Everything in Its Right Place

Last week’s blowout of Cincinnati was a very impressive Saints performance, but also one that was a bit foreseeable. Cincinnati had been one of the worst passing defenses in the league by standard measures like total yards, and they were poor at defending the run game to boot. A healthy dose of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in both the running and passing game as a blueprint, along with Michael Thomas further downfield, was my suggested formula for success; I didn’t see a 51-14 win coming, but when everything is going right, the Saints have the talent to blow out teams.

Against the Eagles, everything was going right.

Incredibly, the game plan was much less reliant on the team’s stars at the skill positions than previously before. The Eagles had a number of injuries in the secondary and put a major emphasis on double-teaming Michael Thomas, thus effectively meaning that if the Saints were going to win in the air, Brees was going to have to go to a number of secondary receivers.

And he did. With only four targets to Thomas and one to the running backs, Brees still shredded the Eagles to the tune of 22/30 for 363 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions (putting him at a preposterous 25:1 TD:INT ratio on the season). Tre’Quan Smith was the primary beneficiary, going off for 10 catches, 157 yards, and a TD on 13 targets, but everyone got in on the action. Keith Kirkwood, in his second week active, caught 3 passes for 33 yards. Austin Carr had a touchdown catch. Backup tight ends Josh Hill and Dan Arnold each caught two balls. Brees didn’t target a running back at all until Alvin Kamara’s fourth-down touchdown catch for the final TD of the game, and even then, Kamara lined up wide and ran a deep route.

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This game, perhaps moreso than the Rams or Bengals games, was Brees’ true MVP statement: Even with his best weapons being the focal points of the defense, he took a gang of rookies and undrafted guys and still threw a lights-out game. Smith was deeply impressive on a couple of catches in particular, one where he caught a ball in a small window and took a hard hit afterward, hanging on for a TD; the other on a deep ball where he showed the physical talent– size, height, leap, arms, hands– that gives him an incredible catch radius:

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Just as impressive was the game the defense played. Josh Adams’ breakaway 28-yard run for a TD aside, the Saints bottled up both the run and pass game. That carry aside, the Eagles’ other ten designed runs (excluding a six-yard Carson Wentz scramble) went for only 24 yards total. Wentz threw three interceptions, two to Chris Banjo, and was sacked three times. One of those was this impressive effort by Sheldon Rankins for his sixth sack of the year, tying Cameron Jordan for the team lead. Watch how he uses his strength to simply shove the center aside and his acceleration to bring it home:

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Rankins has fully come around in his third season. The broken leg that cost him half of his rookie season set back his development a bit, but he’s now living up to the “Aaron Donald lite” potential that led the Saints to make him the #12 overall pick in the draft. His play has been a significant reason the team has been able to weather the loss of Marcus Davenport.

Perhaps even a more significant injury than Davenport– and thus all the more impressive the Saints were able to weather it– is Terron Armstead, who left the Bengals game with a shoulder injury. Jermon Bushrod started at left tackle in his stead and filled in admirably, as Drew Brees was not sacked once. Bushrod’s effort was all the more impressive considering where he is in his career, having spent the last two years manning the right guard position for the Dolphins after he was considered no longer athletic enough to play left tackle. The coaches in New Orleans seem to have the best idea of how to get the most out of Bushrod, though, and it’s a huge relief to know that he can more than hold his own against a defensive line as talented as the Eagles’.

On that note, however, the loss of Armstead may have been one of the reasons the Saints ran fewer running back screens and the like. Armstead is either the fastest and most athletic left tackle in the league or very close to it (I think Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan is the only one who’s got any kind of comparable claim), and his ability to move in space and serve as a lead blocker is a major advantage on those screen passes.

Armstead and Davenport could possibly return against Dallas next Thursday (Davenport was practicing again this week), but I’d be more confident in their return coming in week 14 on December 9, in the rematch with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What worries me right now is that Bushrod is listed on the injury report and has a chance to miss the Thanksgiving game with an injury. Losing a starter can often be survived with the talent level present in NFL second-stringers; losing a starter’s backup can mean having a serious weak point on the roster. (Think of the 2016 game against Carolina, where Andrus Peat filled in for Armstead at left tackle, then was hurt and replaced by Tony Hills.) If Bushrod can’t play on Thanksgiving, the line might go with a configuration of Peat at left tackle and Cameron Tom at left guard, activating Will Clapp to serve as the seventh offensive lineman (Michael Ola was the second backup behind Tom last week).

Some good injury news, though, is that Tommylee Lewis has been activated to the 53-man roster from injured reserve. Even though the Saints’ newest receiving corps configuration performed outstandingly on Sunday, it’s always good to get a familiar face back, in particular one who offers the options Lewis does, as a returner and a regular target of wide receiver end-arounds and deep balls.

The Saints are 13-point favorites on Thanksgiving, at home against Atlanta, which seems like an enormous spread. The Falcons are our oldest and most loathed division rival, and the games between these two are always hard fought. It’s also not clear how a short week might affect either team. All that said, every time I’ve worried about the Saints having a letdown game this year, they’ve gone out and had an even better game than the one before. So I’m going to try not to worry too much, as they seem to have it under control.

It’s a 13-point spread because the Saints are playing like the best team in the NFL right now. Football Outsiders’ DVOA article this week showed the splits between the Saints weeks 1-3 and since: For those first three weeks, New Orleans played like roughly the 10th-best offense alongside the worst defense in the league. Since then, they’ve been nearly the best offense in the league (Kansas City is still a juggernaut) and their defense has been above-average. With an offense this good, the defense only has to get a few stops or big plays per game to allow the team to win consistently. When they play as well as they did against Philadelphia– three sacks, three interceptions– the sky is the limit. The numbers bear it out: The Saints outgained Philadelphia 546 yards to 196, 28 first downs to 13, 7.9 yards per play to 4.1, and of course the 48-7 final score.

This Saints team, more than any in my memory, seems to have found the right player for every role on the field. Not everybody is a star, but they all perform their roles well, and there are no weak spots. The team is rolling right now, they’re having more fun than ever, and let’s hope les bon temps rouler all the way to the Super Bowl.