29 November 2011

Week 12 Rear View: Giants 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 49, Giants 24
Record: 8-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 577
Yards Allowed: 465
Yards/play: 8.4
Yards/play allowed: 6.6

Turnover Differential: +2   [+2, 0], (-3)
First Down Differential: +2   [+31, -29], (+46)
Sack Differential: +1   [+1, 0], (0)
Time of Possession Differential: -3:28   (+30:57)

3rd Down Conversion: 56%, 5/9   (53%, 77/144)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 45%, 5/11   (36%, 52/145)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +110
Average PPG
: 32.9
Opponent's Average PPG: 22.9

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

The Good
* To date, over the past six seasons in the NFL, there's been no better football player than Drew Brees. On Monday with the nation watching, Brees delivered yet another vintage performance. Since the advent of Monday Night Football in 1970, no player did what Brees did on Monday night: throw for 350 yards and 4 TDs, with a rushing TD to boot.

Another day, another record. Ho hum.  

All night long Brees was at his primetime-best, most notably on a few sequences. First, Brees again showed his peerless mastery of the two-minute offense at the end of the first half. Backed up to his twelve yard line with 1:09 left in the first half, Brees effortlessly guided the Saints 88 yards to a TD in just 34 seconds.

Brees connected with Marques Colston for 50, 13, and 15 yards on the drive and then finished his two-minute masterpiece with a perfectly-executed route to Lance Moore for a ten-yard TD. 

Then midway through the 3rd quarter, Brees doggedly fought off a series of overmatched Giants' defenders before finding Pierre Thomas in the flat for a 15-yard gain. For a player as talented as Brees, that play was a revelatory exclamation of Brees' determination, fortitude, and unwavering desire to win. 

All grit, no quit. A signature Brees moment.  

Brees then emphatically punctuated the drive three plays later with an alert, eye-poppingly deft 8-yard TD run that left Giants' safety Deon Grant hopelessly grasping for air and Brees diving for six. 

If you tuned in last night never having seen Brees play, those two plays combined with the drive at the end of the first half would tell you all you need to know - specifically that Brees' all-encompassing, sublime skill set, his poise and his determination have made him the NFL's most valuable player over these past five-plus seasons. 

* Do the Saints have the best rushing attack in the NFL? While at first glance that question might seem to be hyperbolic and nonsensical, the case can certainly be made.

With an offensive line finally hitting its stride, combined with the deepest and most diverse set of RBs on any team, the Saints rank 4th overall in yards per carry and 8th overall in rush yards per game despite ranking in the bottom-third in rushing attempts per game.

Efficiency at its finest.  

On Monday, the Saints blasted the Giants for 205 yards on 6.8 yards per carry. Pierre Thomas, in particular, again played a fantastic game gaining 63 yards on eight carries (7.9 per) while adding another 47 yards on three catches (15.7 per). 

With Chris Ivory challenging him for playing time, Mark Ingram looked as powerful and explosive as he has all season. While Ingram has been one of the league's better short yardage backs all season long, he finally flashed his big-play ability with an impressive burst down the sideline for a 35-yard TD jaunt. 

That Ingram is both explosive and physical adds an element that positions the Saints' offense to prosper in a variety of environments. With the prospect of playing playoff games on the road in less-than-ideal weather conditions, Ingram's continued growth remains vital to the Saints' postseason chances. 

* The Saints are slowly whittling away their negative turnover margin even though the differential remains in the red. 

In the last two games, both important NFC contests, the Saints have taken the ball away three times while not giving it away once. 

That combined effect as it relates to the Saints' style of play is crucial for victory. As the Saints' highly-efficient offense gains more opportunities to score due to takeaways, the more pressure it places on the opposing offense to keep pace and play a more one-dimensional game, which subsequently benefits the Saints' defense. 

On the flip side, when the Saints' offense protects the ball, it minimizes exposure to the Saints' weaker element - its defense. And though this is obvious, it needs stating. The more the Saints turn the ball over, the more the defense is on the field. The more the defense plays, the more likely they are to be exposed.

