23 September 2013

Set It Off

"He was standing at the rock, gathering the flock ... and there he found the spark to set this fucker off."

Be afraid, foes.

Be very afraid.

The Saints are back in a big, and decidedly new, way.

courtesy of the NY Daily News

Seemingly overnight, the Saints have unleashed a smothering, relentless defense that's surrendered just 17, 14, and 7 points in three consecutive victories.

On the heels of the epic futility of 2012, the Saints' defense under the guidance of Rob Ryan, he of an all-consuming cult status, has transformed the Saints into a potentially terrifying monster.

It's the nightmare of NFL teams league-wide: Sean Payton in tow with a fearsome defense.

With the Saints' most-recent top draft picks (Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Kenny Vaccaro) representing the promise and resurgence of a young defense, it's not the future that's bright. It's the present.

For much of Sunday, Cam Jordan and Junior Galette bent and dismantled Carson Palmer's pocket, harassing Palmer into a harried, scattershot performance. Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster, and Martez Wilson added to the fury, while Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins limited the Cardinals to an irrelevant 86 yards rushing, a total more meager than the run-challenged Saints produced on the afternoon.

Through three games, the Saints' defensive line looks as deep and talented as exists in the NFL.

(I can't believe I just wrote that.)

On top of that, Kenny Vaccaro intercepted a pass in the second half, another early skin on the wall for a rookie who plays with a composure, versatility, and instinct that belies his youth. The newly-added former-Westbanker, Keenan Lewis, also produced a turnover for a defense that dominated for the majority of the day.

Never has a 17-7 second-half lead under Sean Payton felt so safe.

After surrendering a touchdown on the first drive, the Saints' defense, in resounding style, shut out an overmatched Cardinals' offense by forcing eight consecutive punts before euthanizing the Cardinals with back-to-back interceptions to cement a transformative performance; ten straight drives for the Cardinals, and jack-shit to show for 'em.

Now go ahead: Read that sentence again.

Smiles all around.

The Saints' budding transformation from one-dimensional offensive juggernaut to defensive-minded menace is again a reminder that, when it comes to predictions and analysis and expectations, nobody knows shit. Who foresaw this? No one, of course.

Regardless, it's the Saints who are evolving before our eyes with a mix of defense and youth, grounded by the foundational efficacy of the Payton/Brees offense.

On Sunday, without (perhaps) the NFL's best offensive lineman in Jahri Evans, the Saints' offensive line bowed under the pressure of the Cardinals' front seven. And yet still, that did little to tilt the balance of fortunes in the Cardinals' favor. Years prior, that would not have been the case.

For certain, the Saints' offensive line is the biggest issue for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and who, bereft of a functional O-line, stands little chance of attaining their goals. But right now, nursing Jahri Evans back to health supersedes the short-term needs of a line that is desperate for his contributions.

After three games, the Saints' top priority appears to be the mending of Evans.

In the meantime, while the offensive line irons out its wrinkles with or without Evans, Jimmy Graham will suffice in terrorizing opponents. The Cardinals threw everything they had at Graham--Patrick Peterson, Yeremiah Bell, Tyrann Mathieu, double teams, bracket coverage, you-name-it--and none of it mattered.

Graham, for the second straight week, toyed with the helpless defenders who attempted to slow his ascendancy, all feebly crumbled and bewildered in the wake of his might.

If there's an offensive player more uncoverable than Graham this year, I'd like to see it.

Your move, Calvin Johnson.

The win, though, wouldn't be without Drew Brees.

After years of watching Brees excel and often compensate for the shortcomings of his team, it's easy to take for granted Brees's excellence and dependability. It's so easy that we (or, I) too often deride Brees for his missteps, all while he is arguably better than any other player at his position today.

I guess we do this because we're selfish and myopic and impetuous and forgetful and prone to waver. But whenever those feelings start to root, Brees is there to remind us that the heights of our expectations, while absurd, aren't all that farfetched.

No matter.

