Guts and Glory (and a little luck to this story) in a Saints road win

The Saints went into Baltimore as 2.5-point underdogs, a spread which, in all honesty, seemed fairly reasonable given the Ravens defense and the way the addition of receivers like Michael Crabtree and John Brown seemed to have revitalized Joe Flacco and the passing game. The Saints could win this game, certainly, but it would never be a walk in the park and they were going to have to fight tooth and nail to come away with the win.

And the Saints delivered one of the toughest and boldest games of football I’ve seen in a long time.

Well, at least for about 58 minutes or so, before they needed a final stroke of luck to bring it home.

“Bold” can’t be overstated here. Many NFL coaches are content to play it safe, to try to make decisions that avoid criticism. They’re content to keep the game close and hope it all works out in the end. Sean Payton called a game that showed he came here to take the win.

Even though the Saints didn’t score on the opening drive, it set the tone for how the team was going to play that day: Aggressive, confident, and fighting for every yard and every first down to the very end. I’m not sure the NFL has ever seen an opening drive like it: Sean Payton went for it on fourth down four times. The first attempt was all the way back at the Saints 34-yard-line, on a fake punt where Taysom Hill, lined up as the up-back, took the snap from center and simply ran for the first down up the middle, where the Ravens were outmatched by the numbers.

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The second time was just four plays later; on fourth-and-inches, Drew Brees ran a quarterback sneak by leaping over the line, just getting the ball across before being seriously knocked backwards to the ground. And on fourth-and-2 at Baltimore’s 31-yard-line, rather than bring in Wil Lutz for a field goal, the Saints ran a handoff to Mark Ingram for five yards.

It wasn’t until the twentieth play of the drive, facing 4th-and-1 at Baltimore’s 4, that the fourth-down luck finally ran out. Taysom Hill ran the option but failed to press the option defender to commit; Alvin Kamara would have had a tough time getting the yardage anyway in that case, but Hill’s pitch was poor and high and fumbled as a result.

But even without getting any points, the Saints took over ten minutes off the clock and sent a clear message: We’re not going to stop pressing with our offense, and we’re not going to give up. That would matter in a game with a low number of possessions (each team only got three real possessions in the first half; in the second, the Ravens got five to the Saints’ four– I’m not counting either of the Saints’ kneeldowns in this case). The Saints would punt on their next drive before scoring a touchdown; after going down 17-7 in late in the third quarter, the Saints would score 17 straight points– stopping the Ravens on a critical fourth down to boot– before kicking off and pinning Baltimore inside their own 15-yard-line with little over two minutes left.

And this brings up to one of the two major ways the defense struggled Sunday: the two-minute drill. Perhaps it was because the pace kept the defense on its heels, tired out, and prevented substitutions; perhaps it was because the defensive calls played too safely and gave the Ravens too much underneath room. Whatever the case, the Ravens shredded the Saints in the two-minute drill. To wit:

Ravens in the two-minute drill: Two drives, 12 plays, 156 yards, 13 points
Ravens outside the two-minute drill: Six drives, 52 plays, 195 yards, 10 points

The difference is rather stark. Holding a team under four yards per play is incredible. Giving up thirteen yards per play is… well, also incredible, but for the opposite reasons.

The other major weak spot, as suspected, was the coverage away from Marshon Lattimore, particularly on John Brown. Brown’s speed makes him a great fit for Joe Flacco’s powerful downfield arm, and the Saints too often left Ken Crawley on him without enough help. This was most noticeable in the first half two-minute drill, where Brown was wide open on a deep dig route and took the pass for 56 total yards before Marcus Williams chased him down at the two yard line. Brown also scored the touchdown for the Ravens to attempt to tie the game, where somehow Vonn Bell and Marshon Lattimore had a coverage mistake. It’s not clear whose fault it was, but Lattimore apparently covered the short zone expecting to hand off Brown to Bell over the top, but Bell was lined up far out of position to do such a thing, and Brown was wide open on his touchdown catch. For the day, Brown caught all seven of his targets for 134 yards and a touchdown. (On a side note, Marcus Williams wasn’t on the field for the final two-minute drill with an unspecified injury, which hopefully isn’t serious.)

The pass rush has to improve, too. They consistently got close to Flacco but never enough to actually disrupt him, only sacking him once. (On the bright side, several Flacco passes were tipped at the line.) Baltimore usually has a pretty good offensive line, though in this case they were relying on backups at several positions, meaning the Saints need to be able to take advantage there. Moreover, some of the passes completed by Flacco were a result of him having an impressive amount of time in the pocket. Coverages can only be expected to hold up for so long.

On the offensive side of the ball, even though this wasn’t a high-flying game for a team that’s broken 40 points three times this season, the consistently on drives as well as the way the team executed in multiple parts of the game was very encouraging.

Last week, Mark Ingram out-touched Alvin Kamara; this week, Ingram got more work early on but Kamara was used more down the stretch. That’s more how I expect the balance of work to look: Since the Saints don’t want to overwork Kamara, they’ll use Ingram earlier on in the game to keep him fresh. If the team gets way ahead (as they did against Washington), Ingram will be the clock-killer; if the team is in a tight struggle and needs to play their best football to secure the win, Kamara is going to be more of a factor.

Taysom Hill also continues to see his workload increase. Besides the fake punt, Hill ran the ball six times and pitched it on several other option plays. Those six carries went for 35 yards; Hill is a remarkably fluid and efficient runner, and not just for a quarterback.

It also seems like the Saints have settled on a running mate for Michael Thomas, and it’s Tre’Quan Smith. Smith started on the outside opposite Thomas today, and his six targets tied for second on the team. Though he only caught three of the passes, he nearly came down with some difficult grabs on his missed connections, and he showed some outstanding body control to stay inbounds on this catch:

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The offense didn’t fly as high as it has previously this year– in part because Baltimore has an excellent defense, and particular to high-flying-ness, a secondary with enough talent not to risk challenging downfield– but the Saints found ways to consistently execute across all parts of the field. Especially impressive considering starting left guard Andrus Peat was hurt, and his replacement, Josh LeRibeus, was also injured during the game and didn’t return. The Saints won this game with third-stringer Cameron Tom playing most of the game at left guard.

Oh, and of course, there’s this:

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You didn’t think I’d write the story of this game without the final stroke of luck that sealed the Saints win, did you?

New Orleans answered the bell on their first test in a difficult five-week stretch after the bye. Next week, they head to Minnesota, which was the site of some unpleasantness last year. The Vikings themselves have had their struggles, but they’ve now won three in a row to get to 4-2-1, which means this game has a chance to have a substantial impact on the playoff chase. It’s vital that the Saints don’t suffer a letdown this week and show up to play in prime time on Sunday night.