Again, I know it's cliche, overstated, and mildly annoying to hear (and write). But when the Saints protect the ball, they are a very difficult team to beat. Here's to hoping that the continued improvement in the turnover differential category remains upwardly mobile for the remainder of the season.   

The Bad
* There really wasn't a whole lot of "bad" on display, but the Saints' defense did get repeatedly chunked by the Giants' offense for 8.3 yards per pass attempt. Eli Manning played an excellent game, abusing the Saints' secondary for most of the night. 

Though a portion of Manning's yardage came while the Saints were sitting back in coverage and protecting the lead, the Saints still egregiously blew a coverage early in the 4th quarter that gave Giants some semblance of hope.

As detailed by the TV broadcast, Roman Harper mindlessly abandoned his coverage assignment and attacked the line of scrimmage on a first down early in the 4th. As a result, when Patrick Robinson "released" Victor Cruz to the next coverage zone, there was no one left to defend Cruz, allowing him to score an uncontested 72-yard TD.

A needless mistake that now looks minor could have been costly as the Giants cut the lead to 35-17 with an entire quarter to play.  

The Ugly
* Penalties? 11 for 104 yards? Holy hell, did the Saints lose their composure? 

First, let me say that the roughing-the-passer penalty on Will Smith in the 2nd quarter was beyond absurd. Just a silly call. 

Second, the "defenseless receiver" unnecessary roughness penalty incurred by Isa Abdul-Quddus (can we all agree to call him "Q" from here on out?) was a clean shoulder-to-shoulder blast, but the refs in today's NFL are going to throw a flag 99% of the time in that situation.

I don't like it and I think the defender has a right to cleanly separate the ball from the WR, but apparently the NFL now thinks otherwise. Adapting to the new norms is paramount, even if the new norms border on ridiculous.   

Additionally, Tracy Porter incurred a mind-bogglingly stupid personal foul by tackling Hakeem Nicks five yards out bounds. And Roman Harper added another needless, though less than violent, defenseless receiver penalty in the end zone. C'mon man.  

That's four, 15-yard personal fouls for those of you counting at home. 

Add in another seven penalties and you have an uncharacteristic display of undiscplined mess from a Saints' team that has mostly been smart and composed under Sean Payton.

Worth Repeating
"Coming in week and in week out we want to win the turnover battle. We are near the bottom in the interceptions on the season. You want to finish on the positive end each game. That’s what we strive to do week in and week out and that’s what we did tonight." - Tracy Porter 

17 November 2011

Surveying the NFC Playoff Landscape

Because it's the Saints' bye week, let's take a break from Saints-specific content and glance at the NFC playoff picture.

This will mostly be based on speculation and wild guesses, but let's take a stab at determining the six playoff teams from the NFC.

I looked at the remaining schedules for all the teams currently in contention, and here's what I came up with:

1) Green Bay, 15-1. This is pretty obvious at this point.

Their final record isn't really all that important, but I see virtually no chance that they're NOT the #1 seed in the NFC.

2) San Francisco, 12-4. The 49ers' remaining schedule isn't too daunting, but games at Baltimore and vs. Pittsburgh loom. Other than that, their five other games are all against their less-than-capable divisional opponents (ARI, SEA, STL).

I can't see San Francisco losing more than three games the rest of the season so, very surprisingly, let's give the 49ers the #2 seed in the NFC.

3) New Orleans, 11-5. Though it's still possible for the Saints to gain the #2 seed in the NFC, it doesn't seem likely with regards to the remaining schedules of the Saints and the 49ers.

Even in the event of an identical record with the Saints at season's end, San Francisco would almost certainly hold the tiebreaker, which is conference record. The Saints' path to a #2 seed would be to win out, while having San Francisco lose three of their remaining seven games.

Because this doesn't seem likely, let's pencil in the Saints for the #3 seed and a home playoff game in the wild card round.

