Week 3: The Saints Put Together An Impressive Performance That Shows a Vision of What This Team Can Be
Staring down the barrel of an 0-2 start, the Saints had their best game of the season Sunday, defeating the Carolina Panthers 34-13 in a game they dominated from start to finish. The road win was huge validation for a team that had showed poorly two weeks in a row, and was looking like they might be left dead in the water. The team played in a fashion that represents the best hope for what the Saints can be this year; this team could still make the playoffs if they continue to show up like this every week.
Some of the factors that worked in the Saints’ favor:
Getting Michael Thomas the ball early and often
On the Saints’ first touchdown drive, a 13-play, 75-yard march. Drew Brees targeted Michael Thomas five times. He caught all five passes for 50 yards, including the touchdown catch. Thomas is the Saints’ best offensive player (aside from Brees, of course), and as much as Sean Payton and company might like the idea of a more balanced offense, their offense– any offense– functions best when its gets the ball to its best players as often as possible. The Saints seemed to spend week 1 and 2 trying to work in new players or getting creative with the playbook, whereas in week 3 they seemed to have a renewed focus on getting their best players the ball, and doing what they know works. The reliance on Thomas for the first drive kept the chains moving (he converted two key first downs on the drive) and allowed the Saints to start building an early lead, which has its own hidden benefits…
Building a lead makes the defense’s job easier
The corollary to the point I made last column about the best Saints teams having a juggernaut offense instead of attempting to be balanced on both sides of the ball applies here. When you can build a lead, you force the opposing offense to pass more often to catch up. When you take away the offense’s options, you give the defense an easier job. Pass rushers get an advantage because they don’t have to worry about the run, which makes it easier to get pressure on the quarterback, which makes the quarterback’s job more difficult and leads to more mistakes, which gives the defense an opportunity to capitalize on those mistakes.
That’s exactly what happened Sunday. The Saints’ lead allowed the pass rush to come consistently, racking up four sacks on the day and forcing Cam Newton into three interceptions. Four different defensive ends notched a sack on Sunday, including recent high picks Hau’oli Kikaha and Trey Hendrickson. The interceptions in particular showed the potential this defense has in the future, with its young playmakers… well, making plays. P.J. Williams and Kenny Vaccaro both anticipated Cam Newton’s decisions and jumped routes for their interceptions, while Marcus Williams’ interception came on a very difficult catch after a tip drill, one that required concentration and sure hands. The big plays the young defenders made were flashes of what the team hoped to build on defense by drafting them; while you can still expect some inconsistency from young players, the early returns show that the team did land some talented players who can be fixtures of the defense if they continue to develop as expected. Speaking of expectations…
The team found a useful role for Adrian Peterson, even if it wasn’t quite what he expected.
Peterson is used to being a featured back in a run-heavy offense; he doesn’t really play at the level necessary for that anymore (he doesn’t have the kind of burst or top speed needed to break big plays), and he’s not a great fit for the up-tempo, pass-heavy Saints offense. That said, he proved more effective as a change-of-pace back to wear down the defense. Peterson had carries for five and six yards while spelling Mark Ingram on the opening drive. In the second half, with the Saints protecting a lead, he was effective on several of his carries, dragging defenders behind him while he picked up yardage; he only had one unsuccessful carry in the second half. It’s not quite the role Peterson expected, but change-of-pace power back is the role he best fits at this time.
The team seems to have settled into its proper balance of running back snaps; Mark Ingram took 29, Alvin Kamara 17, and Peterson 14, a similar split to last week. (The team ran 58 offensive plays on Sunday, meaning they had more than one tailback in on two of them.) Ingram serves as the lead back because he has a nice burst and ability to gain yards after contact for early-down carries; he’s also a very good pass blocker and effective enough receiver to function in those roles, and therefore his presence in the backfield doesn’t tip whether the play will be a run or a pass. (Ingram had 14 carries and 4 targets on his 29 snaps; compare to Peterson, who had 11 touches on just 14 snaps. One of the biggest problems with Peterson in this offense is that his presence in the backfield tips the defense that he’s more likely than not getting the ball.) Kamara gets the call when the team wants to try to break a big play; he’s also the best receiver of the bunch, which is most evident when the Saints split him out wide and send him deep. Kamara’s two carries yielded 12 and 25 yards (the latter for a touchdown) and though he didn’t catch his deep target, his versatility and big-play potential is already evident.
Speaking of big plays…
The team balanced their attack between consistent gains and big plays.
Run/pass balance is overrated. (One of the more famous examples of misusing statistics in football is the statistic that teams who run the ball at least 20 times win games more often. It’s true, but the causation is backward: Teams who are winning tend to run the ball more often to run out the clock.) What’s not overrated, however, is the value of having a diverse offense so that nobody can key on an individual player. While Michael Thomas and Mark Ingram were providing the offense with steady, chain-moving plays, Ted Ginn and Kamara were breaking off big scores. Ginn caught a 40-yard TD pass where he beat James Bradberry (a good up-and-coming cornerback) then made a nice adjustment to catch the ball. Tommylee Lewis is the other big-play threat, and while he didn’t have anything as big as his 52-yard catch against Minnesota, he picked up 13 yards with a nice run after the catch and eight more on a first-down handoff to help extend drives.
Having big-play threats like Ginn, Kamara, and Lewis not only allows the Saints the chance to score from anywhere on the field, but also forces the defense to account for those players, opening up the field for the short and medium passes that are the Saints’ bread and butter.
One factor contributing to the Saints’ win was mostly lucky, but nonetheless, it still counts:
Defensively, the Saints matched up well with the Panthers.
The Saints went into the game with injury problems at cornerback; current #1 Marshon Lattimore was out, as was nickel corner Sterling Moore. (So far, my prediction for the Saints’ cornerback trio of Lattimore, Delvin Breaux, and P.J. Williams seems correct.) They were down to three corners, so they promoted Arthur Maulet and Justin Hardee from the practice squad to fill in, although they only played special teams. Interestingly, the Saints used Ken Crawley, who had been inactive the first two games, over De’Vante Harris as the second starting cornerback behind P.J. Williams. (Crawley played 57 of 59 defensive snaps; Harris played 7.) The Saints actually played most of the game in a “big nickel,” with two cornerbacks, three safeties (Vonn Bell played 61% of the snaps), and two linebackers (A.J. Klein and usually Alex Anzalone).
It turns out that the Saints’ cornerback shortages didn’t really matter against the Panthers, because of their own receiver shortages. Tight end Greg Olsen, one of the only tight ends in history to have three consecutive seasons of 1,000 receiving yards, broke his foot last week; wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin also left the game early with an injury. These two are the primary targets in the Panthers passing game; without them, Carolina had to adjust, and some of the players weren’t up to the task. Wide receiver Devin Funchess only caught four of his ten targets; wide receiver / gadget player Curtis Samuel broke one long run, but only caught two passes for five yards on five targets.
Running back Christian McCaffrey was the most successful part of the Panthers passing offense, consistently taking short passes and turning them into longer gains. (9 catches, 101 yards, 11 targets.) He was fairly effective at moving the chains, but only broke one major play, late in the third quarter down 24-6 already. He wasn’t enough on a day the Panthers had to consistently play from behind. The Saints were fortunate to match up with a team who wasn’t prepared to exploit their weaknesses on defense.
It’s not time to completely reverse last week’s conclusions, but this week’s game showed the Saints team Sean Payton and company was hoping to build with their offseason moves– a diverse offense that moved the ball effectively, combined with a defense that effectively bottled up the opposing offense and was able to make big plays in the passing game. It’s a winning formula if they can execute consistently.
Willie Snead returns from suspension this week, which will help that tremendously, as he’s one of the most reliable route runners in the league. The Saints play the Dolphins in London; Miami is coming off a pretty embarrassing loss to a New York Jets team many observers thought had a legitimate chance of going 0-16. It’s a winnable game if the Saints can force Jay Cutler into mistakes and the offense can exploit the Dolphins’ weak spots at linebacker and cornerback.
Continuing to play by this week’s philosophy, as opposed to some of the mess that was week 1’s gameplan, will help. An offense that focuses on consistently getting the ball to its best players while still taking shots at big plays. A defense that puts its best talent on the field. (Getting Vonn Bell in for significant snaps helped a lot, and I think playing Crawley over Harris, who was frequently a target in weeks 1 and 2, did as well.) And of course, the team just needs some luck getting its players healthy. (Hopefully Marshon Lattimore doesn’t collide with Vonn Bell again this week.) The Saints have some hope this season, and a lot of winnable games on the schedule, but they need to stick with what works and not get overly creative on scheme or personnel if they want to maximize their potential.
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