 for three straight years.   While there are certainly some positives to take away from the game– and some negatives that weren’t really anyone’s fault– too many things went wrong, some of them seemingly through coaching or personnel decisions, rather than poor play. Let’s look at some of the key factors that did (or didn’t) work:   OFFENSE   The Adrian Peterson experiment fared poorly. Peterson got the carry on the first play of the game and ran for nine yards. He received five more carries after that; those carries totaled nine yards. Peterson ended up only playing nine snaps on the day, as the Saints had to increasingly rely on passing once they were behind. His usage possibly confirms one of the worries some observers had about his signing: He simply doesn’t fit the Saints offense. Peterson has always been the centerpiece of a run-based offense, one where he can get in a rhythm with repeated carries. The Saints, of course, center their offense around Drew Brees, his timing and accuracy, his ability to diagnose mismatches at the line of scrimmage, and a wide variety of personnel that enables them to create those mismatches. Peterson is not the kind of back who thrives being shuttled in and out every play, and he’s not very useful in the passing game. In 123 career games prior to Monday night, Peterson only had 240 receptions. That’s less than two per game– numbers indicative of someone used only as a dump-off option if no one is open downfield, and sparingly even for that. (Le’Veon Bell, by contrast, has played in 48 career games and already has 230 receptions.)   Despite this evidence of Peterson’s poor fit for the passing game, Sean Payton designed a critical play as a pass to Peterson. With eight minutes left in the game and down 26-9, the Saints were facing third and goal from the Minnesota 2. With a litany of options available, Payton called a fake to Peterson followed by a rollout by Brees, with Peterson the only player running a route in Brees’ area, in the flat. The pass was covered and Brees was forced to throw it incomplete. Payton decided to attempt a field goal, and any chance the Saints had of coming back was effectively ended here.   While this is a typical Payton play in some ways– he is fond of trying to convert first downs and touchdowns with unexpected plays– sometimes you’re better off letting your players do what they do best, especially with a quarterback as good as Brees. Don’t give someone as good at diagnosing defenses as Brees one option in the passing game; give him four or five. Use your power running backs to run with power. And on a play so critical to your chances of winning or losing, do what’s most likely to succeed, not which option is the most clever.   Related to the topic of letting your players do what they do best:   Michael Thomas, the Saints’ best receiver, received zero targets in the red zone last night.   The Saints traded away Brandin Cooks in part because of their confidence Thomas could be their true #1 receiver. With Cooks gone and Willie Snead suspended, though, the downturn in the wide receiver crew was more evident. When Thomas was covered by Xavier Rhodes, he had trouble getting open; the rest of the receivers don’t have the reliability of Thomas or Snead in that regard to begin with. The best game might have been turned in by tight end Coby Fleener, who made several difficult catches over the middle, including a touchdown.   More to the point, though, the Saints traveled to the red zone four times, getting in a goal-to-go situation each time, and not once in those four trips inside the 20 did Drew Brees target Michael Thomas for a pass. Adrian Peterson was targeted more often than Thomas. Either the Vikings completely shut down Thomas, or something went seriously wrong here.   To close the offensive section on a more positive note:   Ryan Ramczyk had an outstanding debut for a rookie tackle.   The rookie had to step in at left tackle for the injured Terron Armstead in his very first NFL game, and he held up very well against a tough Minnesota pass rush. Playing mostly against Everson Griffen, Ramczyk didn’t allow a single pressure in the first half, and only gave up one sack in the second half. Ramczyk was expected to be a “swing” tackle this season before eventually replacing Zach Strief on the right side; instead, he was forced to step into a much more difficult role immediately, and did so admirably. Ramczyk’s performance suggests a bright future for the former Wisconsin tackle.   The offensive line did struggle once Strief went out, but at that point, you can hardly blame them– it’s difficult for any NFL line to play up to its usual standards with both starting tackles out.   DEFENSE   Too many players were out of position or had assignments that didn’t make sense.   