4) Dallas, 10-6. The outcome of the NFC East is going to shape the landscape of the NFC playoff field. I see Dallas winning 10 games after a slow start this year. They have a legitimate shot at getting to 11-5 with the ease of their remaining schedule.

If both the Cowboys and the Giants finish at 10-6 (as I'll guess they do), and assuming they split their games vs. each other, Dallas should be in better position to win the division tiebreaker, which in order is: divisional record; win percentage vs. common opponents; win percentage in the conference. The way I see it, this could very likely come all the way down to conference win percentage in which Dallas would likely have the edge.

5) Chicago, 11-5. Regardless of how good the Bears are playing right now, they're a wild card team at best since Green Bay is virtually a lock to win the NFC North. Though they're tied with Detroit at 6-3 at the moment in the NFC North, I think the Lions will fade out of contention with a difficult remaining schedule.

On the other hand, I see Chicago finishing the season strong and being a very difficult wild-card matchup for whomever they indeed draw.

6) New York Giants, 10-6. Considering the strength of the Giants' remaining schedule, winning 10 games would be a good result. It's eminently possible that the Giants go 3-4 (or worse) the rest of the season and miss the playoffs outright.

However, I think they'll fight their way to a 4-3 record and sneak into the playoffs over Atlanta via tiebreaker.

I see Atlanta going 5-2 over their last seven games, giving them a 10-6 regular season record. With the weakness of their schedule, the Falcons could certainly get to 11-5 but with the inconsistent way they've played so far this year, 10-6 seems more likely.

If both the Giants and the Falcons finish at 10-6, I see the Giants securing the last playoff spot via tiebreaker. The tiebreaker for wild card teams is: head-to-head; win percentage in conference; win percentage in common games; strength of victory; strength of schedule.

This could well come down to the strength of victory tiebreaker, which should give the Giants an edge due to their victory against the Patriots (among others). Though it's difficult to predict, I'm giving the Giants the #6 seed.

(And if Atlanta instead secures the #6 seed? They would be heading back to New Orleans for a playoff game under this scenario.)


If it somehow happens to play out in the manner I've outlined above, then the wild card games would be the Saints hosting the Giants and the Cowboys hosting the Bears.

Let's speculate a bit further. The Saints' hopes for an NFC crown might play out like this:

  • Winning a home playoff game in the wild card round
  • Going to San Francisco in the divisional round and upending the upstart 49ers

Then, either:

  • Heading back to Lambeau for the NFC Championship game or ....
  • Hosting the NFC Championship in the Dome if the Packers somehow lose their divisional round game

Obviously these are mostly wild guesses as to what will happen; the Saints aren't remotely guaranteed a playoff spot at this point; and it's possible that the NFC playoff field will look completely different come season's end.

For the Saints' however, the most likely path to the NFC championship game is to lock up the #3 seed, win a home playoff game, and then win in San Francisco.

After that, who(dat) knows?

14 November 2011

Week 10 Rear View: Saints at Falcons

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 26, Falcons 23
Record: 7-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 363
Yards Allowed: 481
Yards/play: 6.1
Yards/play allowed: 5.7

Turnover Differential: +1   [+1, 0], (-5)
First Down Differential: -12   [+18, -30], (+44)
Sack Differential: =1   [+1, 0], (-1)
Time of Possession Differential: -6:29   (+34:25)

3rd Down Conversion: 31%, 4/13   (53%, 72/135)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 31%, 5/16   (35%, 47/134)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +85
Average PPG
: 31.3
Opponent's Average PPG: 22.8

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

The Good
* Has Marques Colston ever played better as a professional? This I seriously doubt. Once again, Colston nudged himself into the company of the NFL's best wide receivers with a dominating, ballsy performance in the Saints' biggest game thus far in 2011. 

Colston delivered an astounding 89% catch rate, catching 8 passes on 9 targets for 113 gritty, vital yards. Incredibly, each of Colston's eight receptions produced a first down--an impact performance if there ever was one. 

