15 January 2012

Divisional Playoff Rear View: Saints at 49ers

Final Score: 49ers 36, Saints 32
Record: 14-4
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 472
Yards Allowed: 407
Yards/play: 5.9
Yards/play allowed: 5.9

Turnover Differential: -4   [+1, -5] 
First Down Differential: +9   [+26, -17]
Sack Differential: -1   [+4, -5]
Time of Possession Differential: +2:20

3rd Down Conversion: 36%, 5/14  
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 27%, 4/15   

2011 Aggregate Postseason Point Differential: +13
Average Postseason PPG
: 38.5
Opponent's Average Postseason PPG: 32.0

* As hollow as it might seem in the immediate aftermath, let's be thankful for a record-setting season from the Saints. Brees. Sproles. Graham. 

And the greatest offensive machine the NFL has ever seen. 

To watch this team perform week after week was a privilege, and to see them defiantly fight back from a 17-point, first-quarter deficit was a microcosm of this team's heart, will, and skill set. That the season came crashing down in such a staggering and heartbreaking fashion shouldn't detract from the historically great season this offense just unveiled, the likes of which may never be seen again. 

* In the same vein, this Saints' roster was likely the greatest and deepest we'll see for several years. Due to expiring contracts and a shortened offseason that allowed unique one-year free agent deals, the Saints assembled a collection of talent this season that they'll likely not be able to replicate in the near future. 

This offseason, these Saints are all due for new contracts: Brees, Nicks, Colston, Porter, Meachem, Rogers, Franklin. And that's just off the top of my head. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the front office to keep all of these players on the roster heading into 2012. Let's be grateful for this incarnation of a roster that, while falling devastatingly short of its championship aspirations, represented the most-talented roster in Saints' history. 

* As for the game itself, I'd like to specifically point out Roman Harper's contribution against the 49ers

Limited all week in practice with a lingering ankle injury, Harper played a fantastic game, recording 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hits, and 1 pass defended. 

Harper was all over the field, displaying his trademarked, attacking style and reminding the skeptics that he's indeed one of the best in-the-box strong safeties in the league today. Had it not been for Harper, the Saints would have very likely been in an unrecoverable hole early in the game.

* In the last note of "good' for the season, I'd like to thank the handful of you who followed this blogging venture during the season. I undertoook this project because I felt the Saints had an excellent shot at winning the Super Bowl, and I wanted to document the season in detail. 

It didn't quite unfold in the manner I forecast, but it has been fun nonetheless. I hope you enjoyed it as well. 

* The culmination of the Saints' first drive was a near kill-shot for the team's hopes. 

The Saints took the opening kickoff and methodically and surgically moved down the field, signaling to the 49ers' defense that they were potentially in for a long day.

The Saints held the ball for 13 clock-churning plays that initiated a strategy of dispiriting the Niners' defense and forcing its offense to play from behind. But alas, that didn't come to fruition when Pierre Thomas was blasted at the two-yard line and fumbled. Not only did the 49ers take possession, but the Saints came up empty on the impressive drive and further lost Pierre Thomas--fresh off his best game as a pro--for the duration of the game. 

What's worse is that when PT went out of the game, the Saints were down to two healthy RBs in Sproles and Ivory. Consequently, Coach Payton made the reasonable decision to remove Sproles from returning kickoffs in an effort to ensure his health for the remainder of the game. 

As a result, a clearly rusty and overwhelmed Courtney Roby stepped in to return kicks and promptly fumbled a kickoff; even worse, he muffed the kickoff, scooped it up, tried to run, then fumbled again, giving the 49ers possession at the Saints' 13 yard-line. A disastrous sequence. The 49ers turned that fumble into 3 points. 

The entire turn of events from Pierre Thomas' fumble/injury generated, at the very bare minimum, a six-point swing in the 49ers' favor. And this doesn't remotely account for the impact of PT's removal from the Saints' offense for the day, nor does it measure the impact of allowing the 49ers' offense to play with the lead for the majority of the game.  

Finally, though the referees "correctly" ruled that Donte Whitner's vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on PT was legal, it illustrates a stark hypocrisy in the league's new-fangled player protection strategy. 

