Are the 2017 Saints back?

The Saints were 2-1 going into Sunday’s game in East Rutherford, and while the Giants weren’t a particularly good team, there’s no such thing as an easy road matchup in the NFL. (Certainly not for a team like the Saints, which has such a strong home-field advantage.) But despite some early struggles in the red zone, the Saints seemed to be thoroughly in control this entire match, and Alvin Kamara hit paydirt three times in the second half to make up for the early lack of scoring.

Against a team the Saints clearly outclassed, the question isn’t necessarily whether they would win. Winning is important, of course, but the team’s actual performance is just as important. And the Saints showed enough this time around to make me think they might be headed back to the 2017 level of performance. There were some disappointing moments on offense, particularly when Drew Brees missed two touchdown throws on one goal-to-go series, but I have to believe that Brees being Brees and everyone else on that team being who they are, that the offense will be fine in the long run (it’s been pretty darn good in the short run, too). The Giants also pretty clearly prioritized stopping Michael Thomas, as he only finished with 4 catches for 47 yards. (Of course, this was on 4 targets, thus boosting his preposterous catch rate even higher, if “only” from 95.0% to 95.5%.)

The real question for the team this year has remained: Can the Saints defense get close to their level of production in 2017, or are they going to have to win games by scoring 40 points a week? Having already given up 48 and 37 points in two of their previous games (and if Baker Mayfield had been starting for the Browns, they probably would have given up a lot more than 18 points and lost that game, too). Well, the Giants’ offense has its share of problems, starting with the offensive line, but they also have a lot of talent, and the Saints defense showed up in a way that both took advantage of the Giants’ weaknesses and responded well to their strengths.

The Giants, of course, have All-World wide receiver (and LSU product) Odell Beckham Jr. to start the offense. Beckham has become famous during his time in the NFL not only for his preposterous quickness and route running, but the secure set of hands that let him catch anything in his vicinity (made most famous by his one-handed end-zone grab his rookie year in Dallas). Marshon Lattimore would be matched up against Beckham, and it was fair to wonder if he would struggle, especially after we watched Mike Evans torch him for a big TD in week 1. Lattimore pulled through, however; Beckham caught his share of balls, but was largely limited and unable to make big plays, catching 7 passes on 11 targets, but for only 60 yards and with a long of 11. You can’t completely shut down a player like Beckham, but for two consecutive weeks now, Lattimore has faced one of the best wide receivers in the league and made him look ordinary.

Unfortunately, the other side of the field didn’t look nearly as good, with Sterling Shepard catching all ten of his targets for 77 yards and a touchdown. Still, he was largely held without any big plays, as the Saints defense took advantage of the Giants’ poor offensive line to steadily pressure Eli Manning and prevent longer routes from developing. The Saints totaled three sacks and five QB pressures on Manning, including two sacks from their big free-agent signing at linebacker, Demario Davis. Davis has been one of the best run-stoppers in football this season, and his ability to contribute in coverage and as a blitzer (five sacks last season) has helped shore up a linebacker crew the Saints have been looking to upgrade seemingly since the days of the Dome Patrol ended.

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And for the Marcus Davenport watch, we got a big stop in the backfield of Saquon Barkley, a play that showed off the kind of athleticism, physicality, and awareness that made him such a coveted target of the Saints in the 2018 draft:

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The Saints also saw their fumble luck start to even out. After two games, the Saints had fumbled four times and their opponents had fumbled four times; their opponents recovered all four fumbles. (Week 3 saw Calvin Ridley fumble out of bounds for Atlanta, and Drew Brees fumble and recover his own fumble.) This week, Eli Manning and Wayne Gallman both fumbled for the Giants, and the Saints recovered both. In addition, Brandon Tate bobbled a punt and got one of the most fortunate bounces I’ve seen in a while to recover it:

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Between the solid defensive performance, another outstanding Kamara game, and bounces finally going the Saints’ way, they secured a necessary win despite a game where Michael Thomas only saw four targets and Drew Brees threw for 217 yards and no touchdowns. That more than anything is what makes me think of last year: The Saints have long had a high-flying offense, but being able to win with the running game and defense, when the passing game isn’t working, is what made the team well-balanced enough last year to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. This week was our best sign yet that they can get back to that level.

(Before I forget to mention it: Taysom Hill had his biggest game yet, returning a kick, keeping the ball four times on option plays for 28 yards, and successfully completing a fake-punt pass to Justin Hardee for a first down.)

Stat Watch

Drew Brees: 75.8% completion, 1295 yards passing, 8 TD, 0 INT; on pace for 5180 yards, 32 TD, 0 INT
Alvin Kamara: 275 yards rushing, 5 TD; 35 receptions, 336 yards receiving, 1 TD; 611 yards from scrimmage, 6 combined TD. On pace for 2444 yards from scrimmage, 24 TD
Michael Thomas: 42 receptions on 44 targets, 445 yards, 3 TD; on pace for 168 receptions, 1780 yards, 12 TD

If these paces held, Brees would have his sixth 5,000-yard passing season (out of ten in the all-time history of the NFL) and break his own completion percentage record again, Kamara would finish with the second-most yards from scrimmage in history behind Chris Johnson’s 2,509 in 2009, and Thomas would shatter Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions record of 143.

Of course, this kind of pace is unlikely for all of them; Mark Ingram is coming back and will relieve Kamara of some of his workload, Brees is unlikely to go an entire season without throwing an interception, and Thomas’ catch rate is so preposterous as to likely be unsustainable. However, I expect them all to remain fantastically productive and be legitimate candidates for both MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. (The receptions record is the one I think is most likely to be broken, followed by Brees’ completion percentage record.)

Next week: I don’t often write previews for next week, but this one is important. The Saints are hosting Washington on Monday Night Football, and Drew Brees is a mere 98 yards behind Brett Favre for second place all-time in passing yards– and more importantly, an even 200 yards behind Peyton Manning for first place. Brees has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in a game only three times since 2011, and two of those were last year in games the Saints scored 52 and 47 points. It’s virtually inconceivable he doesn’t break the record Monday night, so I recommend getting a front row seat for the experience. (Metaphorically, I mean. Although you might still be able to get tickets.)