Drew Brees is finished. The New Orleans Saints' passing offense is no longer good. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
There’s been a sense of panic in the city since the Saints lost Sunday to the Los Angeles Rams — their first defeat after winning eight in a row, a game in which New Orleans struggled to move the ball and the offense looked less than crispy.
And while there is a valid, warranted level of concern, it appears the higher-level histrionics are overblown.
If you want to hold onto those emotions and skip the rest of this, just read this line before you depart: The New Orleans Saints lost because they played a good defense that was ready for whatever the Saints threw at them, and the Rams defense made more plays. That’s it. It happens.
Perhaps it proves to be indicative of a larger problem down the road. But odds are, many of the issues will be isolated to games in which Wade Phillips is the opposing defensive coordinator. And there's no chance of seeing him again until the playoffs — at which point New Orleans should have a better idea of how to attack him.
It became clear very early in Sunday's 26-20 loss that this was going to be a different kind of matchup. Los Angeles wasn’t fooled by any of New Orleans’ route concepts. Almost everything was contested and, with the Rams using two deep safeties most of the game, paired with quality coverage underneath, the Saints didn't have a lot of opportunities for one-on-one situations.
This was evident on the first series of the game. The Saints like to run a route concept on the outside on which one receiver runs an out-and-up and the other receiver runs a go route. This play typically puts someone in a one-on-one situation, because the safety is placed in a situation where he must choose which receiver to defend.
But in this case, Los Angeles didn’t bite. Instead, the cornerback passed off the go route to the safety and then sat between the go route and the out-and-up, meaning that either throw would be into double coverage. All the other receivers were covered underneath, and Drew Brees took a sack before Michael Thomas could get open over the middle.
LOS ANGELES —?If the Saints won, it would have meant everything. If they lost, it would mean nothing.
There weren’t a lot of uncontested catches — and even when someone got open long enough to make an easy catch, a Rams defender was there as soon as the receiver turned up the field.
The only play that seemed to have any success (outside of Alvin Kamara making things happen with his feet) was the slant out of the slot. Thomas ran two successfully, the first of which was the result of him juking a cornerback, and Kamara had an angle route of the backfield that gained 33 yards.
Of course, the Saints did miss some opportunities. Brees had a handful of throws that were off that mark that could have changed the game, and it was clear that the consistent pressure he was under impacted him. But he will also be kicking himself for a few plays on which he missed an open receiver.
One play in the first quarter encapsulated many of the issues New Orleans faced. Brees ended up taking a sack while waiting for Ted Ginn Jr. to get open on a post route, with Kamara running free underneath. A little later in the quarter, he and Thomas failed to connect on a deep back-shoulder throw, with Ingram open by at least 10 yards in all directions underneath.
In the fourth quarter, Brees underthrew a deep pass to Ginn, who had gotten behind the defense, which likely would have scored a touchdown.
Then there was a miscommunication in the fourth quarter that led to another missed opportunity. The Saints ran the out-and-up concept with Kamara and Thomas — this time getting Thomas in a one-on-one situation. But Brees threw the ball more toward the middle of the field, while Thomas faded toward the sideline. The pass was almost intercepted.
On the next play, under heavy pressure, Brees tried to force another pass to Thomas over the middle and was nearly picked off again, ending what might have been the Saints’ best chance to get back in the game.
So the Saints had opportunities to execute and failed to take full advantage. But the bigger issue is that they played a great defense and just got beat. It happens. The offense had been trending in the right direction. The progress stopped this week.
Until it doesn’t, the smart money says the Saints will get things back on track this week.
There are two stories to tell about the Saints’ cornerbacks.
Let’s start with the good.
P.J. Williams didn’t play a bad game. He got beat on a 24-yard post route by Sammy Watkins to start the game, but he clamped down after that, not allowing a reception on his next five targets. He also intercepted a pass. Those numbers don’t include his long pass interference penalty, but it’s not a terrible performance, even if you count that as a reception.
The Saints could probably withstand one injury at cornerback. Not two. Missing Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley was really tough.
De’Vante Harris’ performance could have been better, which is why he was removed from the game in the third quarter.
On his missed tackle against Todd Gurley, Harris bit on something to the inside of the field and had to run back toward the sideline to get in position to make a play. When Gurley arrived, his feet were moving the wrong direction, so a cutback inside put Harris on the ground.
Harris also some assignments. He misplayed a zone on a 19-yard reception by Cooper Kupp. The play that ended his day — a 38-yard pass to Tyler Higbee, during which Harris didn't protect his zone — looked very similar to the one before.
Those two busts were the worst part of his day. The other three receptions he gave up weren’t awful. He was left in a bad spot on the touchdown he surrendered to Watkins. New Orleans left him alone on an island, Watkins ran a slant and had an easy touchdown. The coverage wasn’t bad. Harris was right there. Watkins just made the catch and was immediately tackled. The problem was the tackle came in the end zone.
Harris also gave up a 6-yard reception over the middle, and he nearly knocked away a 31-yard reception from Watkins (and thought he did, based on how he reacted after the play). Harris' production in zone coverage wasn't to the same level.
Sterling Moore gave up one reception for 14 yards after replacing Harris. He also broke up a pass.
Kenny Vaccaro has the victim of an odd play on Kupp’s 53-yard reception in the second quarter. The safety was in phase on the receiver, turned his head to spot the ball and then stopped running, allowing Kupp to get open for the reception. Vaccaro thought the play was over.
Vaccaro owned the play this week, explaining that he lost the ball in the sun, and that explanation holds up after watching it again. He also said he should have finished the play, which is also true.
Say what you will about Vaccaro, but effort isn’t an issue with his game. This one is an aberration, not the norm.
The Saints could have done a better job getting after quarterback Jared Goff, but there was still some pressure throughout the game.
The interior defenders combined for seven pressures, with Sheldon Rankins picking up three and John Hughes and David Onyemata having two each. The highlight came when Rankins flushed Goff from the pocket with a nice spin move.
The rest of the ends, however, didn’t bring the heat the way Cam Jordan did. Jordan had some dominant plays, including both of his sacks when he beat his man to drop Goff. He had four other pressures, including one where he got in the backfield to bat down a screen pass.
Trey Hendrickson had one pressure, and Hau’oli Kikaha had none. Rankins also logged some snaps at defensive end, but all of his production came from the inside.
It felt like it came more often, but Brees was only pressured on about eight of his dropbacks and was sacked three times.
One of the talking points of this season, thanks in part to the rise of advanced analytics, is that Brees hasn’t handled pressure well. Multiple analytics companies have him with a QB rating when under pressure between 55-68. Both ends of that range are poor, but the wide range is also notable and brings forth an issue with consistency in analytics.
One person might have a looser definition for pressure than another person, leading to one outlet having more attempts than another. But that’s a conversation for another day.
The rating itself is skewed by a couple of plays. Each of the past three seasons, Brees has completed about 55 percent of his passes while under pressure. The difference is, in 2016, Brees had six touchdowns. Last year he had three. This year he has none but has also thrown two interceptions.
Those two plays and the lack of touchdowns make it seem like he suddenly can’t handle pressure, when in fact Brees has handled it the same way he has for years.
Mark Ingram didn’t have much of a chance to run. On all of his carries, he faced at least seven men in the box, and sometimes as many as nine. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for him to make things happen, and it’s somewhat surprising that New Orleans didn’t try to check into something else more often to perhaps take advantage of the loaded boxes.
The Saints could have done some different things with formations to help shake things up — Kamara’s 74-yard touchdown came with three receivers on the field and five defenders in the box — but the Rams otherwise did a good job of shutting things down.