A wild and wooly shootout in Atlanta ends with a Saints overtime win

This week is a pretty easy one to write about. Records both good and bad (mostly good) were set, GIF-worthy highlights were plentiful, and in the happiest result of all, New Orleans survived early struggles on both sides of the ball to come roaring back to win a shootout, 43-37 in overtime against the Falcons in Atlanta. I’d break this game into “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” except there wasn’t too much bad– unless, like kids these days, you use “bad” to mean “good”, and “shake one’s booty” to mean “wiggle one’s butt.” In that case, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were both very, very bad. Semantics and Simpsons references aside, let’s take a look at the key points from the game, for good and for ill. Pass coverage is still a problem, and the Saints did not fix the secondary by going back to what didn’t work. One of the key changes the Saints made to their pass defense after last year’s 0-2 start was to replace P.J. Williams in the starting lineup with Ken Crawley– which was more of a happy accident after Marshon Lattimore and Williams each missed a game and Crawley filled in admirably. That proved the right move, but after Crawley got torched a fair amount the last couple of weeks (if you’re a regular reader, you’ve already seen the GIFs), the Saints decided to bench him… and their only real other option was Williams. After Williams was roasted repeatedly by rookie receiver Calvin Ridley– who didn’t have a single catch in week 1, for comparison– the coaches put Crawley back into the starting lineup. While Williams was in the lineup, Ridley caught 5 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. After Crawley came back in, starting with the Falcons’ final drive of the first half, Ridley caught two passes for 17 yards, and drew one long pass-interference penalty on Crawley. Crawley still had his struggles, but even those struggles were preferable to Williams’ performance, which made him the featured target of the defense every snap he was in the game.
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(Also, maybe Dennis Allen should stop calling coverages that leave Williams or Crawley in press man with no help over the top. You can do that with Marshon Lattimore. Nobody else on the team is good enough to do that.) The real problem with the secondary is now twofold: One is that, even with Crawley back in the lineup, the second outside cornerback spot is still shaky. The other is that slot cornerback Patrick Robinson left the game with an ankle injury, and may not be available for a while. The Saints don’t have the depth in the secondary to necessarily handle this, and it’s arguably in part due to mismanagement of the roster there. We’ve covered how they botched the draft picks and development of Natrell Jamerson and Kamrin Moore, but as of today, the Saints have five defensive backs they’ve released since training camp who’ve been signed or claimed by other teams:
  • De’Vante Harris, released fairly early on, eventually signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers;
  • The Other Marcus Williams, who played fairly well in the preseason after being a late addition, also signed by the Bucs;
  • Jamerson, the team’s fifth-round pick, cut at the 53-man deadline and claimed by the Houston Texans;
  • Moore, the team’s sixth-round pick, also cut at the 53-man deadline and claimed by the New York Giants;
  • And Arthur Maulet, waived just before the game against the Falcons, was claimed by the Colts yesterday.
(H/t to John Sigler for noticing this and compiling the list.) I said in my Saints 53-man roster prediction that I didn’t think there would be room for P.J. Williams on the roster with all the new defensive backs brought in. The team kept Williams over most of those players… and that may have been a mistake as well. Those players were good enough to catch on elsewhere, and the team is perilously short on options now for filling out the cornerback rotation. As of now, only four healthy players– Lattimore, Crawley, Williams, and Justin Hardee– line up at cornerback for the Saints, and only one of those players has played the position at the level the team needs (and even he’s given up a couple of big plays this year). The team is bringing in veteran journeyman and former stopgap option Sterling Moore for a workout, which suggests that they think Robinson might be out long enough to sign someone else and that the options on roster to replace him are insufficient. Not a good sign when you add three cornerbacks in the draft or free agency and still need to bring in someone during the season. Maybe one of those five players (well, probably not De’Vante Harris, who got plenty of regular-season chances) could have helped. In better news: Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are still playing out of this world. Thomas added ten more catches on ten targets, giving him 38 catches on the season, a record through three games, and a preposterous 95.0% catch rate; his 398 receiving yards lead the league. Meanwhile, Kamara racked up an absurd 20 targets on Sunday, turning 15 of them into catches. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage. Marcus Davenport gets his first sack.
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A less heralded first, though also auspicious: Cameron Meredith makes his first reception of the season, and it’s a touchdown. Drew Brees, the new all-time record holder for career pass completions. Early in the second quarter, Drew Brees tied Brett Favre’s career record of 6,300 completions, on a 3rd-and-14 pass for 10 yards to set up a Wil Lutz field goal (which fortuitously went in after striking the left upright). He then broke the record with a 17-yard completion on the first play of the team’s next drive. Both completions were, of course, to Michael Thomas. Brees now sits at 6,326 completions, and it doesn’t look like anyone has a realistic shot of catching him, certainly not while he’s still adding to that total. In addition, Drew Brees:
  • has now lead the league in passing yards seven times,
  • has had five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, and Matthew Stafford have one each),
  • has broken the single-season record for completion percentage three times (including last season’s 72.0%),
  • currently holds the career record for completion percentage (among qualifying QBs),
  • currently sits in third place for career passing yards, but just 315 behind Brett Favre and 417 behind Peyton Manning, meaning he will almost certainly be the career leader before the Saints hit their week 6 bye,
  • currently is third all-time in passing touchdowns, with Favre just 12 ahead of him, and Manning’s record in sight to be broken next year,
  • has completed 80.6% of his passes this season, which would smash his old record,
  • has also thrown for eight touchdowns with no interceptions this sason,
  • and was first in the league this season in passing yards going into Monday night’s game. (Fine, fine, he’s third now.)
Let’s just take a moment to review those numbers and appreciate the greatness of Drew Brees. Then, let’s take a moment to appreciate that a QB approaching forty and who was never known as a runner still has these moves.
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Next week: Saints host the Giants, coming off their first win of the season thanks to finally facing an even worse team. This should be a fairly straightforward win for the Saints, if they aren’t coasting on the high of Sunday’s win, and if they can reasonably keep Odell Beckham in check without letting Sterling Shepard have a Calvin Ridley game or letting Saquon Barkley make the linebackers look foolish. This might also be the game where the Saints’ defensive line gets a real chance to shine– Cameron Jordan is tied for the NFL lead in sacks, but the whole crew can get a chance against Eli Manning and his front five, who currently lead the NFL in sack yardage lost and are third in total sacks allowed, with 12 through three games.