In a day and age when hitting the QB is virtually impossible without penalty, and WRs are protected to the point of absurdity, it's still legal for a defensive player to recklessly and violently launch his helmet into that of a RB who's carrying the ball. Really? How is there any consistency in that policy? And how is that not more dangerous than any other action? How does any sane person who's watching that play think that's not a penalty in light of the overarching regulations now aimed at protecting players from sustaining head injuries?

* Saturday was yet another spectacularly painful defensive performance in consecutive road playoff games. In two straight postseason road losses, the Saints' defense has surrendered 41 and 36 points to offenses that would rightfully be considered mediocre, at best. 

While the banal, bludgeoned-to-death, conventional wisdom has suggested that the Saints are a worse offense on the road, I think it's the defense that more logically fits into that category. Without playing in the boisterous, advantageous confines of the Superdome, the Saints' defense has--under Gregg Williams--fairly consistently proven incapable of holding up its end of the bargain over the past two seasons. And on Saturday, it failed to do so in the biggest of games. 

And before anyone starts pointing out that the Saints played good defense for the majority of the game, let me declare that it's entirely moot when your offense twice gives you a lead to protect inside of 4 minutes, and both times you fail miserably and subsequently lose the game. 56 minutes count for jack shit if you can't close the deal.
How is that possible? And how did Gregg Williams not learn his lessons from the games in Atlanta and in Tennessee when the Saints' defense inexplicably allowed multiple late-game, big-play, long drives while the Saints tried to protect a lead? 

Did he not learn anything from Harry Douglas and Nate Washington running free down the middle of the field for huge chunks of yardage when all the Saints needed to do was just keep the ball in front of them in order to protect a victory that was virtually guaranteed? Why is that so difficult to do? 

How could he allow that to happen yet again? Twice in four minutes. Twice.  

This was the coup-de-grace for Willams who just couldn't help himself, who just couldn't shelve his preening bravado, who wouldn't trade his alpha-male machismo for objective, sound strategy even for a few minutes. After all the lessons learned the past two seasons, Williams just wouldn't budge from his stubborn adherence to his painfully tragic, flawed methodology. What a fucking waste. A. Fucking. Waste. 

After the week 14 game at Tennessee, about the defense I wrote

"These same shortcomings coalesced into one ugly defensive performance last year against Seattle in the playoffs. You remember that, don't you? Well the problems linger.  

Without a remedy for these fundamental ailments, the Saints face the prospect of falling victim to a similar, painful postseason fate this year." 

If I could see it, why couldn't Gregg Williams? Did he even care? 

* What's more disheartening about this Saints' defeat is the opportunity lost in the much-bandied about championship window, as insightfully pointed out here. These are the harsh realities of high expectation, and championship windows are only open for so long. Missing the opportunity to win the Super Bowl during the best season Brees will ever have, with the best Saints' roster the Saints will surely have under Payton, is dispiriting to the extreme. 

It was all there for these Saints. 

It was a chance to establish a dynasty, yet it slipped by. How many more viable opportunities will the Saints have again? Nothing is guaranteed in life, and though the future still holds promise, missing this present opportunity will surely be the professional regret-of-a-lifetime for many of these Saints' players. 

* 5 turnovers. You'd think by now the Saints would be past this kind of implosion. And of course, you'd be wrong. Sadly enough, the implosion came under the worst of possible circumstances.

I did some research into teams who have turned the ball over 5+ times since the merger (1970). Since then, teams that have turned it over 5 times or more have a 12.6% chance of winning. 

And in the playoffs, it's even harder because the level of competition is of greater caliber. Teams surrendering the ball 5+ times in the postseason win only 11.3% of the time. 

Unfortunately, the Saints dug themselves a hole they were incapable of escaping from. Bucking the odds isn't quite as easy as we make it out to be sometimes.

* The last note of "ugly" on the season is remorsefully reserved for Malcolm Jenkins. Let me make clear that Jenkins has been one of my favorite players, and this article I wrote on him has, by far, received more hits than any other Saints' post I've penned.

But regardless, it seems reasonable at this point to question Jenkins' long-term viability as a free safety. Don't forget, Jenkins played 17 games this season and recorded not one interception. A travesty. A week after continually failing to even moderately slow down the monster that is Calvin Johnson, Jenkins played a downright awful game against the 49ers. 