The Saints only lined up with ten defensive players on the first play, a bad sign of things to come. Rumors had it that either Sterling Moore or Vonn Bell was supposed to be on the field and missed their assignment. It would explain why the two hardly played after that, with Bell only getting six defensive snaps and Moore none.   Unfortunately, this left the Saints’ revamped secondary even thinner than before, by taking two key players out of its rotation. Second-year undrafted player De’Vante Harris saw virtually all of the snaps as the Saints’ fifth defensive back, and he’s simply not as good as Bell or Moore. Perhaps even more inexplicably, Harris was apparently used most of the night to shadow the Vikings’ best receiver, Stefon Diggs. Diggs burned him on several big plays en route to catching seven passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns on nine targets. Why not use Lattimore, who was a talented enough cover man to take #11 overall in the draft, or even Williams, a talented third-year player?   This wasn’t the only time Saints defenders played strangely out of position. More than once a Sam Bradford deep bomb to Adam Thielen was immediately followed by a linebacker chasing after him. I saw both Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein running after Thielen while he was making an open catch downfield. Anzalone and Klein are good coverage linebackers, but being good for a coverage linebacker means being able to cover elusive running backs and short-to-medium zones– not being expected to track the deep threats. How did this keep happening? Were their mixups on coverage on the field? Did defensive coordinator Dennis Allen scheme to purposely have Anzalone and Klein covering a speedy wide receiver, and if so, why? And at what point do you admit it’s not working and let your defensive backs back into the rotation? With Bell and Moore effectively benched, the Saints only had three cornerbacks available (Ken Crawley was inactive) and were short-handed at safety.   (That said, both linebackers had a fine debut otherwise. Anzalone had some nice pass breakups; Klein played every snap and was particularly effective as a run stopper. The early returns on the Klein signing look good; he fits a prototype of successful Saints free agent signings of recent years, those where the team identified an undervalued player on another squad and got them at a discount to step into a bigger role. Some names from the past who fit that description include Joe Horn, Jabari Greer, Darren Sproles, and Keenan Lewis.)   And for all the resources the team spent on trying to fix the pass rush, why was the team’s best rusher in coverage so often? Cameron Jordan made multiple plays to break up passes when dropped into coverage on a zone blitz– of course he did, he’s Cameron Jordan– but as the Saints’ only reliable pass rusher, he’s much better used in that role. He had a very advantageous matchup against Mike Remmers; it seems that rather than pressing that advantage, the Saints’ defensive scheming occasionally got too clever by half.   Whatever the cause, by design or mistake, simply too many players on defense weren’t where they needed to be.   CONCLUSION   As football writer Cian Fahey put it on Twitter, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the Payton-Brees Saints might be that of a team that kept building a dynamite offense, then trading key parts to rebuild its defense, but never successfully doing so. Unfortunately, week 1 makes it seem like this is the case again. Though individual pieces played better, the defense as a whole stunk (31st defensively in Football Outsiders’ DVOA after week 1, and dead last in pass defense), and without Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead– and especially after Zach Strief left the game– the offense sputtered and struggled to move the ball, being unable to do so reliably. If the offense can’t win games, the defense still isn’t good enough to keep them in it. Hopefully the team will improve as the new parts on defense gel and the offense gets back to full capacity, but it’s a worrisome start that, for a team that’s finished 7-9 three years running, seems to indicate that’s where they’re headed again this season.   That said, the Vikings are a legitimately good team, and the Saints were on the road. This matchup could have been lost by a playoff team, certainly. But once Minnesota’s offense got clicking, they were in control. The Saints head back to the Superdome this Sunday, but things won’t be any easier against a Patriots team that’s had ten days to think about giving up 42 points to the Kansas City Chiefs. New England comes into New Orleans as a touchdown favorite, a troubling sign for what Las Vegas thinks of this team. I’ll try to remain optimistic, but only a small fraction of teams ever that have started 0-2 made the playoffs. If the Saints don’t pull the upset at home, the season may be effectively over after it’s just begun.