The Saints escape with a win… but not one that inspires much confidence

I’ll get one thing out of the way: This Cleveland Browns teams is significantly better than the one we’ve seen the last two seasons. They have a real NFL quarterback (two, indeed), a reliable wide receiver in Jarvis Landry, and substantially improved defensive talent, led by last year’s #1 overall pick Myles Garrett, a tremendous force of a pass rusher. But all that said… the Saints were nine-point favorites on Sunday, and had to step up in the fourth quarter and put together a serious scoring run just to scrape by with a win– and even that required a lot of luck. The final 21-18 victory came in no small part because then- (and now ex-)Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals and two extra points, all in the second half. The Saints could only muster three points over the first three quarters, but the first two missed kicks left the score 12-3; after New Orleans scored 15 unanswered points, the second missed extra point left the game tied at 18, and a final field goal attempt failed to send the game into overtime, leaving the Saints with a 21-18 win. I’m not sure what there is to say about this game. I was quite serious when I said Cleveland’s defense is significantly improved. Their own young players– six of their own draft picks from the last three years, including three first-rounders– have started to come into their own; they’ve acquired a couple of talented pieces that fell out of favor with their old teams, such as Jamie Collins and Damarious Randall; and even have what’s practically considered an ancient holdover around Cleveland as a defensive leader, linebacker and 2014 draft pick Christian Kirksey. All that said, the Drew Brees and Sean Payton Saints should not go three quarters in the Superdome and only score three points. Some of the problems were the same as those that the team faced against the Bucs– namely, that only Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were able to advance the ball regularly. Cleveland’s defensive line was far more stout than Tampa’s, though; even Kamara was held to only 46 yards on 13 carries, and the team sacked Brees three times, including two by Larry Ogunjobi, second-year defensive lineman and emerging star (if nothing else, getting two sacks against an elite pocket mover and one of the best interior offensive lines in the NFL is evidence of that). Thomas continued his preposterous start as a can’t-miss target hog, adding 12 receptions to last week’s 16 to lead the league by far at 28 (and on 30 targets!). Still, though, the team is missing that usual next level on offense. Between two more turnovers and converting only 3 of 12 third downs, the Saints aren’t the efficient machine that strikes fear into the hearts of even the best defenses in the Superdome that we’re used to. And even though Brees completed 80 percent of his passes (28/35), the lack of sustained drives– not to mention a few of those seven misses being key plays– has slowed the offense from being great to being merely good. Football Outsiders’ DVOA currently has them seventh on the year, but that’s a significant drop from last year’s second-place ranking, and more in line with the 2014-16 teams that all went 7-9. The team can’t find reliable targets outside of Thomas and Kamara. Ben Watson and Ted Gin are doing OK in secondary roles, not great, but nobody else has stepped up. Second-year player Austin Carr has been active on game day ahead of free-agent signing Cameron Meredith, because apparently he’s learned the slot receiver position better and Brees has better rapport from him, but he didn’t have so much as a target this week, let alone a catch. If Meredith is healthy, he’s a real weapon– his 2016 season was remarkably productive given his age and the bad offense and bad quarterback play he was stuck with– and the Saints need one more of those. (And if he’s not healthy, just admit it instead of saying he hasn’t learned the offense or what have you.) It’s time to see if he can provide the spark this offense needs. The defense has similarly fallen off (thanks largely to last week’s performance); it’s currently ranked 21st after finishing 8th last year. That one is better than the 2014-16 teams, which all finished 31st or 32nd, but not better enough to make a difference. The Saints did play substantially better than in weeks past; few splash plays, but the team largely bottled up the run game and the scrambling of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. When the team did need plays, they came up with three sacks (two by Cameron Jordan; one by Sheldon Rankins) and a Marcus Williams interception with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter that gave the Saints a short field and the chance to take the lead for the first time. Unfortunately, even though Gregg Williams was now on the opposite sideline, we also saw a play that looked mighty familiar to anyone who watched the Saints when he was defensive coordinator: a late-game situation where a defender was inexplicably left alone, with no help over the top, for a receiver to blow by him. In this case, it was Ken Crawley, on a 4th-and-5 with 1:24 left in the game and the Saints up 18-12, left alone to get burned by rookie Antonio Callaway for the tying touchdown:   I don’t know what should have happened on that play. It looks like the Saints ran a three-deep zone with Crawley on the defensive left, Marcus Williams on the right, and A.J. Klein down the middle, and five players in short zone– a reasonable coverage when considering the situation. Of course, that raises some questions, like Why is your linebacker the deep middle guy, and not the free safety with tremendous range, on the most important play of the game? That said, it’s also worth noting that Crawley had a substantial cushion on Callaway and still managed to get beaten pretty easily. Whether Crawley underestimated Callaway’s speed, overestimated his own, or kept thinking Callaway was going to break off his route instead of taking it deep, it’s worrying. At times I suspect the Saints’ personnel additions on defense have gotten the coaching staff to get too cute. While I don’t have the numbers handy with me, my impression of last year’s defense is that the Saints primarily left Marshon Lattimore in press man to shut down the team’s top receiver, with Marcus Williams playing a single-high free safety, and didn’t vary too much from that because it was consistently effective. With the addition of some players like Kurt Coleman and Patrick Robinson, the coaching staff has seen the potential for more versatility in coverage looks… but maybe more versatility isn’t a good thing if your team isn’t as good in some schemes as it is in others. On the one hand, the coaching staff probably shouldn’t run coverages in important situations that put A.J. Klein as the deep middle man. On the other, Ken Crawley simply failed to do his job. There’s blame to go around in both scheme and execution, and the team’s got to fix it on both ends. Parts of the Saints’ first two performances are bad luck and will get better. Fumble recoveries are largely random and should even out over time. On Sunday, New Orleans fumbled twice and Cleveland fumbled three times; the Browns recovered all five. Combined with last week’s results, that means the Saints have four fumbles and their opponents have four fumbles, and their opponents have recovered (or retained possession on) all of them. Williams’ interception was the team’s first forced turnover of the year, and they’ll almost certainly improve in that regard. On the bright side, the team is 1-1, snapping a four-year streak of starting 0-2. On the downside, the Saints have played what were supposed to be two of the easier games on their schedule, and have come out of each not nearly looking like the team we thought they were. With a visit to hated rival Atlanta this Sunday, winning isn’t going to get any easier, even if the Falcons have had their own struggles. We’re going to have to count on the coaching staff having figured out what works and doesn’t work and going back to what works. They did it last year after the 0-2 start, and with the talent they added in the offseason, there’s no reason the team ought to be worse anywhere. Mark Ingram’s absence definitely hurts the offense’s versatility, as the team can’t run two all-around threats out of the backfield or give Kamara a rest without tipping their hand. But they still ought to be better than this. And the defense only lost one starter– Kenny Vaccaro– and added a handful of quality players. It’s time for everyone to live up to that expected level of performance.