Let's look at 4 plays. 1) Vernon Davis' 49-yard first quarter TD: Jenkins clumsily comes flying forward, spazzes out, knocks down Roman Harper, and allows an easy TD for the 49ers. Jenkins' top priority as the Saints' free safety is to simply prevent big plays, which is why he lines up so far behind the line of scrimmage.

What's equally bad is that the 49ers came into the game ranked 29th in red zone offense. It was vital to the Saints' chances of victory to prevent the 49ers from scoring easy TDs, yet Jenkins allowed just this to happen right off the bat. 

2) On Frank Gore's 42 yard run in the 4th quarter, Jenkins took a terrible angle and completely whiffed on Gore, allowing him to rumble downfield. This set up a FG and was the start of the 49ers' 16-point explosion in the 4th quarter. 

3) With the Saints leading with a bit more than 3 minutes remaining, Jenkins allowed Vernon Davis to burn him down the left sideline for 37 crucial yards on 2nd and 10. This soon after led to an Alex Smith TD that would give the lead back to the 49ers. This was yet another big play that contributed to the defensive meltdown.

The fact that Jenkins is a converted CB who was covering a TE, and continually surrendered chunks of yardage the entire game, is just an abomination.    

4) As if all of that wasn't enough, Jenkins did it once more. On the 49ers' game-winning drive, Davis again got past Jenkins with 40 seconds left for 47 back-breaking yards. Jenkins, yet again, took another terrible angle and mind-bogglingly played underneath Davis when his chief goal was to not surrender another big play. 

While some of the onus here rightfully falls on Gregg Williams for leaving his secondary in a vulnerable position, it's still wholly unacceptable that Jenkins put himself into such a poor position at the most critical time. What a disappointment.

Worth Repeating
* "It's always difficult to absorb defeat. That was a hard fought, disappointing end to a great season. But I'm still proud of my team." - Will Smith  

10 January 2012

Wild Card Rear View: Lions at Saints

Final Score: Saints 45, Lions 28
Record: 14-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 626
Yards Allowed: 412
Yards/play: 7.7
Yards/play allowed: 7.7

Turnover Differential: 0   [+2, -2], 
First Down Differential: +12   [+34, -22]
Sack Differential: -2   [+0, -2]
Time of Possession Differential: +13:36

3rd Down Conversion: 64%, 7/11  
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 70%, 7/10   

2011 Aggregate Postseason Point Differential: +17
Average Postseason PPG
: 45.0
Opponent's Average Postseason PPG: 28.0

The Good
* Another week, yet another dominant offensive thrashing of a completely overmatched opponent. 

How else do you explain a game where--in one half--the Saints sustained two self-inflicted wounds and piddled around the field defensively, yet ran the Lions out of the Dome with one of the most entertaining halves of football in recent memory?

Even after the slow start, the Saints mercifully killed the clock instead of putting a 50-spot on the scoreboard. They didn't punt. They ran a stupendous 81 plays on offense. They possessed the ball for almost 38 minutes. And yeah, you know, they set a few more league records in the process: most yards in a playoff game; most yards by a QB in a regulation playoff game.  

In two consecutive games, the Saints have registered an unfathomable 1,242 yards and 90 points. Go back and read that again. It's popular sentiment to compare the Saints' offensive numbers to those generated in video games. But is it even this easy in a video game?

The Saints have taken scorched-earth and made it their modus operandi, while opponent after opponent has feebly crumbled in their wake. Burn motherf**cker burn.

One of my favorite developments of the season was seeing the Saints continue going for it on 4th down against the Lions. 7 for 11 on 3rd down, 3 for 4 on 4th down (3 for 3 really, because they knelt on a 4th down to kill the clock). 

Now that's how you break a team's spirit. 

And why should the Saints even consider punting these days except in the most extreme circumstances? Nobody has proven capable of stopping them.  

And no, I'm not embellishing. 

There are examples of highly successful coaching philosophies that eschew punting in almost all circumstances. The Saints were #1 in 3rd down conversion percentage this season by an extremely wide margin (57% to 48% for #2 San Diego). 

I read a note yesterday that indicated the Saints were better on 3rd and 10 this season than any other team was on 3rd down altogether.

That is a jarring stat and a telling indicator of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to stop this offense.  

