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The Saints Survive a Sloppy Performance Against the Jets

Perhaps looking ahead to next week’s matchup at Atlanta, New Orleans didn’t play up to their usual talent level but won anyway. Also: Pro Bowl selections!

Psychology is a big part of football, or any form of human performance. While I’m a big believer in using statistics and analytics to attempt to quantify performance, I often find that too many of the pioneers in that regard completely disregard aspects of performance related to psychology, like momentum and clutch performance. (My response is usually something along the lines of “Just because you can’t measure something properly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”)

New Orleans came into the Jets game as 16-point favorites, with a huge divisional game against Atlanta on the calendar the next week, and that knowledge may well have played into a sluggish performance against the Jets; the Saints eventually won the game 31-19, but they were not dominant the way such a spread suggests they ought to have been.

Personally, I think the bigger factor wasn’t the mental aspect; it was the injuries. The creep of injuries finally started to legitimately affect the team’s performance. A.J. Klein and Trey Hendrickson were both out for this game; Hau’oli Kikaha, who might ordinarily be the replacement end for Hendrickson (himself already the second-string end) in this case, had to play linebacker because no one else was available.  The Saints once again moved defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to end, starting Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata inside, and using guys who weren’t on the roster to start the season as rotational players on the line, like tackle John Hughes and newly signed end George Johnson.

The offense was already down Andrus Peat, who dressed but didn’t play (he logged one snap); when Larry Warford went down with a concussion, the Saints were missing both their starting guards. As a result, they struggled to run up the middle for most of the day, only really finding success on outside runs and by throwing regularly to Michael Thomas (9 catches on 11 targets for 93 yards and a touchdown). Mark Ingram’s final breakaway run sealed the game; the Saints were only up by five until Ingram broke an off-tackle carry for a long touchdown.

Marshon Lattimore is all smiles after his game-ending interception, as teammates come to congratulate him.

New Orleans won this game despite losing the turnover battle 3-2, and even that overstates how they performed. One of the Jets’ turnovers was a Marshon Lattimore interception on the very last play of the game; it had no impact on the outcome. Craig Robertson’s interception gave the Saints the ball in Jets territory, but then Brandon Coleman fumbled it right back. Coleman also fumbled on the very next drive, when the Saints had again entered Jets territory. These two plays had a substantial impact on the outcome. (At a bare minimum, the Saints could have attempted two field goals; they probably lost something like 7 expected points in total.) Drew Brees also threw an interception to Leonard Williams, not the first time this season he’s had a throw on a slant route picked off by a defensive lineman. Williams didn’t return it for a touchdown like Detroit’s A’Shawn Robinson did, but it still gave the Jets the ball inside the Saints’ 20. (The defense managed to hold New York to a field goal, at least.) So it wasn’t just that New Orleans lost the turnover battle in sum; it was also that their turnovers had a much higher negative impact than the Jets’ turnovers, based on when and where they happened.

The Saints still outgained the Jets 6.4 to 4.3 yards per play, so they were the significantly better team; the fact remains, though, that they were too often sloppy in a manner that led to those mistakes, and that can’t happen again with the important games coming up. And those of you who just come for the Alvin Kamara GIFs, fret not: He scored another touchdown Sunday, and here’s a bird’s eye view that shows just what a refined route runner he is.

A.J. Klein was just placed on injured reserve; the loss of the team’s every-down linebacker is a significant blow, and could make it tough for the team to defend the Falcons’ running backs. It’ll be interesting to see how they adjust. Hau’oli Kikaha played linebacker against the Jets, but I would’ve thought they might go with Kenny Vaccaro instead, moving him into a de facto linebacker role, perhaps shadowing Devonta Freeman. However, Vaccaro was also placed on injured reserve a couple of days ago, making him the sixth Saints defensive starter to go on IR this season, joining Nick Fairley, Delvin Breaux, Alex Anzalone, Alex Okafor, and Klein.

The Saints have mostly done well to keep the defense playing at a reasonable level, but in such a critical matchup– a Saints win virtually ensures the division; a loss means they’ll have to win next week just to secure a playoff spot– that kind of talent drain could make a difference. Here’s hoping the two truly critical players to the defense, Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, stay healthy. Speaking of healthy, Michael Thomas showed up on the injury report Friday and is now listed as questionable. I imagine he’ll play, but the Saints really don’t need anything hobbling their key players on offense, either.

Now, to discuss something more fun than injuries: The Pro Bowl rosters were announced this week, and the Saints were among the league leaders for honors; their six selections tied Philadelphia for the most in the NFC. (Pittsburgh led the league with eight.) The two keys to the Saints’ resurgent defense were rewarded, as Cameron Jordan was selected to his third Pro Bowl, in the midst of a ten-sack season, and Marshon Lattimore, despite the games missed due to injury, earned a well-deserved selection, as when he’s on the field he’s arguably been the best cornerback in the NFL– an astounding feat for a 21-year-old rookie.

On the offensive side of the ball, four Saints were chosen. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were both selected; they rank fourth and sixth respectively in yards from scrimmage among running backs, with Kamara leading the NFL in yards per carry. They become the first tandem of running backs selected from the same team since the 1970s (not including duos were one player was selected to the fullback position). Michael Thomas received his first Pro Bowl selection as well; astonishingly, he becomes the first wide receiver the Saints have had selected to the Pro Bowl in the Drew Brees era. Thomas is currently sixth in the NFL in receiving yards, and during the Jets game became the second player in NFL history to record 90 receptions in each of his first two seasons. (Odell Beckham Jr. was the first.) With nine more receptions in his last two games, Thomas will have the most catches in his first two years by any player in NFL history, surpassing second-place Beckham and leader Jarvis Landry. (Coincidentally, Landry and Beckham were teammates at LSU, both drafted in 2014.)

Drew Brees was selected once again; even in a season where his bulk numbers are at his lowest since 2009, he’s been more efficient than ever. He currently leads the league in adjusted net yards per attempt and completion percentage; his 71.8% figure on the latter would be a new NFL record, breaking Sam Bradford’s 71.6% last year (which broke Brees’ own record of 71.2% in 2011). This is Brees’ 11th selection to the Pro Bowl. He’s a legitimate MVP candidate and somehow has never won the award; perhaps 2017 is the year voters finally see fit to rectify that mistake.

Arguably, the Saints could’ve had even more selections; the offensive line has played like one of the best units in the league despite the injuries and re-shuffling, but not a single player was selected. (And injuries didn’t stop voters from selecting Dallas’ Tyron Smith). Dallas, Washington, and Philadelphia all got multiple linemen on the roster; the Saints couldn’t even place one? I would have chosen Max Unger to replace Travis Frederick; he’s the only player on the line who’s played every snap this season. Ryan Ramczyk also has a very strong case, given how he’s had to fill in at tackle unexpectedly and played at a substantially higher level than anyone could’ve expected. Everyone on the line has played well, though the other three starters– Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, and Larry Warford– may have missed too much time to warrant consideration.

Last tidbit: The Saints are only the fourth team since the AFL/NFL merger to send two rookies to the Pro Bowl in one season. (Oddly enough, all four of these instances have come since 2011.)

The Saints’ Christmas Eve noon game in the Superdome against Atlanta is the national game on FOX in that time slot, and deservedly so. New Orleans has the chance to move one step closer to sealing a division title and to putting the hated rival Falcons out of the playoffs. The Saints’ performance against the Jets wasn’t inspiring, and the team’s stockpile of injuries still linger, but in such a crucial game, where the Saints are still favored– between five and six points depending on which book you use– we have to expect, and hope, they’ll step up to the challenge regardless.

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