31 October 2011

Week 8 Rear View: Saints at Rams

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Rams 31, Saints 21
Record: 5-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 283
Yards Allowed: 323
Yards/play: 4.0
Yards/play allowed: 4.5

Turnover Differential: -1   [+1, -2], (-5)
First Down Differential: -2   [+19, -21], (+48)
Sack Differential: -2   [+4, -6], (-2)
Time of Possession Differential: -2:46   (+40:46)

3rd Down Conversion: 47%, 8/17   (56%, 63/112)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 31%, 5/16   (38%, 40/106)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +71
Average PPG
: 32.5
Opponent's Average PPG: 23.6

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals.

The Good
* For Saints' fans, there wasn't a whole lot of good on Sunday. Will Smith, however, played an excellent game though his performance was buried beneath the mounds of rubbled incompetence on display by the Saints. 

Smith started off fast, providing a high level of energy and attempting to set the tone for his teammates. 

Though his team didn't much follow, Smith played outstanding, recording 5 tackles (two for losses), 2 sacks, and 2 QB hits. Smith also batted down a pass on a key 3rd down in the second quarter deep in Saints' territory that led to the Rams' first FG. 

Smith's performance is an encouraging sign as the defensive line attempts to shake itself from the doldrums it's been mired in for much of 2011. 

With Smith providing a pass-rushing presence, the Saints' defense may transform into something more opportunistic and fierce than the milquetoast unit it's resembled far too often this season. 

The Bad
* The Saints' inability to generate any intensity and perform at a consistent level is one of the bigger mysteries surrounding this team over the past 25 games. Coming into the game against the league's lowest scoring team--who was relying on its backup QB to boot--the Saints surrendered TDs on three consecutive drives. Prior to the game, the Rams had scored 3 TDs on their previous 39 possessions. 

Further, the Saints' linebacking corps has been virtually nonexistent week over week: can you remember even one big play a Saints' LB has produced this season? Again on Sunday, the LBs made scant impact on the game save for a fortuitous fumble recovery in the end zone by Jonathan Vilma.

Tracy Porter, too, continues to underwhelm. 

In the 1st quarter alone, Porter made a feeble attempt to tackle Steven Jackson that netted 15 yards, and was soon after burned down the sideline by Brandon Lloyd who, if not for an underthrown pass from AJ Feeley and a leaping deflection by Malcolm Jenkins, would have scored an easy TD. To finish off a quarter to forget, Porter easily surrendered a first down to Brandon Lloyd on a 3rd and 2 when he lined up seven yards off the line of scrimmage. 

* The Saints running game was, in a word, terrible. 

Against the league's worst-ranked rush defense, the Saints totaled just 56 yards on 20 carries for an embarrassing clip of 2.8 yards per carry. In the first half, the Saints bizarrely attempted just seven meager carries and failed to exploit its opponent's chief weakness. Playing in place of injured Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory--rightfully--looked rusty and was perhaps rushed back as he continues to recover from foot and groin surgeries. 

A week after producing a Payton-era high 236 yards rushing, the Saints came crashing back to reality in an area that seemed emblematic of the Saints' fortunes in each of the last two weeks. 

Attributing this lack of impact to one specific area is probably a faulty exercise, though the game planning (or lack thereof), the absence of Mark Ingram, and a dispirited showing from the offensive line all contributed to the ill-fated day of running the ball. 

The Ugly
* A week after finding nothing to house in the "ugly" department, I found plenty to occupy this space in week 8. For starters, the run defense continues to be an abomination. The Saints allowed 183 yards on 31 carries for a ghastly 5.9 yards per attempt. Free agent acquisitions Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers both continue to be largely invisible in an area they were specifically imported to rectify. Why Rogers and Franklin have not made an impact is another mystery, and one wonders whether it's related to scheme, talent, or desire. 

Steven Jackson, essentially the Rams' lone offensive threat, dismantled the Saints' defense carry after carry, averaging 6.4 yards per tote. That the Saints were either unprepared or unable to limit Jackson's effectiveness is a troubling sign for a coaching staff that seemed short on answers and a defensive unit short on emotion and ability. 