Take a look at this jarring catch log: 9 yards on 3rd and 2; 10 yards on 1st and 10; 14 yards on 2nd and 9; 15 yards on 1st and 10; 19 yards on 3rd and 8; 15 yards on 2nd and 14; 18 yards on 3rd and 5; 13 yards on 3rd and 11. 

Colston came up big--crucial play after crucial play--displaying his trademark physical and mental toughness while reminding Saints' fans that, yes, this quiet 7th-round, throwaway pick from sleepy Hofstra University is all but certainly the best wide receiver to ever don the black and gold. 

* Maybe Sunday's performance will finally quiet the absurd nonsense that typically surrounds the play of Roman Harper. It's eerily reminiscent of the now mostly silent LSU-fan-base vs. Les-Miles-as-bad-coach rhetoric that lingered for years even when Miles was mostly winning but periodically screwing up a variety of game management situations. 

Now too, I hope Roman Harper has silenced his doubters. Like Colston, Harper probably played his best game as a professional on Sunday. 

Take a look at this definitively beastly stat line: 13 tackles (10 solo), 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 1 pass defended, 2 QB hits. 

Harper was all over the field on Sunday, as evidenced by his stats. Yet again, Harper set the tone physically for a Saints' defense that sometimes seems to forget that just simply hitting the other guy as hard as possible is a worthy defensive strategy. 

If Harper holds on for the easy interception at the end of regulation, this would have been a performance for the ages. Instead, Harper let the ball slip through his famously tenuous grasp. But regardless, Harper's impact was potent and convincing in a game the Saints needed to win. 

Lastly, with a team-leading 6.5 sacks on the season, Harper needs just two more sacks to set an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back in a season (Adrian Wilson, 8, 2005). 

* Is that you, red zone defense? Why, yes, it is. Nice to see you. We've missed you around these parts lately. Coming into the game ranked last in red zone defense, the Saints picked a fine time to leave the past behind, limiting the Falcons to just three FGs in three red zone opportunities. 

Both the Falcons' first and last possession of regulation saw them threatening in the red zone, and the Saints' defense came up with big stops on both occasions. 

On the first possession of the game, the Falcons methodically choked the life out of the first quarter clock on a 16-play, 8:40 drive.The Falcons got as close as the 13-yard line, but the Saints stiffened and forced a FG, a moral victory if there ever was one. 

On the Falcons' last possession of the game, on their take-a-couple-of-years-off-your-life march down the field to tie/win the game, the Saints' defense finally bowed up from the (gasp!) 9-yard line and forced a FG instead of allowing what almost seemed like an inevitable soul-crushing, season-defining Falcons' TD. 

Though the Saints' defense is far from perfect, Sunday's red zone showing was a positive sign and a reminder that, when opponents settle for FGs instead of TDs against the Saints, they're typically not going to win the game. It's not much of a fancy formula, but it's a formula nonetheless. Let's hope there's a bit more where that came from. 

* Coach Payton's return to the sideline was a welcomed sight and emotional boost.

Even if Payton's impact is still at less than full capacity, his presence and confidence are vital cogs in a delicate machine that demands input from its varied components to operate in a close-to-optimal capacity.  

Crutchless or not, Payton should be on the sideline for the remainder of the season. And that's a good thing.  

* And obviously, let's not forget to give the Saints' much-maligned run defense its due. 

If nothing else, on the one running play this season that really mattered, the Saints' run defense was up to the task

Stuffing Michael Turner on 4th and inches in overtime was a thing of beauty, and an image that will endure as a defining play for the 2011 Saints. 

The Bad 
* Does Malcolm Jenkins miss the calming veteran presence of Darren Sharper? Too often this season, Jenkins has played at an uneven, inconsistent pace. After fully believing that Jenkins would make the proverbial leap to the ranks of the elite this year, I can't help but to think that Jenkins has regressed a bit and is struggling to find his way at times. 

On Sunday, though Jenkins contributed mightily on the Falcons' failed 4th and inches carry in OT, he still left a few plays on the field. 

