There is adversity, and then there is what the New Orleans Saints have gone though. After being displaced thanks to Hurricane Ida, the team had to practice in Texas and play a “home” game in Florida. It didn’t end there. Week 2 against the Panthers, they were without seven assistant coaches on game day and three the following week against the Patriots because of positive Covid tests and protocols. They were also missing their star wide receiver Michael Thomas, starting left tackle Terron Armstead, starting center Erik McCoy, starting inside linebacker Kwon Alexander, starting defensive end Marcus Davenport, starting defensive tackle David Onyemata, backup wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, and kicker Wil Lutz. All of this in the first season without Drew Brees under center since 2005.
On October 3, Week 4, it was the first time they were in front of a full home crowd since the 2019 season. The place was rocking and hungry to make an impact against the 0-3 Giants. Big Blue was also a little less than 100%, albeit not nearly down to the level of the beat-up Saints. They were without receivers Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, in addition to marching out their fourth left guard in as many weeks. Linebacker Blake Martinez was placed on IR earlier in the week, leaving the green-dot responsibilities to Tae Crowder.
The game remained scoreless through the first quarter. NYG did show some life on both sides of the ball, however. Leonard Williams came up with a huge 4th-down stop on a running play from the NYG 29-yard line. Rookie receiver Kadarius Toney came up with a first down on a short 3rd-and-18 pass where he created it all pretty much on his own. That drive, which ended at the start of the 2nd quarter, brought NYG into field goal range. Graham Gano had his 37-consecutive made field goal streak broken on a wide-left attempt. It was the first miss since November 25, 2018, when he was with Carolina. Coincidentally, the NYG kicker at the time was Aldrick Rosas, current kicker for the Saints. Rosas missed a career-long attempt field goal of 58 yards on the following NO drive.
NYG had the ball back with great field position. John Ross III, the NFL Combine record-holder for the fastest official (4.22) 40 time ever, suited up for NYG for the first time since being signed in March. He blew by rookie corner Paulson Adebo and Jones perfectly placed the ball on his chest in stride. As he was about to breach the goal line, he had the ball jarred loose. Adebo did not realize the ball was live, giving Ross III the opportunity to pounce back on it in the end zone. The play resulted in a touchdown and NYG had the initial 7-0 lead.
NO then put together a 13-play, 8:28 drive with three third-down conversions that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Juwan Johnson. It was the fourth time in as many weeks where the NYG defense allowed a touchdown with under 2:00 left in the first half. NO then built off that momentum in the third quarter with another touchdown scoring drive. This one only needed 3 plays, however. A 58-yard gain on a pass to receiver Marquez Callaway and a 9-yard pass to veteran journeyman Chris Hogan preceded an 8-yard touchdown run by Mr. Everything Taysom Hill. It was a physical run that saw him break four tackles. NO was up 14-7 and the raucous crowd had their swagger back.
NYG’s next drive made it inside the 5-yard line with a 1st down, but their red zone woes continued and they had to settle on a field goal by Gano. Down by 4, NO head coach and former NYG Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton went for the jugular. Winston connected with another veteran journeyman Kenny Stills for a 46-yard touchdown but a holding penalty called on tight end Adam Trautman brought it back. One play later, NO threw the ball downfield yet again, this one by Hill, but right into the hands of NYG corner James Bradberry. Instead of it being 21-10, NYG had the ball back with the score 14-10. NO was running the ball down the throats of NYG but they got just a bit too greedy and it helped out NYG.
Unfortunately, NYG could not capitalize on the NO mistake. Evan Engram dropped a 3rd down conversion pass and NO put those 7 points on the scoreboard that they missed out on earlier. It was early in the 4th quarter as Hill crossed the goal line for a second time. NO had gone on a 21-3 run in just over 17 minutes of game clock. NYG needed to respond.
They traded scoreless possessions and now NYG was also playing a game against the clock. They were down 11 with just 7:01 remaining. After a 26-yard punt return by C.J. Board that brought NYG close to midfield (a very overlooked component of the comeback effort), NYG wasted no time in putting a touchdown on the board. Jones hit Barkley on a go route with a perfectly placed ball just over the coverage of NO top corner Marshon Lattimore. Barkley was making cuts in this game we haven’t seen since 2019 and he used one of them to scamper by safety Marcus Williams for the score. NYG opted to go for 2 so they could be within 3 and they used a designed QB draw to get it done. Jones darted through the line and the score was 21-18 with over 6 minutes left.