On the season, the Saints are now dead last in the league in yards-per-rushing-attempt-allowed at an unsightly 5.5. Week after week, it's a new face performing the old, familiar task of gashing the Saints' run defense. After 8 weeks, it doesn't seem like this is an area that can or will be properly fixed. 

* The offensive line, without question, played its worst game in 6 seasons under Sean Payton, allowing Drew Brees to be sacked 6 times and hit another 9 times. For the Saints, this is the cardinal sin: allowing its best player to be repeatedly pummeled in the face of pressure, with no ability to assuage the assault. 

Brees was constantly under a barrage of defensive fire and, again, the Saints seemed incapable of adjusting its strategies and protections to minimize the pressure. 

Charles Brown played a particularly poor game against Chris Long before leaving the game with an injury. Even with Brown out, the Saints' line seemed to get worse as the game progressed and Brees was never able to establish any sort of comfort in the pocket. As a result, the Saints' top four WRs caught just 13 combined passes as Brees was forced to continually dump the ball to avoid the pressure. 

Combined with a horrid performance in establishing even a semblance of a rushing attack, the Saints' offensive line unveiled a performance to forget and one that Saints' fans hope won't be repeated any time soon. That the Saints failed to generate any offensive rhythm or effectiveness can partly be traced to the failures of the offensive line on Sunday. 

* A disastrous second quarter, and a particularly ugly two-minute sequence at the end of the quarter, induced the spiraling descent for the day. On their first scoring drive, the Rams were backed up to their three yard line facing a 2nd and 19, yet converted a first down to dig out of the hole. 

On the same drive, the Saints then allowed the Rams to recover from 2nd and 17 near midfield, culminating in Greg Salas (who??) catching a short pass and rumbling for 17 yards on 4th and 2.  This set up a FG, gave the Rams a lead they would never relinquish, and foreshadowed perhaps the worst two minutes of Saints' football under Coach Payton. 

With under two minutes remaining in the first half, the Saints' offense sputtered, throwing an incomplete pass on first down; allowing a nine-yard sack on second down; and then throwing an incomplete pass on third down. On fourth down, Jonathan Amaya halfheartedly blocked Robert Quinn who burst through and blocked Thomas Morstead's punt.  

Two plays later, the Rams scored a TD. Then on the Saints' first play after the ensuing kickoff, Brees threw an ill-advised pass down the right sideline and was intercepted with about a minute left in the half. 

The Rams then converted a 3rd and 10 that saw Tracy Porter easily beaten down the middle for 14 yards. On the next play Patrick Robinson was flagged for holding, advancing the Rams into the red zone. Two plays later another penalty on Junior Gallette gave the Rams 1st and goal from the 8, and on second down Brandon Lloyd effortlessly separated from Patrick Robinson and caught a TD. Fourteen backbreaking points surrendered to the league's worst offense in 1:45 at the end of an already poorly-coached and sloppily-played half. Inexcusable. 

* The most important issue, however, to emerge in the aftermath of the game is this: who exactly is coaching the Saints right now

What's most concering from a big-picture standpoint is deciphering just how (significantly) impaired the Saints' coaching capacities are with limited contact from its architect and mastermind, Sean Payton. This is a significant issue that hasn't properly been addressed, and its symptoms have been lingering for two weeks and, now, three games.

When you combine a disjointed, Payton-less second-half no-show vs. Tampa Bay with Coach Payton's dissociated and seemingly innocuous activities during the in-progress Indianapolis game, and then connect those events to an unprepared, uninspired, whimpering performance vs. the heretofore hapless Rams, one starts to wonder just who is coaching this team right now. Is it Payton? Joe Vitt? Pete Carmichael? Gregg Williams? 
It really doesn't matter because the answer should only be Sean Payton. And it doesn't seem like that's the case right now. 

