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The Saints Conclude Their Road Trip With Yet Another Unusual Performance

Fortunately, while nobody was paying much attention, the defense started playing at an incredible level

Football Outsiders’ weekly DVOA article came out Tuesday, and it helped as a guidepost to one of the biggest questions of the last few weeks: What’s up with the Saints?

They still won two out of three– and really, were right in it with Dallas– but the offense has sputtered in this stretch, only really looking right during the second half of the Tampa Bay game. In the other ten quarters, the team scored a total of 25 points: four field goals, two touchdowns, and one extra point. (What happened on the other one is something we’ll get to in a moment.)

The offense is struggling, and the DVOA article clarified just how much: New Orleans went from fourth in the league from weeks 1-12 to 28th over weeks 13-15. There’s no one factor completely responsible; each part of the offense has had its own struggles. That said, Drew Brees is probably taking more blame than his share: He’s missed some throws, to be sure, and his interception total is up, but the decline in his numbers is the more a reflection of the decline of the offense than of his own part in it.

The offensive line’s struggles are somewhat unavoidable; they’re caused more by injury than anything else, and really, the unit still hasn’t been that bad. Even when both Bushrod and Unger went down on Monday night, and the left side of the line was Andrus Peat – Will Clapp – Cameron Tom– two backups and a starter playing out of position– they performed reasonably well enough.

Alvin Kamara didn’t quite look his usual self for long stretches against Carolina, though he bounced back with some nice plays in the second half (including the game’s only touchdown). He didn’t display his usual burst or ability to break contact for stretches, though, and it’s fair to worry that he might be starting to wear down after his heavy usage earlier in the season. The Saints are almost certainly headed for a first-round bye; that extra rest seems strongly likely to benefit Kamara. (And if they beat the Steelers on Sunday, they clinch home-field advantage; that would provide two weeks of rest for Kamara.) 

The biggest issue right now is the performance of the receiving corps outside of Michael Thomas. Thomas is as great a player as ever, but opposing teams are increasingly focused on him in coverage, and no one else on the Saints’ roster seems to be able to win matchups consistently or make catches reliably. The Athletic’s Deuce Windham had a great breakdown of how the Saints’ young receivers aren’t quite up to speed on the finer points of route-running and adjusting their routes to coordinate with Brees’ thinking. That may well, and hopefully will, come in time. In the meantime, though, lacking some of those nuances and subtleties has made it more difficult to get open.

And while Brees’ numbers have taken a dip lately, it’s hard to blame him for the number of balls that are simply dropped. Can you blame him for this throw to Ben Watson?

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Or this one to Dan Arnold?

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(Granted, Brees put the throw slightly behind Arnold there, but Arnold still gets both hands on the ball.)

And he definitely isn’t responsible for Tommylee Lewis’ decision to dive for the pylon, and the subsequent fumble that gave the Panthers a touchback and a last chance to at least tie the game.

Brees is, however, responsible for the horrendous decision on the two-point conversion, a rollout pass where Thomas and Ingram were the only realistic options. Both were covered, and Brees forced a bad pass into heavy coverage, which Donte Jackson intercepted and returned for two points. That turned the Saints’ chance to go up 14-7 into a 12-9 lead.

Fortunately, that lead held. The good news is that the Saints defense has been on an absolute tear of late, which has done a lot to mitigate the offense’s struggles. The same DVOA report tells us that over the last six weeks, the Saints have ranked second in the league by that measure on the defensive side of the ball. They haven’t given up more than 17 points in that time, and on Monday night, they looked downright dominant in stifling the Carolina Panthers at nearly every turn.

Carolina scored nine points on the night, two of those on the aforementioned “pick-two” and the other seven on a-4th and-2 trick play wherein Cam Newton handed the ball to Christian McCaffrey on what appeared to be a sweep, only for McCaffrey to throw a pass to backup tight end Chris Manhertz. The Panthers’ standard offense was largely ineffective, moving the ball in short stages but eventually getting stifled by the pass rush (four more sacks on Monday) or the coverage. The best example of the latter is Eli Apple’s play at the end of the first half; his coverage on Devin Funchess is textbook, and leaves him in perfect position to make the interception, even though Funchess has four inches on Apple.

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Apple hasn’t had a great season, but he’s been an upgrade over Ken Crawley and has been improving every week with the Saints. These last two weeks in particular he’s been simply outstanding. If he can keep up that level of play, the Saints’ chances for a Super Bowl victory are that much stronger.

He might need to keep up that level of play, because the Saints’ next matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers involves one of the best pair of wide receivers in the NFL. Antonio Brown is still widely regarded as the league’s best receiver, and second-year player JuJu Smith-Schuster is sixth in the league with 1,274 yards (seven more than Thomas, at present). Apple is going to have to cover one of them. Don’t be surprised if you see Apple on Brown as par of a double team (most likely with Marcus Williams), with Marshon Latimore on Smith-Schuster. (Fun fact, Williams and Smith-Schuster are the two youngest players from the 2017 draft.) Smith-Schuster popped up on the injury report Thursday, which would be a major boon for the Saints if he’s limited or can’t go.

The Saints still have their own questions about health; Jermon Bushrod hasn’t been practicing this week, although Terron Armstead has been limited and may make his return. (Max Unger has also been reported as a limited participant in practice; I imagine he’ll play if he passes concussion protocol.) But the Saints’ prayers at wide receiver might finally be answered: Ted Ginn was designated to return from IR this week and returned to practice. A capable second wide receiver would do wonders for this offense. (Really, the Saints only needed one of Ginn, Cameron Meredith, or Dez Bryant up and running and healthy. Having to rely on so many undrafted players and rookies isn’t really management’s fault, when so many of the talented veteran options succumb to injury.)

The Saints need the win Sunday, but they’re also finally returning home, with a good chance not to leave the Superdome before the Super Bowl. Between the home-field advantage and a relatively favorable matchup considering the quality of the opponent, the Saints could lock away a bye and two playoff games at home if they step up to their best level. 

Bonus content coming: Pro Bowl selections were announced; we’ll cover the five well-deserving Saints who were selected along with the well-deserving Saints who weren’t.

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