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

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