On Sunday, the Saints looked like an uncoached team. After the game, I kept thinking about the 2011 San Francisco 49ers. These current Niners, with almost the exact same roster from the past two seasons, are 6-1 under Jim Harbaugh. Under the previous bumbling regime of Mike Singletary, the Niners were consistently unprepared, outcoached, and incapable of adjusting to their opponent's strategies. Now with Harbaugh, they are a rejuvenated franchise and one of the better teams in the NFC in just one short offseason. 

Coaching matters. Presence matters. And it's missing from the Saints right now. 

With Coach Payton literally and figuratively distanced from his team on gameday, how can he effectively call plays, make adjustments on the fly, persuade referees, motivate players, and steady the ship when it starts to sway? How can one measure the impact of Payton not even being in the locker room at halftime to interact with his team? What, in fact, are the implications of these quandaries?  

Can you imagine, thinking back, the Saints making their 2009 Super Bowl run without Payton on the sidelines? It's unthinkable because without his commanding, fiery presence, the Saints are a shadow of the championship team they purport to be at this point. 

I refuse to even remotely believe that the Saints gain some overall benefit from Coach Payton seeing the field from a different vantage point. Sure he might be more technically proficient in diagnosing opposing defenses, but he certainly can't be more influential to the game's outcome. He's certainly not a better coach in the booth than on the sideline. Otherwise, why wouldn't he always be up there?  

Does anyone think that Drew Brees is now a better QB with Pete Carmichael in his ear instead of Payton? And the problem is, there's not much Payton can do about it at this point.  

But there has to be a better method than what we've seen thus far. 

Ultimately, addressing the muddled leadership question at this point vastly overshadows the multitude of lingering issues that surface week-to-week. Solving the woes on run defense pales in comparison to the overarching question of who is running the show during the week and on gameday. 

If the Saints are going to compete in their division and in the NFC, the coaching conundrum begs immediate resolution.  

Worth Repeating
"As you look at the cardinal sins of football, we committed quite a few of those today." - Drew Brees

**photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

27 October 2011

Examining the Offensive Line Through 7 Weeks

The Saints' offensive line has been in flux for most of 2011, both in the offseason and in the regular season. 

Long time veteran center Jonathan Goodwin departed for San Francisco in the offseason, leaving 2010 fifth round draft pick Andy Tennant to fill Goodwin's vacated spot. When the coaching staff presumably felt that Tennant wasn't yet ready to take the reins, the Saints subsequently signed veteran all-pro center Olin Kreutz to handle the duties. 

Kreutz was soon voted team captain, but sustained an injury in week 3 vs. Houston. He was then replaced in the starting lineup by free agent journeyman Brian De La Puente. Kreutz struggled to regain his once elite form, and when faced with the prospect of presumably being relegated to second string, he decided to retire instead. 

The Saints line is now anchored by the 26-year old De La Puente who, though previously unable to make an NFL roster, Coach Payton has called "smart," "consistent," and a "good athlete." 

The Saints released veteran right tackle and locker room leader Jonathan Stinchcomb in the preseason, replacing him with the reliable and versatile Zach Strief. In week three vs. Houston though, Strief injured his right knee and was replaced in the lineup by 2010 second round pick Charles Brown. Strief has just resumed practicing this week while Brown has done a worthy job filling his shoes. 

Soon enough, the coaches will be forced to decide whether to return Strief to his starting position or allow Brown to retain the job.

In the 2.5 games he's played this year, Strief grades out according to Pro Football Focus at a -3.5 overall; his run blocking grade is a +.3 but his pass blocking grade is a subpar -4.4. Brown, with a larger body of work, grades out at +.5 overall, with a -.5 run blocking grade but an excellent +3.8 pass blocking grade. 

It's important to note that these grades are not indexed--they're not adjusted for the strength of opponents, so the grades should not be taken as absolutes, but rather as guides. 

While the Saints have thrown the ball on 62% of their plays this year, it seems that a more proficient pass blocker--in theory, at least--would be the more valuable asset to the Saints. If that's the case, expect to see Brown retain his job unless his play declines. 

So while Brown continues to acclimate himself to the starting unit, the Saints' offensive line is still a work in progress and in the process of developing a cohesive, highly-functional unit. The results so far have been good. Let's take a look. 