If that's true, why should they punt?

* Jabari Greer's two second-half interceptions extinguished any chances the Lions had of keeping pace. 

Though the Saints finished 31st in the league in takeaways, the defense has gotten materially better at forcing turnovers in the past two months. 

Generating turnovers is among the top postseason priorities because, with an offense like this, there's very little room for error for the other team. The Saints' defense has chipped away at the dam, and perhaps the floodgates will open up this week in San Francisco.

If the Saints' defense can find a timely turnover or two, it's hard to imagine this team losing again this season. 

The Bad
* How about the fact that Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins have played 17 games this season (well, 16 for Jenkins) and have no interceptions? None. Really? Two starting safeties, zero interceptions. That is a travesty, especially when you consider how often teams are throwing the ball against the Saints. How is this even possible?

And not only did Harper and Jenkins fail again to intercept a pass on Saturday night, they were largely bystanders to Calvin Johnson's a capella performance. 

Simply put, both safeties have to do better this week. 

* Two first half fumbles allowed the Lions to take a four-point lead into halftime, limiting the Saints offensively. Shockingly, the Lions converted neither fumble recovery into points. Had they done so, the scope of the second half would have been vastly different. 

As has been noted ad infinitum, the Saints are undefeated under Payton when they don't turn the ball over. The Saints lost only six fumbles all season; now would NOT be the time to lose the emphasis on protecting the ball. 

* The Saints' pass rush continues to mystify me.

In a game where the Lions essentially didn't even try to run the ball, the Saints didn't sack Matt Stafford once. 

Couple that with the fact that the Lions were in an exceptionally loud, extremely hostile environment, yet the Saints' defense produced a minimal amount of pressure. 

I continue to hold out hope that Junior Gallette and Martez Wilson can make a difference in this area. Will Smith's best days as a pass-rushing presence are behind him, and Cam Jordan has yet to show much promise in this area.

At this point, I guess, it is what it is. A pass rush that struggles towards mediocrity.          

The Ugly
* There's nothing much ugly about these Saints, and I don't want to make something up to fill this section. 

Worth Repeating
* "We play aggressive. We're not going to apologize for that. We're not going to pull the reins back. It's pedal to the metal." - Drew Brees

photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports 

02 January 2012

Week 17 Rear View: Panthers 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 45, Panthers 17
Record: 13-3
Complete Box Score

Yards Gained: 617
Yards Allowed: 301
Yards/play: 8.5
Yards/play allowed: 5.9

Turnover Differential: +1   [+2, -1], (-3)
First Down Differential: +12   [+33, -21], (+88)
Sack Differential: +2   [+2, -0], (+5)
Time of Possession Differential: +8:34   (+57:22)

3rd Down Conversion: 67%, 6/9  (57%, 118/208)
Opponent's 3rd Down Conversion: 0%, 0/5   (33%, 67/202)

2011 Aggregate Point Differential: +208
Average PPG
: 34.0
Opponent's Average PPG: 21.2

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

The Good
* 617 yards. And a defiant postscript to a season of utter offensive dominance

In a game where resting starters and playing second-stringers was a viable option, Coach Payton made good on his promise that the team would finish strong. In winning its first week 17 game under Payton, the Saints set a franchise record for most yards in a game (617), averaged an obscene 8.5 yards per play and obliterated the NFL's single-season yardage record.

Racking up an ungodly 7474 yards this season, the Saints' offense vaulted past the 2000 Rams who previously held the mark with 7075 yards. That equates to averaging 467 yards per game, with these gems mixed in: 617 vs the Panthers; 577 vs the Giants; 573 vs the Vikings; and 557 vs the Colts.

The unprecedented display of both offensive firepower and socialized distribution has produced a team with astonishing diversity: seven players with more than 30 receptions and 12 players with an offensive TD. 

In their last 8 games, all wins, the Saints outscored their opponents by an average of 35.9 to 18.8. That's an average margin of victory of 17.1 points. Further, since their week 11 bye, the Saints have outscored opponents 39.0 to 18.5 (20.5 margin). Finally, in their final three games, the Saints have eviscerated foes to the tune of 44.0 to 17.6 (margin 26.4). 

The trend? The Saints have continued to improve as the season has unfolded. Be afraid, NFL. Be very afraid. 