And while Jenkins certainly didn't play terribly on Sunday--nor has he this season--there's still room for improvement.  

Late in the second quarter with the Falcons backed up to their 19, Jenkins got turned around and was slow to react to a pass that Harry Douglas turned into a 46-yard reception. Jenkins seemed to be slightly out of position, then got turned around after Leigh Torrence slipped, leaving Douglas wide open.

Luckily, that mistake did not prove costly when the normally-reliable Matt Bryant missed a 41-yard FG as the first half expired. Those missed points proved to be the difference in the game; that the Falcons even had an opportunity there was the remnant of Douglas' 46-yard catch-and-run.  

Then, early in the third quarter, Jenkins took a brutally-poor angle on the wide-bodied Michael Turner, allowing Turner to rumble 24 yards into Saints territory on a possession that soon after resulted in ...

* ... maybe the worst display of tackling in the NFL all season. After the Falcons converted a 4th and 1 from the Saints' 26-yard line, Jason Snelling caught a short pass from Matt Ryan and proceeded to make a mockery of the Saints' defense, battering through nine wanna-be tacklers on his way to a 21-yard TD. 

As illustrated masterfully by FOX on the TV broadcast, Snelling both eluded and ran through a blanket of Saints' defenders--including a group of five that had him corralled--and then dismissively stiff-armed Malcolm Jenkins on his way to a TD.

* The Saints' running game was nowhere to be found on Sunday. 41 yards? 2.6 yards per carry? Needless to say, these are not impressive clips. (I said it anyway)

For the second time in three games, the running game has been non-existent. While the Saints have mostly run the ball effectively this season, the disappearing act that's recently manifested itself is something that certainly needs to disappear in its own right.    

More specifically, Mark Ingram was a complete non-factor in his limited duties begging the question: Is it Ingram or Ivory from here on out?

Assuming the relative health of both backs, who will the Saints deactivate on gameday for the last seven games? It seems extremely unlikely that the Saints will carry 4 RBs during gamedays, meaning that either Ingram or Ivory won't be playing. 

My guess is that Ingram is still the man for now. But if Ingram delivers another sluggish performance or two, Sean Payton might be faced with the unenviable task of deactivating his first-round pick on gamedays. 

Here's to hoping that Ingram returns to full health during the bye week, and plays up to his Heisman-winning pedigree the remainder of the season.   

The Ugly 
* As referenced earlier, the Saints 2-minute defense was mostly abysmal on Sunday at the end of both halves. 

With 1:05 left in the first half and the Falcons backed up their own 1-yard line, the Saints permissively allowed the Falcons a potentially back-breaking big play to get into FG range before the half expired.

The Saints were bailed out by a Matt Bryant miss.  

Then with Atlanta backed up to their own 6-yard line with 1:55 left and no timeouts, the Falcons quickly dug out of the hole in four plays, including consecutive 23-yard catches by Harry Douglas and a 20-yard catch by Douglas. 

The Falcons effortlessly moved the ball into scoring range as time expired, and had several chances to win the game outright much less tie it.

Adjustments in this area are likely to be priority #1 for Gregg Williams during the bye week. 

Worth Repeating 
"The thing I'm most proud of is the 2nd half wasn't perfect but we fought back in OT. 4th and 1 was a huge stop. We made the plays we needed to." - Sean Payton   

* photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports 

10 November 2011

Down for a Jack Move, round 1

Sunday marks the first of two remaining games in 2011 for the Saints against their long-time rival, the Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints hold a slight half-game edge in the NFC South standings, but are tied with Atlanta in the loss column (3).

With two of the Saints' remaining games against Atlanta, the NFC South division title will almost certainly come down to the outcomes of these two games.

The Falcons have won three straight games, and with this weekend's tilt, they will start a three-game homestretch where they'll be looking to take over first place in the NFC South. Over the course of their remaining schedule, the Falcons face opponents with a combined 44.7% win percentage (30-37) while playing five of their last eight at home.