Basic rankings show the Saints to have the 9th best rushing attack this year at 126.1 yards per game. Even better, the Saints rank 7th in yards per carry at 4.6. 

In the passing game, the Saints rank 5th in sack percentage (4.2%) and 3rd in fewest QB hits allowed. The Football Outsiders rank the Saints offensive line as the 7th best pass protection unit in the league thus far. Worthy rankings indeed, and a promising sign for an offensive line still in its development. 

A more in-depth examination into the the Saints' run game and its relation to the offensive line is as follows. All subsequent data and stats are courtesy of the Football Outsiders.

A breakdown of where the Saints have run the ball this year looks like this:
Those numbers in the screen shot are: 62% up the middle, defined as running behind a guard or center; 26% around the end/on the edges (15% left end, 11% right end); and 12% off tackle (8% off right tackle, 4% off left tackle). 

So, the Saints have run the vast majority up the middle, fully maximizing the strength of their all-pro guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. 

Secondly, in an effort to utilize Darren Sproles' speed and elusiveness in open space, the Saints have used a quarter of their run plays on the edges. 

And lastly, in an effort to minimize exposure to perhaps the weaker part of their line--the tackles--the Saints have run off tackle just 12% of the time, the second-lowest clip in the league behind the Jags (8%). 

With this distribution strategy in place, the Saints rank as the #1 run blocking unit in the league according to Football Outsiders. This ranking is based on a formula for Adjusted Line Yards, which essentially assigns responsibility to the offensive line for yards gained by its team's RBs. 

More specifically, the Saints offensive line is the best in the league at preventing its RBs from being tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage ("stuff rank" or "stuffed"). Additionally, the Saints are the most effective team in the league at both running up the middle and around the left edge. These are high marks for a team that struggled early on (remember the last play of the Packers' game?) and has shuffled players due to injury. 

Further, the Saints rank 7th overall in converting 3rd and 4th and two yards or less into either first downs or touchdowns ("power rank" or "power"). Credit to Mark Ingram here as well. 

Rounding out the run distribution rankings, the Saints rank 7th running around the right edge, 10th off right tackle, and 16th off left tackle. Again, all of these rankings are based on Adjusted Line Yards. 

What's important to note in all of this is that the Saints' offensive line, again, is still very much a group in development. 

With growing levels of success game-over-game, and benchmarks that rank the unit among the league's best so far this season, it's a promising sign for the continued high performance of the offensive line in 2011. 

24 October 2011

Week 7 Rear View: Colts at Saints

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Saints 62, Colts 7
Record: 5-2
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 557
Yards Allowed: 252
Yards/play: 7.4
Yards/play allowed: 5.5

Turnover Differential: +3   [+3, -0], (-4)
First Down Differential: +25   [+36, -11], (+50)
Sack Differential: -1   [+1, -2], (0)
Time of Possession Differential: +16:38   (+43:32)

3rd Down Conversion: 75%, 6/8   (58%, 55/95)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 36%, 4/11   (39%, 35/90)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +81
Average PPG
: 34.1
Opponent's Average PPG: 22.6

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals.

The Good
* The comprehensive domination on display from the Saints was a resounding affirmation that these Saints are one of the league's elite teams. Coming off a tough loss to a division rival the week prior, the Saints reminded their fans and the rest of the league that, when they play at their best, they're literally (not virtually) unstoppable. 

Their 62 points tied the league high since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and the combination of 60+ points, 200+ yards rushing, and 300+ yards passing was a feat only previously accomplished twice prior in NFL history. A historic night indeed. 

The Saints controlled the clock to the tune of a sixteen-and-a-half minute advantage; in their six prior games, the Saints averaged about a four-minute advantage in time of possession. On Sunday night, they quadrupled that average while gaining an astounding 36 first downs (a franchise record). 

More impressively, of the Saints 75 total plays only 8 of those were third downs (11%). The Saints had their way with the Colts on first and second down all night, scoring on their first 9--yes, 9--possessions. 