While some may view the week 8 loss to the Rams--and the resulting inability to secure a bye--as a potential deathblow for the Saints' postseason chances, I view it in another light. Maybe the shock and embarrassment of losing to two of the league's worst teams (Bucs, Rams) in the first eight weeks shook these Saints from the doldrums of apathy and incited in them a raging championship fire that shows no sign of extinguishing anytime soon.   

* How great is this offensive line

Since that week 8 nadir against St. Louis when Brees was pummeled to the tune of 6 sacks (and 9 hits) and the rushing attack produced just 56 yards, the offensive line has been the league's best in both pass protection and run blocking. 

On Sunday, the Saints logged their third 200-yard rushing day this season, with Chris Ivory registering the first 100-yard game by a Saints' RB this season (129). And Brees was neither hit nor sacked. 

The Saints' offensive line was impactful to the point of saving the team four first-half points. Jermon Bushrod ran down RJ Stanford after Stanford intercepted Brees and seemed destined to score a TD. Bushrod stayed with the play, shoved Stanford out of bounds, and the Panthers ended up kicking a FG on the possession. Little plays like that separate the great teams from the good ones. And on Sunday, the Saints reminded everyone, once again, that they are indeed a great team and maybe even the league's greatest.

* The Saints' young defensive players made an affirmative statement on Sunday, with Patrick Robinson, Cam Jordan, and Martez Wilson all playing great games. 

Robinson has been up and down this season but when he plays well, he looks like an all pro. And his size and athleticism allow him to play both physically and dynamically. When the performance variance gives way to consistency, Robinson is going to be an excellent player.     

Cam Jordan played--to my eye--his best game of the season against the Panthers. He finally generated consistent pressure on the quarterback, and registered his first sack while having another one taken away due to an awful, Hochulian bungled horsecollar penalty.

While Jordan has played well in run defense this year, his inability to rush the QB has been a concern. But on Sunday, he took a step forward in his development by playing with what seemed to be a high level of intensity and relentlessness. 

But of all the Saints' young defensive players, none is more promising than Martez Wilson

Against the Panthers, Wilson registered a sack, a QB hit and a tackle for loss. In sacking Cam Newton, Wilson unleashed all of his massive skills, blasting through the line, laying waste to the defenders in his path, and enveloping the QB in a dervish of speed and power.

More please. 

Wilson has been on the field increasingly more as the season has progressed and as he, presumably, has better mastered the playbook. 

When you combine the efforts of the three aforementioned players with other young, defensive players like Junior Galette, Ramon Humber, and Isa Abdul Quddus--not to mention Malcolm Jenkins and Tracy Porter--you have a young defense whose future is bright.

* By all means, keep on doubling Jimmy Graham. Marques Colston can dismantle your defense just as effectively. Colston yet again played a spectacular game, making an impossibly difficult, contorted TD catch before then burning the Panthers for a back-breaking TD just seconds before the first half ended. 

In his last twelve games, Colston has been one of the league's very best WRs. During that timeframe, he's amassed 73 receptions for 1054 yards and 8 TDs. Within the framework of the Saints' everyman distribution model, those numbers are all the more impressive.

The Bad
* One of the more enjoyable aspects of these past 8 weeks is the difficulty I've had finding things to complain about. The one note of "bad," and one that's not particularly attributable to anything or anyone is the Saints missing out on a bye after going 13-3

I mean, that never happens. But it did this year, and the Saints will have to battle through it. We've seen repeatedly in the recent past teams go on the road and win their conference and then the Super Bowl (Giants '07, Steelers '08, Packers '10). 

There's no reason to think these Saints can't do the same thing. 

The Ugly
* Nothing of note, really. Besides Steve Smith's insanity

This dude needs help. We're talking about a guy who has been disciplined twice in his career for assaulting his own teammates. Like literally whipping their asses. 

On Sunday, Smith repeatedly and maniacally screamed at the Saints' sideline, and at least once in the face of Gregg Williams and once in the face of Sean Payton. 

Give it a rest already before you go all Rae Carruth on somebody.   

Worth Repeating
* "I am not focused on records. I am focused on getting a ring." - Jimmy Graham 

photos courtesy of Yahoo! Sports