On the other hand, the Saints' remaining opponents hold a 53.5% win percentage (30-26) with four of the last seven being played at home.

With the 2011 stretch fully upon us, this game couldn't be of much greater importance to the Saints.

This game will go a long way in determining if these 2011 Saints are the knock-out-artist, title contenders many presume them to be, or if they're just another run-of-the-mill, above-average team moonlighting as a trophy-lifter.

With all three of the Saints' losses coming in road games this year, a reversal of that losing trend would not just be timely, but it would also signal that the Saints have what it takes when lofty are the stakes.

If not now, when (win)?

Over the course of the most recent Saints-Falcons games--specifically those from 2008 forward in which both Sean Payton and Mike Smith have been involved--the Saints are 4-2 vs Atlanta, posting a 2-1 record in the Georgia Dome and a 2-1 record in the Superdome.

Furthermore, in the 25 home games with Mike Smith coaching and Matt Ryan as their QB, the Falcons have lost just three games.

And with both the Falcons and the Saints excelling in their home environment in the recent past, both teams have largely been evenly matched during the Smith-Payton rivalry.

The Saints have averaged 25.2 points in the six contents; the Falcons have averaged an even 25.

The Saints hold slight edges in the key categories of yards per play (6.3 vs 5.9) and passer efficiency (98.2 vs 93.4). Additionally, the Saints have a larger margin of average in yards per game (422 vs 374) which, really, isn't indicative of much.

Surprisingly, the Saints have run the ball better overall (4.3 YPC vs 4.1) while the Falcons have thrown the ball better (7.9 YPP vs 7.6). In the last three match-ups, though, the Saints have not hit the four-yards-per-carry benchmark.

Finally, the area that's most lopsided and most concerning for the Saints is in--you guessed it--turnover margin (everybody sigh). The Falcons are +4 in turnovers overall in these six contests. Further, the Saints are a lowly -5 in turnover margin in their two losses and a nominal +1 in their four victories.

The player who will play the most pivotal role in this Sunday's contest will likely be Matt Ryan. In his two wins against the Saints, his passer rating has been an excellent 121.4 as he's completed 66% of his passes for 4 TDs and no interceptions.

Conversely, in his losses to the Saints, Ryan has a middling 74.8 passer rating, a 56% completion rate, 3 TDs, and 4 INTs.

More importantly, Ryan has attempted on average about eight fewer passes per game in the two wins. This stat is consistent with his overall statistical body of work in which Ryan averages 9.1 fewer passes in wins than he does in losses (29.5 vs 38.6).

Ryan's career average in attempts per game is right at 32. So as Ryan nears and surpasses this baseline, the better the Saints chances are for victory.

And while Ryan attempting a higher number of passes is not specifically the cause of Falcons' losses, it is certainly correlated with those losses. Thus, a set of events that leads to Ryan throwing more passes than average is likely a recipe for a Saints' win.

Run defense, anybody? How about some turnovers? Or what about jumping out to an early lead?

The other player who could play a key role in the game's outcome might well be Pierre Thomas. With Mark Ingram attempting to return from a nagging heel injury and Chris Ivory nursing a freshly-sore hamstring, Thomas should be in line for plenty of snaps this weekend.

As opposing defenses continue to focus their game-planning efforts on neutralizing Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas should benefit from a lack of attention from the Falcons.

In the last six games against Atlanta, Thomas has averaged 93.7 yards (combined rushing and receiving) while scoring 5 TDs. He's been the Saints' most reliable and consistent threat against the Atlanta defense, and last year's week 16 contest cemented (for me, at least) Pierre Thomas' importance to the Saints' offense.

Returning from injury, Thomas logged 102 total yards and a TD in a critical Saints' win.

Does the never-gets-enough-credit PT have a little more of that magic in store?

The Falcons have been excellent this season in the red zone both offensively and defensively.

Combined with turnover statistics, this is an area that houses the biggest disparity between the teams. The Falcons are 2nd in red zone offense (64% TDs) and 4th in red zone defense (38% TDs allowed).