Most importantly, the Saints reversed course on their two biggest shortfalls of the 2011 season: turnovers and red zone efficiency. The Saints defense generated three takeways, including an INT returned for a TD by Leigh Torrence, and didn't turn the ball over to produce their best single-game turnover margin of the year at +3. 

In the red zone the Saints went 7-of-8 (88%), improving on their lackluster 42% clip coming into the game 

* Drew Brees again reminded Saints' fans of why he's one of the greatest QBs of his era, and probably all-time. Coming off a three-INT performance against Tampa, Brees rebounded to play one of his finest games, going an incredible 31-of-35 (89%) for 325 yards and 5 TDs. Yes, Brees threw more TDs than incompletions and generated a 144.9 passer rating. 

To put Brees' greatness in context, Sunday night's passer rating (144.9) was only the 7th highest of his career (minimum, 20 passing attempts). 

If you think back to how Brees utterly devastated the Colts on Sunday night, and then think that this was only his 7th best game as a pro--at least according to passer rating statistics--it provides proper perspective as to just how brilliant Brees has been throughout his career. 

The games where Brees outpaced his 144.9 rating? In ascending order: 149.1 (Nov. '05);149.2 (Oct '04); 153.1 (Oct. '04)156.8 (Oct. '09); 157.5 (Nov. '08);  and a perfect 158.3 against the Patriots on Monday night in November 2009. 

Finally, Brees leads the league in several categories through seven weeks: completions, attempts, yards, completion percentage, and third-down QB rating (an astounding 133.7). Brees is second in TDs and third in passer rating.

* Marques Colston forcefully reasserted himself into the Saints' offense with a second consecutive excellent game, catching 7 passes on 7 targets for 98 yards and 2 TDs. Colston's leaping first quarter TD reception illustrated the full complement of Colston's skill set: a precise route to find a soft spot in the end zone, his athleticism, and his sure-handed concentration. 

With the emergence of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in 2011, coupled with Colston's early-season injury, Colston seemed to become almost an afterthought as the Saints moved forward without him. But now, with Colston rounding back into form and making an impact, Saints' fans are reminded of not just how good Colston is, but also how important he is as a red-zone target. 

Both Colston's TDs on Sunday night came in the red zone, and his presence going forward will certainly enable the Saints to continue improving in their red zone efficiency. 

* Mark Ingram and the Saints' running game produced a season-high 236 yards on 38 carries (6.2 yards per carry). Further, the 236 yards ties for the most rushing yards in a game during the Sean Payton era (2006 against the Giants). 

Ingram produced his best game of the season, gaining 91 yards on 14 carries for a season-best 6.5 yards per carry. Ingram was well on his way to his first 100-yard game as a pro, but an injured heel in the fourth quarter knocked him out of the game. 

Additionally, Darren Sproles gained 88 yards on 7.3 yards per carry and Pierre Thomas chipped in with 57 yards on 5.7 yards per carry. 

Finally, the offensive line played its best game of the season and appeared fully in-sync. They dominated the Colts front-four and opened innumerable holes for the Saints RBs. With the offensive line still a work in progress, Sunday night's showing was a promising sign for a unit that has struggled a bit with consistency thus far in 2011. 

The Bad
* There's not much "bad" to say about a team that wins a game by 55 points. But the one area where the Saints struggled on Sunday night--again--was run defense.

The Colts rushed for 155 yards on 23 carries and averaged a hefty 6.7 yards per carry. Specifically, the Saints allowed another unheralded RB--this time rookie RB Delone Carter--to have an excellent game. Carter gained 89 yards on 10 carries including the Colts' only TD. Carter's 42 yard-run in the second quarter highlighted the Saints' defensive weakness for big plays and spotty tackling. 

On the season, the Saints are allowing opponents to gain an unsightly 5.4 yards per carry. This ranks 31st in the league, .1 yard shy of the league-worst Rams. 

Additionally, the Saints have shown a propensity week after week to permit big runs. They've allowed a 42-yard run from Matt Forte, 41 from Maurice Jones-Drew, 69 from DeAngelo Williams, 34 from Earnest Graham, and last night's 42-yarder from Delone Carter.