This was the moment where the NYG defense needed to prove they were at least close to the level we expected them to be coming into this season. They hadn’t been able to come up with big stop over the previous 3 weeks and they were getting torched late in halves. Thanks to a shocking delay of game penalty, pushing NO back to 2nd-and-14 on their own side of the ball and a solid pass rush by Leonard Williams, NYG had the ball back with just over 3 minutes.
Jones spread the ball out, using targets to Kenny Golladay, Toney, Engram, Ross, and Barkley (the latter 2 did not catch those targets, however). The point was, he kept NO guessing and he took what the defense gave. They stalled as they reached field goal range and had to settle on tying the game via a 48-yarder by Gano. NO didn’t have much time left and they foolishly didn’t have any timeouts remaining. The game was headed to overtime.
NYG won the coin toss and obviously chose to start overtime with the ball. Remember the rule is if a touchdown is scored, game over. If the team who starts overtime with possession hits a field goal, the opponent then gets an opportunity to match it or score a touchdown of their own (which would end the game). Want to control your own destiny? Get in the end zone.
A Jones pass to Ross picked up 17 yards for a first down on the first play. Two plays later, he hit him for 8 yards which also netted a first down. They were pushed back to a 2nd-and-14 via a Collin Johnson illegal substitution penalty, but it took just one play, a pass to Barkley, to gain all of that back and more. They were now in field goal range. A collective gasp among NYG fans occurred on the next play where Barkley fumbled. The ball bounced around several times, NO had a shot at recovery, but tight end Kyle Rudolph recovered it. Two plays later, on 3rd-and-5, Jones hit Golladay for a gain of 23 yards. Aggressive play call and throw for an offense that did a nice job of keeping the foot on the gas.
1st-and-goal from the 6. An offense that has been downright terrible in these situations. Touchdown wins it, field goal keeps it alive and open for another potential disaster. This was the opportunity this team was in search for. They needed just one play, a handoff to their running back that is showing signs of returning to his elite ways, to end it. Barkley got over the goal line, barely, and NYG had their first victory of the 2021 season.
NYG wins 27-21.
-Daniel Jones: 28/40 – 402 yards / 2 TD – 1 INT / 108.5 RAT
Jones also added 27 yards on the ground. Keep in mind that the INT was on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half. This could easily be considered the best game we have ever seen out of Jones. Not just because of the career high 402 yards and yards-per-attempt (10.05), but because of the number of high-level throws he made in clutch situations. He had a notable difference in decision making. The confidence level and desire to put this team on his back, on the road in a hostile environment, missing two starting OL and his most targeted receiver, speaks volumes. His downfield passing is impressive and now that there are credible deep threats and the OL appears to have turned a corner, get ready. This may be the starting point for something we always knew COULD happen with this group.
-Saquon Barkley: 13 att – 52 yards – 1 TD / 5 rec – 74 yards – 1 TD
The game didn’t start off very well for Barkley. His first 4 touches netted -3 yards, and at the end of the first quarter, he had 4 total yards. From the second quarter-on, he had 13 touches for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns. The biggest positive takeaway I had from this game was the different level of movement we saw. The cuts in and out of traffic, combined with his burst and the timing of when to use it, isn’t something we have seen in quite some time. His confidence should be elevated after this game and that could be the final missing component to getting back the player who gained 2,000+ yards from scrimmage as a rookie. The negative? From the All-22 angle, he clearly missed the running lane on two inside zone runs. These were running lanes that I see most NFL backs hit, both good and bad.
-Kenny Golladay: 6 rec / 116 yards
Not enough will be made of Golladay and the chunk gains he made to set up scoring opportunities for the offense. He is such a threat in traffic because of how well he comes back to the ball, using his length and strength against cover men. He also made a difference as a blocker and consistently shows high effort in that department. It may not make the highlight reel, but it makes a huge difference when receivers with that kind of size play like that.
-Kadarius Toney: 6 rec / 78 yards
Toney’s coming out party was a huge part of the NYG win and comeback effort. He made multiple big plays after the catch, showing toughness and elite-level quickness. The ways he can cut things back and pick up extra yards were on full display. This is what made him a threat at Florida in the SEC. He can simply play at a different level of speed in short spaces. He couldn’t get behind the secondary on deep routes, but that won’t be his game. His game is what we saw on 3rd-and-18, where he took a short pass and found a way past the chains. He did drop a pass and had another drop nullified by a hold on guard Matt Skura.
-John Ross III: 3 rec / 77 yards / 1 TD
With Slayton and Shepard out and this being Ross’ first game back from being on short-term IR, the opportunity could not have been better for the 9th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The oft-injured speedster made his presence known right away with a 51-yard touchdown. Nearly just as important were his two other catches on the overtime drive. I don’t want to inspire too much over-excitement about one player from one game, but I will say this: Ross has missed 36-of-55 games since his career began. Most (not all) were injury-induced. Plain and simple, we have not seen the best out of the 25-year old Ross, who was drafted the same year as Evan Engram to put things into perspective time-wise.
-Speaking of Engram, we have another negative to add to the list. He dropped a 3rd-down pass that was thrown a little behind him. He did catch his 5 other targets for just 27 yards total. He was also given a rushing attempt near the goal line that lost 3 yards. He played 68% of the snaps and was in some visible pain at different points of the game. I don’t want to look too deeply into it with my very limited knowledge, but Engram’s body language was very odd in this one.
-Kyle Rudolph caught 2 passes for 24 yards, including 1 for 20 yards. He was given an opportunity on 3rd-and-goal, but he couldn’t out-position the much smaller NO corner Lattimore. He looks like he is playing in slow motion. He is a fine player to have on the side, but he isn’t a feature-player who should be targeted in vital situations. There isn’t enough talent left in him.
-This is some of the best pass blocking we have seen from the NYG offensive line in over 28 games. Zero sacks and just 3 QB hits from defenders who defeated a blocker.
-Another elite-level performance by Andrew Thomas on the blind side. He allowed 1 pressure and that was it. NO rotated a few backup-caliber pass rushers at him and none had any success. His pass protection tape was a clinic on how to get the job done in a variety of ways. Right tackle Nate Solder allowed 1 pressure, a great game for him, and better than what he has been putting on tape since being on this team. They were giving him a ton of help against Cameron Jordan, one of the top-10 defensive ends in the game.
-The interior played a solid game, notably in pass protection. Matt Skura, the fourth starting left guard in 4 weeks. He finished with the worst grade in the group, allowing a TFL, a pressure, and was flagged for a holding penalty. Will Hernandez also allowed a TFL and 1 pressure, but threw a couple of key blocks on big gains. I was most impressed with his effort, hustle, and effectiveness down the field. On three occasions he was 10+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage making blocks that helped gained more yardage. Center Billy Price was clean after a rough first two drives. Much better than a week ago.
-I knew Leonard Williams had a solid game when I watched the live tape. Upon the re-watch and All-22 review, he clearly was the difference maker on this defense. He had 5 pressures in a game where the NYG pass rush didn’t record any sacks. In their defense, NO called just 23 pass plays. Williams also came up with a huge stop in the first quarter on 4th down to force a turnover on downs. What stood out about that play was how far away it was from the snap. Williams nearly reached the sideline to run down Alvin Kamara and then had to work over and around others to complete the play against a back who is always near the top of the league in yards after contact and broken tackles. The defensive tackle had 6 tackles.
-Danny Shelton had a horrible game. He was on the field for just one-third of the snaps, mostly running downs, but his negative plays were a huge part of the success NO had on the ground. He was pushed back multiple yards several times. A nose tackle that big and that ineffective in space needs to, at the very least, maintain the point-of-attack at the line of scrimmage.
-Austin Johnson and Dexter Lawrence were up and down. Lawrence had the better game, finishing with a pressure, TFL, PD, and 6 tackles. He was not the issue when it came to NO running the ball well. Johnson added 6 tackles and played a physical game, but was really hit or miss against the inside run. He was very poor against the pass as well.
-Tae Crowder and Reggie Ragland were fighting an uphill battle against a Saints running game that saw their offensive line easily reaching the second level. They both missed 1 tackle (Crowder’s being a lowlight on the first Hill touchdown), but also combined for 17 tackles. For what they had to deal with, I would grade their performance in the positive.
-Make it four weeks in a row for rookie Azeez Ojulari making a stop in the backfield. Also, make it four weeks in a row where he was quiet for the vast majority of the game, notably as a pass rusher. Lorenzo Carter missed 2 tackles, had 1 pressure, and finished with 4 tackles (all were assists). I zeroed in on every Carter pass rush and he just doesn’t have it. No moves, no ability to disengage, and no tight turns around the edge. It has been a poor start for him.
-James Bradberry had a big interception and 2 tackles, however he was burned deep and also missed a tackle. While the interception was a needed big play for both him and the defense respectively, I am still a bit worried about the amount of separation we are seeing receivers get on him.
-Adoree’ Jackson got beat on 3rd down two times and also missed 2 tackles. He was picked on often, as seen with his 7 tackles. While Jackson is a better option than what NYG has been marching out there at the position in recent years, he has yet to show he is worth the hefty price tag. I’m not optimistic about this one.
-The safeties were the position group on this defense I was most excited and optimistic about coming into this season. Jabrill Peppers and Xavier McKinney have dampened those thoughts. Peppers allowed a touchdown to Juwan Johnson, a former undrafted receiver who was shifted to tight end. He was injured on that drive and sat out the rest of the game. McKinney missed 2 tackles and was horrible in coverage. He allowed a touchdown that was nullified by a NO holding penalty. His angles in pursuit were very poor as well.
-Logan Ryan and Julian Love, however, played well. Ryan led the team with 9 tackles and Love added 6. They were both all over the field and seem to be better football players than athletes, while the two names above are the complete opposite. I want the instincts and football intelligence at this position more than I want the athlete.
-K Graham Gano: 2/3 (Made 23, 48, Missed 35)
-P Riley Dixon: 4 punts / 39.3 avg / 37.0 net
-QB Daniel Jones, DT Leonard Williams, OT Andrew Thomas
-DT Danny Shelton, S Xavier McKinney, OLB Lorenzo Carter
3 THOUGHTS ON N.O.
(1) 2021 will be the biggest test of Head Coach Sean Payton’s career. Since he took over in 2006, the team has finished top 5 in the league in scoring 10 times and top 5 in yards 11 times. Those are stunning numbers. In recent years, however, it is the defense that has stepped up as the team has spent more and more draft resources on the other side of the ball. Four of their past six first round picks have been spent on defenders and they now have the 15th most expensive defense while they have the 26th most expensive offense. Things have changed so much, and the question will be whether or not Payton can pivot well enough without Brees. It hasn’t panned out so well in New England so far.
(2) How good can this Saints team be? Jameis Winston at the helm leaves me overly skeptical they can be a true NFC contender. My thoughts won’t go beyond there even though I think the defense is more than solid. Winston has thrown the ball 20, 22, 21, and 23 times. Those aren’t completions, those are attempts. He ranks 30th there. 18 QBs have completed more passes than he has even attempted. You can only ride Alvin Kamara for so long and at some point, they won’t be able to protect the quarterback forever. His bonehead decision-making is going to show up at some point and that delay-of-game penalty in the 4th quarter was a microcosm if who he is. I projected them to miss the playoffs prior to the season and I still believe it to be true.
(3) The one hope NO can rely on is the mere fact a huge portion of their starting lineup is injured (and due to come back). Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith, Erik McCoy, Terron Armstead, Marcus Davenport…are just a few names they will have back in the coming weeks.
(1) The passing game on play-action. More specifically, the passing game on first down play-action. Jones went a perfect 7 -or-7 for 84 yards (11.0 YPA). First down play-action is one of the most well-known and proven strategies to enhance a passing game and early-down offense in general. Defenses are more prone to playing the run and will “bite” more easily. Even if they don’t bite, it slows down the initial pass rush, putting the offensive line in position to succeed more often and easily. We need to see more of this, it works as well as anything on this offense.
(2) So, is it time to turn around expectations for this team? Not quite. Just like it was foolish to write them off at this time a week ago. NYG has a tough slate of games in the coming weeks, very tough. Arguably most-difficult-in-the-NFL tough. However, momentum and confidence in sports are something that cannot be objectively measured by fans and media. As smart as some people think they are, it cannot be measured or accounted for from our perspective. Don’t try. Winning matters. Winning tight games matters. Coming from behind matters. Even when you want to lose games so you can draft Chase Young who is, by the way, NOT one of the 191 players in the NFL who have a sack this season. His 2 QB hits, however, are indeed tied for 102nd in the NFL along with the likes of former Giant Kyler Fackrell, Chiefs safety Daniel Sorenson, and Jets cornerback Bryce Hall.
(3) Last week I wrote that the NYG offense was not performing poorly. Not to the level that some were acting. They were awful in the red zone and awful inside the opponent’s 5. I didn’t feel like getting into a back-and-forth with emotional NYG fans who throw more unnecessary tantrums than my 1-year old. However, now that most are under a better mindset. Some of the most objective numbers I look at from a team offense perspective in relation to the other 31 teams:
Yards Per Play: 8th (6.2)
Turnovers: 3rd (3)
1st Downs: 20th (82)
Penalty Yards: 12th (207)
Score percentage: 12th (41.5)
This is an above average offense trending toward a top 10 offense. Get on board.