As has been noted repeatedly, the Saints are dead-last in red zone defense (71%) but a respectable 11th in red zone offense (54.6%).

In the turnover margin categories, the Falcons rank 12th at +2 while the Saints rank a disappointing 26th at -6.

I know this is repeated ad naseum to the point of eye-rollable annoyance, but look for these two areas to play a determining role in Sunday's game. If the previous nine weeks of the 2011 season are an indicator, then the Falcons possess a definitive edge in these areas.

Note - while I realize there's a school of thought that espouses belief that red zone stats are mostly meaningless because the red zone is just an arbitrary twenty-yard patch of field, we'll shelve that discussion for another day and move forward with the assumption that red zone statistics are worthy indicators, though not absolute in their predictive powers. 

Lastly, the Saints and Falcons have won the past two NFC South titles respectively, and it appears almost certain that one of these two will win it again this year.

On the season, the Saints have been up and down--good at home, not so good on the road. The Falcons started slowly, but have come on strong winning three straight.

And though the Saints are slight favorites in Vegas right now, I expect the line to move closer to even or Falcons -1 as kickoff nears; I'm also expecting a majority of the talking heads in the national media to pick the Falcons as winners in this game.

But regardless of how one spins it, this Sunday's game against the Falcons is a defining moment for the 2011 Saints.

A win would expressly restore the notion that the latest incarnation of the Saints are, indeed, championship-worthy.

07 November 2011

Week 9 Rear View: Bucs 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 27, Bucs 16
Record: 6-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 453
Yards Allowed: 365
Yards/play: 7.1
Yards/play allowed: 6.3

Turnover Differential: -1   [+0, -1], (-6)
First Down Differential: +7   [+25, -18], (+56)
Sack Differential: 0   [+1, -1], (-2)
Time of Possession Differential: +0:08   (+40:54)

3rd Down Conversion: 50%, 5/10   (56%, 68/122)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 17%, 2/12   (36%, 42/118)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +82
Average PPG
: 31.9
Opponent's Average PPG: 22.8

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

* Week 9 saw the return of a formidable Saints' running attack, a dominating effort by the offensive line, and an affirming statement of the Saints' physicality. The Saints rolled up 195 yards rushing with an impressive 7.0 yards per carry average. 

As noted during the TV broadcast, the Saints' offensive line consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage, repeatedly mashing the Bucs' overmatched defensive line backwards at the line of attack. Utilizing its bevy of backs, the Saints generated quality contributions from Chris Ivory (67 yards), Pierre Thomas (66 yards), and Darren Sproles (42 yards). Brees even chipped in with a 20-yard carry, the second longest of his career. 

An impressive 80-yard TD drive in the second quarter showcased the diversity of the Saints' RB stable. During the six-play drive, the Saints' RBs pounded the Bucs for 50 yards on three straight carries (Ivory 12, Thomas 33, Ivory 5). Then two plays later, the deadly Darren Sproles caught a screen pass in the right flat and surreptitiously weaved his way for a 21-yard score.

* The run defense, the Saints' well-publicized achilles heel throughout this season, answered the bell on Sunday, limiting the Bucs to 84 yards on the ground. This marks just the second time this season the Saints have limited their opponent to fewer than 100 yards rushing (Chicago, 60). 

In particular, Jonathan Cassilas had a standout performance for the defense, recording 10 tackles. Though only four of these tackles were solo, Cassilas consistently used his speed and quickness to shed blocks and find himself around the ball. At a linebacker position starved for playmakers, Cassilas' recent performance and continued development are a much-needed addition to this defense. 

Additionally, Roman Harper played a fantastic game recording eight solo tackles (nine total), one sack, and one tackle for loss. For a guy who seems to garner a disproportionate amount of disdain when he plays poorly, Harper has consistently played at a high level in 2011. Yesterday's game might have been his best of the season, and aside from Will Smith and Jabari Greer, Harper is the Saints' best defender. 