This is certainly an area that could use significant improvement. 

The Ugly
* Nothing of note. 

Worth Repeating
"Special night tonight. It's fun playing games like this when it seems like whatever you call, it's working." - Jimmy Graham 

photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports

20 October 2011

As Goes Brees

After watching the Saints lose to Tampa last weekend and then contemplating the Saints' next opponent, the Colts, I considered the many similarities between the Drew Brees-led Saints and the Peyton Manning-led Colts. 

Mostly, my thoughts centered around the winless 2011 Colts and how their team was rendered almost completely incapable without Peyton Manning. Then I thought, "would this same principle hold true for the Saints?"

Before we look any deeper, I also briefly considered The New England Patriots. If you remember back to 2008, the Patriots lost Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first week of the season. Even in Brady's absence, the Patriots won eleven games that season with unproven Matt Cassel at the helm. 

This disparity in outcomes has starkly illustrated the disparity in both the Patriots and the Colts franchises: one team (the Colts) has been almost completely dependent on the fortunes of one player (Manning), while the other team (the Patriots) has built a sustainable model and roster depth to handle the unpredictability of every season. 

So where do the Saints fit into this? Are the Saints like the Colts? Are they basically a one-man team? I realize that in even considering this, it's tremendously insulting to the many other professionals within the Saints' organization to speculate that their efforts are potentially marginally impactful and, instead, the fate of the team rests mostly on the performance of one elite player. It's disconcerting to say the least. 

Over the course of Drew Brees' career in New Orleans, it's been conventional wisdom, by my estimation, that the Saints' fortunes have largely hinged upon the success of Drew Brees. It's always seemed like Brees has shouldered a disproportionate burden of responsibility for winning and losing. Really, that's a good thing because Brees is so good. But can it be better?

Moreover, it seems like even in the games Brees plays at a high level, the Saints still sometime struggle. 

So I went back and looked at all the games of the Drew Brees era in New Orleans. Specifically, I wanted to see how the Saints fared when Brees played subpar; when he played well; and when he played outstanding. 

I did this, simply, by correlating Brees' passer ratings to wins and losses. Before I go any further, let's quickly review the Passer Rating statistic. This stat is used by the NFL to judge a QB's performance from game to game; it's essentially a jumbled amalgam that values the importance of the different QB benchmarks--yards, TDs, interceptions, completion percentage, yards per attempt, etc. 

A perfect passer rating is 158.3. To give us some context going forward, here are the rankings of the top-8 career passer ratings in NFL history (minimum 70 games played). 

In the 91 games Brees has played as a Saint, his average rating in games the Saints have won is a blistering 107.3 (57 games). 

In Saints' losses, his rating is a pedestrian 81.4 (34 games). 

By comparison, Manning's rating in Colts' wins is 104.3; his rating in losses is 80.9. Brady's rating in Patriots' wins is 101.6; his rating in losses is 70.

Further, in Saints' wins Brees' rating is almost 15 points higher than his average; Manning's is a bit less than 10 points higher than average in Colts' wins; and Brady's is exactly 6 points higher than his average in Patriots' wins. 

Does Brees have to play substantially better than his average for the Saints to win? 

In short, Brees plays much better than his average in Saints' victories, whereas Manning and Brady (to an even lesser extent) aren't forced to exceed their averages as substantially in their teams' respective wins. Does this indicate that the Saints are even more dependent on Brees than the Colts are on Manning? 

Looking a bit deeper, here is a breakdown of how the Saints fare when Brees' passer ratings fall within these ranges. 

As you can see, the better Brees performs, the more the Saints win. I know, groundbreaking stuff here. 

That the Saints are a combined 51-15 (77%) when Brees rates over 80 illustrates just how dependent the Saints are on Brees. 

Conversely, when Brees' performance has fallen below a passer rating of 80, the Saints are an atrocious 6-19 (24%). In the subpar games that Brees has played, the Saints have not been able to muster any sort of antidote to compensate. 

This isn't a criticism of Brees, of course. In fact, it's just the opposite. 

Because Brees is most often at his best, or close enough to it that the difference is negligible, his talents potentially mask--or at least compensate for--the various shortcomings of the rest of the team. When Brees doesn't excel game-to-game, the Saints struggle.

The challenge for the Saints in 2011 and beyond, in my opinion, is for the defense to provide some semblance of balance to the Saints' fortunes. I obviously can't speak for all Saints' fans, but the prospect of the Saints mirroring the Manning-era Colts is not all that appealing to me. At least, it's not the ideal scenario lest I be thought of as greedy or thankless for a consistently successful Saints' team.

If you recall, those Colts teams have been mostly excellent in the regular season but have too frequently faltered in the postseason, possibly because they relied much too heavily on Peyton Manning. 

If the Saints intend on winning multiple Super Bowls with the Brees at the helm, it's incumbent upon them to devise layers of support beneath Brees so as to be able to withstand the infrequent subpar game from their leader. Thus far, the Saints have been less than spectacular at doing this. 

17 October 2011

Week 6 Rear View: Saints at Bucs

To reiterate, every week during the season I'll be posting a summary of the Saints' game, complete with key stats and a "Good, Bad, Ugly" performance review. If you have ideas or feedback, please feel free to submit those to me via blog comment, Twitter, Facebook, email, text, message in a bottle or whatever floats your proverbial boat. 

Also, at four-week intervals, we'll see how the Saints rank league-wide in some important statistical categories. 

Final Score: Bucs 26, Saints 20
Record: 4-2
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 453
Yards Allowed: 420
Yards/play: 6.9
Yards/play allowed: 6.4

Turnover Differential: -4   [+0, -4], (-7)
First Down Differential: -1   [+20, -21], (+25)
Sack Differential: -2   [+0, -2], (+1)
Time of Possession Differential: -2:54   (+26:54)

3rd Down Conversion: 42%, 5/12   (56%, 49/87)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 29%, 4/14   (39%, 31/79)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +26
Average PPG: 29.5
Opponent's Average PPG: 25.2

* as always, numbers in brackets [x] represent game totals, while numbers in parentheses (y) represent season totals.

The Good
* Marques Colston had his best game of the season and appeared fully recovered from his shoulder injury.  He caught 7 passes on 11 targets for 118 yards, including a 38-yard TD that gave the Saints an early, albeit short, lead. 

Long a favorite Brees' target, Colston reestablished his presence in the Saints' offensive rotation and seems primed to make a big impact going forward as opponents shift their schemes and coverage to Jimmy Graham who, again, had a big day. 

* Graham also caught 7 passes on 11 targets totaling 124 yards. Graham had a key 43-yard reception that enabled the Saints to get into FG range just before the end of the first half. Graham continues to be the focal point of the Saints' offensive plan, and he has excelled game after game. 

On the season to date, Graham is second in the league in catches, third in targets, third in yards, and second in first downs. Lastly, with his fourth consecutive 100-yard game, Graham ties Tony Gonzalez for the most consecutive 100-yard games by a TE in NFL history. 

* Patrick Robinson continues to improve and play like the first-round pick he was drafted as. Robinson played another excellent game with two tackles for losses and one pass defended (nearly a spectacular diving interception). On the season, Robinson leads the Saints with two interceptions; has a blocked XP to his credit; and leads Saints' defensive backs in tackles for losses. 

Why Robinson was replaced in the starting lineup by Tracy Porter and relegated to the nickel role against Tampa is still a mystery and was, in my opinion, one of the bigger coaching gaffes of the season. Porter again seemed rutted in malaise, playing passively and ineffectively; he was repeatedly beat by Preston Parker (not exactly Calvin Johnson) and appeared lethargic and uninspired. 

Robinson, last week, was the subject of this NOLA.com piece outlining his ascension in the Saints' defense.  Moreover, through six games, Advanced NFL Stats ranks Robinson 18th in +WPA and 21st in +EPA among the 100+ CBs rated this season (Porter is far down this list). 

Lastly, Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer--collectively--lead the NFL in passes defended for a CB tandem and have the highest collective +WPA rate--among CB tandems--according to Advanced NFL Stats. Robinson is clearly the Saints' second-best CB and should be seeing as many snaps as possible going forward. 

The Bad
* Of the tens of thousands of hours of football I've watched in my life, I'm not sure I've seen anything stranger than the Sean Payton sideline injury in the 1st Quarter. It was a harbinger of things to come on the day, and Payton's all-black outfit (on an exceptionally hot October day) seemed to symbolize a day of things-gone-wrong for the Saints. 

Playing the first half with Payton immobilized on the sideline bench, and further playing the second half without him coaching at all, the Saints fought an uphill battle for most of the day. Without question, the loss of Coach Payton was significantly impactful in terms of play-calling, adjustments, and (perhaps) team morale. Get better, Coach P. 

* The Saints' run defense was pitiful on Sunday. 31-year old Earnest Graham, subbing for an injured LeGarrette Blount, gutted the Saints for 109 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. To put this in perspective, Graham had not logged a 100-yard game in over three years, yet Sunday he appeared Earl Campbell-like against the ineffectual Saints' defenders.  

Particularly, Roman Harper embarrassed himself with an awful, lackadaisical effort, completely whiffing on Graham at the line of scrimmage and allowing Graham to rumble 34 yards downfield. For a player who prides himself on stout run defense and reliable tackling, Harper couldn't have performed any worse on a play that encapsulated the Saints' defensive effort on the afternoon. 

* The Saints' front-seven, particularly the defensive line, underperformed yet again. The defensive line again generated no pressure on the opposing QB, logging no sacks and just one measly QB hit. A dreadful performance. The complete lack of impact by the defensive line has been a lingering concern this season, and is a hindrance to the Saints' ability to play effective defense. 

* The rushing attack was equally non-existent on Sunday. The Saints averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry, with Pierre Thomas averaging 1.6 yards per attempt and Mark Ingram averaging 2.4 yards per attempt. Further, the Saints' offensive line appeared dominated most of the day at the line of scrimmage. The Bucs came into the game 24th in rush defense, allowing 123 yards per game. On Sunday, they held the Saints to a meager 70 yards.  

With the pending return of Chris Ivory in week seven, it will be interesting to see if the Saints make any changes to their RB rotation. Granted, the Saints' running game has been mostly effective this season so I wouldn't expect any major changes in the short-term.  It is, however, a situation that bears watching. 

The Ugly
* This is a horse that has been beat to death, but turnovers continue to haunt the Saints. 

With four turnovers committed and no takeaways on Sunday, the Saints stand at -7 in turnover margin for the season. This ranks an abominable 31st in the NFL, and will certainly doom the Saints' chances to even make the playoffs if the trend continues. 

The bottom four teams in turnover margin thus far are the 2-4 Eagles, the 4-2 Saints, the 1-5 Panthers, and the 1-4 Cardinals. Notice any similarities? The Saints' winning in the face of a negatively-lopsided turnover margin is simply not sustainable. 

Even worse (yes, that's possible), the Saints rank dead-last in turnovers generated with four measly takeaways. 

* Equally ugly is the Saints' continued impotence in the red zone, both offensively and defensively. On Sunday, the Saints went 1-4 in the red zone and allowed the Bucs to score a TD on their lone trip into the Saints' red zone. 

On the season, the Saints rank 23rd in red zone offense (this measures percentage of TDs scored in the red zone), trailing the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, Kansas City, and Minnesota. Not exactly offensive powerhouses. The Saints' offensive inability in the red zone is mind-boggling for a team with a wealth of options and an excellent playcaller in Sean Payton. 

Defensively, the Saints rank a disturbing 30th in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score TDs 67% of the time they enter the Saints' red zone. This is a jarring stat indeed, and one that should be frightening to Saints' fans.

This lackluster combination of red zone incompetence and permissiveness is another factor that, if sustained at current benchmarks, will significantly hinder the Saints chances at qualifying for the postseason. 

Worth Repeating
"Am I confident we are going to come back next week better than ever? Yes I am. Because I know the type of guys in this locker room." - Drew Brees