The Saints’ 52-38 Week 6 win over the Lions, a wild game with five defensive and special-teams scores in total, provided reason for both optimism and concern among Saints fans. As the headline indicates, I’d like to break down the various aspects of their play into good, bad, and ugly categories.
The Saints played an absolutely dominant two and a half quarters of football against Detroit, going up 45-10 after Marshon Lattimore’s interception return for a touchdown with about eight and a half minutes left in the third quarter. The offense put together multiple long drives and scored on big plays as well, with four touchdown drives, two of which were 75 yards, and a 69-yard drive ending in a field goal. Everyone got in on the action, though it was mostly driven by the play of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, who totaled 237 yards from scrimmage, plus a couple of touchdown runs by Ingram.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was relentless in pressuring Matthew Stafford. Several injuries to the offensive line made getting to Stafford easier, and Stafford’s mobility was limited by an ankle injury, leading him to struggle to evade that pressure. We saw this on the very first drive, when Alex Okafor strip-sacked Stafford and Kenny Vaccaro recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Craig Robertson later added a strip-sack where he simply plucked the ball out of Stafford’s hands, then recovered it.
All told, the Saints sacked Stafford five times, including two strip-sacks for turnovers, and picked him off three more times (Kenny Vaccaro, Lattimore, and Cameron Jordan, with the latter two scoring touchdowns). Perhaps even more impressively, the Saints were credited with nine passes tipped at the line, and a total of sixteen passes defensed, both ridiculously high numbers that highlighted just how effective the defense was at shutting down the passing game and not even giving Stafford or his receivers a chance to complete a pass.
The team’s run game was largely shut down as well: Ameer Abdullah broke one carry for 34 yards, but outside of that, Lions running backs carried the ball 16 times for 32 yards total. Of course, the Saints building up a lead meant that they largely took the run out of the Lions’ playbook, something I suggested the Saints consider as their overall team philosophy several weeks ago. (Stafford had 59 dropbacks, resulting in 52 pass attempts, five sacks, and two scrambles; the Lions only ran 17 designed running plays.)
The Saints’ defense still showed two hallmarks of the recent units that have badly struggled, bad tackling and an inability to get off the field on third down. The Lions converted 9 of 18 third downs, leaving New Orleans having allowed 32 of 66 for the season, roughly 48.5%– the worst mark in the NFL. They were fifth-worst last year, second-worst the year before that, and second-worst in 2014. (They were ninth-best in 2013; this was also the last year they made the playoffs.) For as many things as the defense is doing right and doing better this season, stopping offenses on third down, when the defense should be in its most advantageous situation, hasn’t been one of them. (This is especially disconcerting when you compare it to the above numbers regarding tipped passes; if the Saints weren’t getting their hands on the ball, the Lions were likely completing the pass and converting the first down.)
The other weak spot, tackling, is something I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, the performance Sunday showed why tackling can be overrated– if you’re constantly tipping passes at the line or knocking them away from the receiver’s hands, you don’t really ever have to tackle, do you? On the other hand, any team is going to complete some passes eventually, and you have to be able to hold them to minimal gains when they do so.
The one touchdown the Saints gave up in the Dr. Jekyll portion of the game came on a sideline pass to Golden Tate. Tate took a short gain and turned it into a 45-yard touchdown because of hideous tackling attempts by three members of the secondary. Ken Crawley was in coverage and failed to bring Tate down after the catch. Marcus Williams took a bad angle and was easily juked by Tate. And Rafael Bush decided to try to strip the ball from Tate rather than simply shoving him out of bounds; he accomplished neither. On the bright side, these Washington Generals-esque follies are not nearly as frequent as they were last season.
Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde; the stagecoach turned into a pumpkin; whatever you want to call it, the Saints seemed like a different team after going up 45-10. The defense seemed to play softer coverage on the next two drives, allowing touchdowns on both. This wouldn’t have necessarily been a big deal with such a large lead, except this was also the time where the offense completely stalled out and couldn’t even run out the clock, let alone score more points. Despite having a Hall of Fame quarterback and a load of offensive weapons, and playing in the Superdome, on a day where the team had been driving the ball regularly, the Saints would not even so much as register one first down on their remaining eight possessions.
The defense managed to hold it together for the most part; they didn’t allow another score after the two opening drives. But the offense’s collapse was inexplicable, and after Drew Brees threw an interception to defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson that was returned for a touchdown, the score was 45-38, and it looked like the offense and special teams might actually cause the Saints to blow a five-touchdown lead. Fortunately, Cameron Jordan stepped up with an interception while Stafford was backed up into his own end zone– part of a monster day for Jordan, with two sacks and three passes defensed on top of that– making the score 52-38, and ending the Lions’ threat to come back.
Special teams, particularly the punting team, was a mixed bag as well. On the one hand, Thomas Morstead and the coverage unit pinned the Lions close to their own end zone twice, and each of those Lions possessions ended with a Saints defender in the end zone with the ball. On the other hand, the coverage team allowed a return touchdown that got the Lions to within 45-31.
What’s baffling to me is that I can’t figure out why the offense collapsed. One partial explanation is the offensive line. Terron Armstead was playing in his first game action of 2017; once the lead was large enough, the Saints decided to rest him, necessitating a reshuffling of the line and putting Andrus Peat and Senio Kelemete at left tackle and left guard, respectively. (They’re not as good a combo as Armstead-Peat.) Armstead was reinserted into the game once it became closer, though, and the Saints still couldn’t move the ball. This was Armstead’s first game back, though, and the Saints hadn’t struggled this much in his absence, though the offensive line play notably dipped when both Armstead and Zach Strief were out (as they were today). Still, there’s no excuse for performing this poorly in the Superdome. Whatever it was– play-calling, players taking plays off, or something else– it needs to be addressed. You can’t win games if you can’t close them.
All that said, the Saints’ performance rocketed them up to #7 overall in DVOA, as the team jumped all the way to 15th on defense with the dominant performance. (Many other advanced statistical measures and predictive models indicate the Saints are a top-ten team, as well.) This is a young unit that should only get better as the season goes on.
New Orleans might actually have bounced back into one of the better teams in the league. They catch a fortunate break (no pun intended) in that Aaron Rodgers won’t play for the Packers this coming Sunday. The Saints could well be 6-2 by the time they travel to Buffalo in week 10. If they can perform reasonably well after that– and certainly if they can beat the other playoff contenders on their schedule, like Washington and the Rams, and win their division games– the playoffs are, for the first time since 2013, a legitimate possibility.
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