* Speaking of Jabari Greer, he quietly continues to perform as an elite CB. Greer recorded six tackles (five solo), one pass defended, and one tackle for loss. Greer's consistency, high level of play, and relative lack of attention outside of the New Orleans' area are reminiscent of another under-recognized, top player on the roster, Marques Colston.

Early in the 4th quarter, Greer made consecutive key defensive stops to force a Bucs' FG inside the Saints' ten yard line. On 2nd and goal from the seven, the Bucs ran a well-designed QB run to the right but Greer quickly diagnosed the play and made an excellent open-field tackle on Josh Freeman for no gain. Then on 3rd and goal, Greer broke up a pass in the back of the end zone intended for Mike Williams.  

Greer's skill set is exceptionally well-rounded as he has proven equally adept in man coverage, zone schemes, and run support. Further, Greer's continued mentorship of second-year CB Patrick Robinson is a significant contribution as the Saints' secondary continues to play, mostly, at a worthy level.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention the Saints' excellent 3rd down defense. The Saints' limited the Bucs to just two conversions on twelve attempts. This is an important area for the Saints' defense and they've been mostly good in this area all season. On the year, the Saints' defense ranks 11th in overall third down conversions allowed per game, and 12th in third down conversion percentage allowed per game. 

Coupled with the Saints' offensive excellence on third down, the defense's third down contributions will play a pivotal role in the Saints' fate in 2011.  

* On the day, I counted four blown coverages on defense. Near the end of the first quarter, Scott Shanle and Leigh Torrence bungled coverage assignments on 3rd and 10 when Tampa was backed up to their 20 yard line. As a result, Preston Parker caught a pass for 36 yards and was eventually tracked down by Torrence. 

Then just three plays later on a 2nd and 23, the Saints surrendered a 16-yard catch to Aurellius Benn when neither Shanle nor Greer covered Benn on the play. Luckily, a Tampa penalty on 3rd and 7 prevented the Bucs from turning these two busted coverages into points. 

At around the three-minute mark of the second quarter, Leigh Torrence was again involved in what was either a blown assignment or just poor coverage. On 1st and 10 from the Bucs' 25, Dezmon Briscoe found himself wide open down the right sideline for a 46-yard gain, the Bucs' longest of the day. This big play led to a Tampa FG just prior to the end of the first half. 

Lastly, early in the 4th quarter on a 4th and 3 inside the Saints' red zone, Preston Parker went uncovered on a key play that resulted in a first down and kept the Bucs hopes alive. Malcolm Jenkins clumsily interfered with Parker on the play, as he hurriedly rushed to cover the wide-open Parker. 

I'm not sure whether these continued gaffes were the result of scheme (blitzes) or missed assignments but they were too frequent, giving the Bucs their two biggest plays of the day.    
* The Saints' pass rush continues to be largely non-existent. Though Cameron Jordan played well and flashed signs of his first-round talent, the Saints front-seven was mostly unable to get to Josh Freeman. The team recorded just one sack, and that was from strong safety Roman Harper. Of the three QB hits on Freeman, only one came from the defensive line (Jordan). 

That the Saints seem to blitz so frequently, yet sack or hit the opposing QB so infrequently, is mildly concerning (and annoying). If the Saints intend on competing in the postseason against elite passing offenses, they are going to have to generate some semblance of a pass rush from their front four. 

* Though I really don't want to be "that guy" who complains about the referees, let's just say the officiating could have been a bit better yesterday. And I'll just leave it at that.

* Tracy Porter's injury was a scary sight for Saints' and NFL fans alike. Porter made an excellent hit on the game's second play, stumbled to get up, and then lay on the turf for several minutes. 

After being removed from the field and immobilized on a stretcher, Porter went to the hospital for tests on his head and neck. Thankfully, Porter checked out fine. Get better, TP. The Saints need you for a playoff run. 

Worth Repeating 
"November is a time where teams separate themselves from the rest. We want to be one of those teams. Hopefully this is a start." - Drew Brees  

photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports