Until the Saints beat Tampa Bay 30-10 on Sunday, only two previous teams in NFL history had won six games in a row after losing their first two. Those two teams are the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and 2007 New York Giants.
Do you know what else those two teams had in common? They won the Super Bowl.
It might be a little too soon to start thinking about those possibilities for the Saints, but after I suggested after the Lions win that the Saints could well be 6-2 at this point, it’s hard not to think about a potential Super Bowl run.
The game itself wasn’t particularly interesting– the Saints went in as a sizable favorite against a Buccaneers team many suspect has quit on the season; with Jameis Winston playing through a shoulder injury before giving way to Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay never stood much of a chance. The Saints’ defense held Tampa to 200 total yards, while gaining 407. And despite losing the turnover battle once more, the Saints dominated; a punt block and TD from special-teams ace and preseason standout Justin Hardee tipped the scales even more in the Saints’ favor, and the team kept a 30-3 lead until a garbage-time TD drive with under 7 minutes left.
Perhaps the most encouraging note from the game isn’t even one of the big offensive performances, like Alvin Kamara’s 152 total yards from scrimmage and two TDs. It’s that Marshon Lattimore stepped up once again, holding one of the league’s premier receivers in Mike Evans (who has five inches of height on him to boot) to just one catch for 13 yards– and then frustrating him so much that Evans hit him after a play with a blindside shove in the back, earning a one-game suspension. Lattimore has not only been the league’s top rookie (despite what national analysts who don’t pay much attention to the Saints would tell you), he’s already become one of the top players at his position– and according to Pro Football Focus’ grades, he’s been the third-best player in the league, period, at any position, behind only defensive tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Bobby Wagner.
And after a decade of frustrating drafts, after years of big free-agent contracts that didn’t work, it’s remarkable how much of an impact has been made by the 2017 free-agent class and the 2017 draft class, which is already looking like it’ll compete with 2006 as an all-timer. Lattimore speaks for himself. Ryan Ramczyk and Alvin Kamara have been invaluable offensive additions. Marcus Williams adds range and coverage to a free safety position that was too often burned in the past. Alex Anzalone had been a positive starter at linebacker before re-injuring his shoulder and going to IR. Trey Hendrickson has moved into the rotation as the third defensive end and already made an impact.
Though the Adrian Peterson signing didn’t work out (and predictably so– he hasn’t been great in Arizona, but he actually fits the offense there), Ted Ginn, Larry Warford, Alex Okafor, and A.J. Klein have all been positive players, and even Manti Te’o has been solid when he’s on the field. It’s a big change from throwing money at players who end up doing next to nothing, like Jairus Byrd, or handing large contract extensions to players who are then cut or traded, costing huge chunks of dead cap (Jimmy Graham, Junior Galette). Even Coby Fleener last year could fall into this category– he’s been completely invisible this year, and has apparently fallen to third on the tight end depth chart, as Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui have received more snaps than him in each of the last four games.
Since the Saints are now eight games through the season, let’s hand out some midseason awards to the team’s best performers.
Drew Brees – Okay, this one was pretty obvious. For everything the new guys have brought to the table, Brees is still the engine that makes the offense go. The talent around him has made it easier, but it’s still up to him to deliver accurate passes and make the right decisions, and despite the occasional missed deep ball or inexplicable throw directly into the hands of A’Shawn Robinson, he’s still the reason this top-three offense is humming along. (It’s not clear who the runner-up is; Michael Thomas is the second-best player, but he hasn’t been as heavily featured as one might have expected after the Brandin Cooks trade.)
Cameron Jordan – Again, obvious; he’s the one true All-Pro talent the team added in the barren drafting years between 2009-2015. Now surrounded by other talented players, he’s been unleashed, with seven sacks through eight games, five tipped passes, two forced fumbles, and that game-sealing interception for a touchdown against Detroit. (Truthfully, though, Lattimore is making an impressive push to be included in the conversation given his rookie status and Jordan’s pedigree.)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Ryan Ramczyk – This one might be controversial, as Alvin Kamara’s spectacular play certainly makes more highlight reels than Ramczyk. But it all starts up front: If you can’t block anyone, you won’t go anywhere. Ramczyk wasn’t expected to play as a rookie, but injuries first to Terron Armstead and then to Zach Strief forced him into the lineup, and his combination of talent and outstanding pass-blocking technique have allowed him to perform very well at a crucial position with a difficult learning curve for rookies. (The great irony is, the Saints expected to draft linebacker Reuben Foster #32 but were leapfrogged by the 49ers. At the time, missing out on a position of need looked like a disaster; now, it’s difficult to imagine how the line would look if Ramczyk hadn’t been there to shore up the tackle positions.) Kamara is a close second, on pace for 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Marshon Lattimore – At this point, my praise of Lattimore has gotten so hyperbolic I needn’t go further. I’ll just add that he’s a very young rookie, having only turned 21 in May, and if he’s already playing this well, the sky’s the limit for him. (Marcus Williams finishes second; though he hasn’t had many highlight plays, he’s been above average and played all but five snaps on defense this season.)
Best Free Agent Signing
Alex Okafor – This one was genuinely difficult. A.J. Klein has played every single snap on defense this year and done well. Larry Warford was critical for patching a hole on the offensive line. Ted Ginn is using his speed to get open regularly and is on his way to a career year. In the end, though, I consider pass rush the most important part of a defense, and the way Okafor has offered a credible second rusher opposite Jordan has elevated the rest of the defense, allowing the team to get more pressure, leading to more sacks and big plays. (Any one of these four would be a credible pick; Okafor and Klein are most notable for being backups in their last destinations who are now thriving in bigger roles.)
Best Second Year Leap
Ken Crawley – This one was fairly easy. (Note: This is for the player who made the biggest leap in performance from his rookie to sophomore season, not the best second-year player.) Crawley was an undrafted free agent last year, and began this season so far down the depth chart he was inactive for the first two games. But injuries gave him an opportunity to enter the lineup against Carolina in week three, and he never left. Now solidly entrenched as the starter opposite Lattimore, his 81.3 PFF grade puts him in the same range of such players as Patrick Peterson, Joe Haden, and Desmond Trufant. (Runner-up: David Onyemata, drafted last year as an athletic project out of the University of Manitoba; he’s only played about half the snaps on defense, but ranks among the league leaders in tackles for loss.)
The second half of the season starts Sunday at noon in Buffalo, where the Saints opened as a two-point favorite (currently 2.5 or 3 points by most books). They’ll be missing Kenny Vaccaro due to a groin injury, but are looking at the possibility of having both Terron Armstead and Larry Warford back in the lineup. The Bills expected to rebuild this season, but find themselves at a surprising 5-3 thanks to a defense that’s performing terrifically despite losing several big-name talents. It’s one of three road games the Saints have remaining against solid teams. Clearing that hurdle would put the team in great shape to chase down a first-round bye.
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