If I told you the Saints lost the turnover battle on Sunday and Drew Brees didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, you’d probably expect to be reading a column about a disappointing defeat, right?
It’s a new era in New Orleans, one where the offense can have an off day and the defense can still carry the way.
Granted, that’s a lot easier in a favorable matchup like the one the Saints had Sunday against the Bears. While the Bears have a solid team and are playing good defense, they are quarterbacked by a rookie, Mitch Trubisky, with only one year of college starting experience. Trubisky has some fine qualities, in particular his ability to stand tall in the pocket under pressure and his ability to deliver accurate deep balls consistently, but he doesn’t have the experience needed to run a full NFL offense (and the Bears don’t have the receiving talent, either). With those limitations, the Saints’ defense had an easier job than usual this week, and largely succeeded, keeping the Bears out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter, holding on to win 20-12. Just like against the Packers, the Saints mostly used their defense to shut down an inexperienced quarterback, and let the offense do some steady grinding.
There’s not a whole lot to take from this game that we didn’t know already. The Saints’ defense has taken a significant step forward this season; that showed up again on the scoreboard, as the Bears were held to two field goals until three and a half minutes were left in the game. They still struggle in run defense; we saw it last week with Aaron Jones’ TD jaunt, and this week both Jordan Howard and Mitch Trubisky broke long runs. (96 of the Bears’ 157 rushing yards, and 307 total yards, came on those two plays.) The offense still runs primarily through the running backs: Mark Ingram led the way with 18 carries and six receptions, totaling 99 yards, though his two late fumbles gave the Bears a chance to get back in the game, and for that reason he was pulled for Alvin Kamara on the final drive. Marshon Lattimore is still excellent; he once again shut down his man, and finished the Bears off with his game-sealing interception, a difficult change-of-direction grab in midair that showed off both his athleticism and awareness. Michael Thomas is still excellent, too; the passing game went back to him regularly, and he consistently delivered, securing seven of his eight targets for 77 yards.
What’s interesting going forward is how the team’s rotations might shake out, and whether or not they can stay healthy. On the defensive line, rookie Trey Hendrickson seems to have permanently taken over as the third defensive end, relegating Hau’oli Kikaha to a healthy inactive spot. (Between Kikaha hitting the bench and P.J. Williams barely playing, the Saints’ 2015 draft class is now only getting significant snaps from Andrus Peat and Tyeler Davison.) The offensive line is still dealing with Larry Warford’s injury, with Senio Kelemete as the sixth man stepping up to take his place. More worrisome, though, is that the left side of the line missed practice time with injuries this week and are questionable. While Ryan Ramczyk could move to left tackle if Terron Armstead missed the game, it’s not clear who would take his place at right tackle, or Peat’s spot at left guard. Hopefully the team can get the starting five back healthy soon; continuity is a major factor in offensive line performance. In addition, Delvin Breaux should be slated to return from his injury soon; while Ken Crawley has played admirably in his absence and should be a part of the team’s long-term plans, Breaux was one of the best cornerbacks in the league when healthy in 2015, and if he returns to that level of performance, he’d suddenly give the Saints one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL.
This coming Sunday against Tampa Bay provides an opportunity for the Saints to extend their winning streak to six. They’re in the Superdome, the Buccaneers have struggled this year at 2-5, and Jameis Winston may miss the game with a shoulder injury. That would be a fortunate break for the Saints; it would be the third straight game in a row facing a team playing a quarterback who wasn’t the intended starter to begin the season. (And fourth game overall, if you count the Dolphins having to go with Jay Cutler this year instead of Ryan Tannehill.) But fortunate breaks are an important part of any team’s championship run, in a sixteen-game season with single-elimination playoffs, a high injury rate, and a ball that bounces funny. (Just think back to the Saints’ championship season, and how they secured home-field advantage in part because of how Washington blew two short field goals in the fourth quarter, or how Brett Favre could’ve taken a sack or throwaway in the NFC Championship Game to set up a game-winning field goal, but instead gunslingered it up and threw an inexplicable interception in the middle of the field– ultimately leading to a Saints victory in overtime.)
After the Tampa game– New Orleans is a seven-point favorite– the schedule gets a little tougher. The Saints next head to Buffalo, where they face a Bills team that, even after Thursday night’s loss to the Jets, still stands at a surprising 5-3, playing tremendous defense during what was expected to be a rebuilding season, and after trading away star players like Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus. (LSU’s TreDavious White was the Bills’ first-round draft pick, and he’s already been a very good cornerback, the kind who might win Defensive Rookie of the Year if Lattimore wasn’t playing at such a high level.) After that, the team faces two potential playoff contenders; Washington at home, then the Rams at Los Angeles. These games might be the real test of how legitimate the Saints are; if the team comes away from this three-game stretch with a 2-1 record, then (assuming a win over Tampa Bay) they’ll be 8-3, with mostly division games left (as well as a home game against the Jets), and undeniably legitimate. Those three games could be the difference between evaluating the team as a 10-win wild-card hopeful, or a 12-win Super Bowl contender.
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