On a day that again saw him rushed and incapable of settling into the pocket, when his running game was nowhere to be found, Brees took it upon himself to deliver four touchdowns nonetheless. In stride with a dominating defensive performance, Brees relied on his innate athleticism, scrambling and improvising his way to another defining game.

Brees, after the innumerable accomplishments in his storied career, reacting with the raw emotion he displayed after rushing for a touchdown on Sunday, continues to reveal that not the money, not the trophies, and not the records have curbed his intent to achieve.

Drew Brees stills wants it as badly as ever, lest we forget.

When you look back at Brees from 2006 to the present, you see Brees's once boyish idealism in the face of a near-impossible adversity, not just smiling at and welcoming of the challenge, but ultimately besting it with a faith-altering mastery.

Without question, that process is ongoing today.

Sean Payton has said it before, and this applies to Brees as well.  This is Brees's deal--it's not ours, not A.J. Smith's, not Nick Saban's, not that of the mouthbreathers with MVP votes, and not Roger Goodell's.

It's only Brees's and his team's, and we are witnesses to the player who will undoubtedly go down as the greatest Saint ever.

Drew Brees is a man apart, a player facile at navigating the disquietude with the steadiest of hands. There's still more to come, and for that we should be excited and grateful.

With the reassuring, guiding presence of Brees, coupled with a defense transforming itself into a unit possessed, the Saints are reinventing themselves in this second era under Sean Payton.

Meanwhile, Payton has lost just one game as a head coach since late October 2011.

Sunday's win was, in the least, perception-shifting and confidence-inspiring. There's something happening here.

When we eventually look back on 2013 for watershed moments, Sunday's game will certainly be among the candidates.

Of course, there's a long way to go. But the road is wide open with promise.

Take note, haters.

A reckoning is underway.

16 September 2013

Same As It Ever Was?

2-0, with two division wins to boot, isn't exactly problematic.

It might not be the prettiest 2-0 start, but right now the aesthetics of a victory are about as meaningful as a sworn declaration from Mike Cerullo.

Sunday's win in Tampa was among the strangest in recent memory, and the hazy aftermath is still lingering a day later.

courtesy of neworleanssaints.com

It all started with a lightning storm and an hour delay, and it resumed with a desperate, clownish, chaotic Bucs' team out for blood. Drew Brees sustained a near-devastating hit that, miraculously, didn't knock him out of the game or seriously injure him.

As if that wasn't enough, Jimmy Graham took a blatant, vicious, frightening shot to his head that bent him backwards but, somehow, left him unscathed. Incredibly, Ahmad Black (who delivered the hit on Graham) was not ejected. He should expect a fine from the league office this week somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million dollars.

He should also spend a bit more time in the film room if he wants to stop Graham in week 17.

Seeing the Saints' two main offensive playmakers dust off those killshots and play on was a sign of things to come: The Saints might have appeared dead-to-rights, but they weren't. And they hung around for the last word.

Temporarily down, but not out.

In one minute, the Saints' offense erased fifty-nine minutes of frustrating hopelessness and, finally, delivered when it counted most. Graham, Sproles, Colston. 2-0.

For their part on Sunday, the offense looked as confounded and aimless as they ever have under Sean Payton. The offensive line was a disaster. Mark Ingram continued to reprise his role as Achilles' heel, and the Saints bumbled their way out of points time and again. Were it not for an all-time day from the dominant Jimmy Graham, the Saints would've limped out of Tampa with a loss.

But alas, all sixty minutes count and when the offense had their final shot, they delivered on the shoulders of a massive catch from Marques Colston.

Colston continues to fortify his place among the greats in Saints' history. The franchise leader in receptions and touchdowns (and yards soon enough), Colston again showed why he is as good of a possession receiver as exists in the NFL today. Were it not for Colston's repeated catches under pressure in the first two weeks, the Saints would likely be 0-2.

Colston's two key catches against Atlanta (one for a touchdown, the other to set up the insurance field goal) presaged his plate-setting reception against the Bucs. Without Colston thus far in 2013, the Saints might be in a world of shit.

Either way, at this point in Colston's career, Colston's selflessness and humility seem to amplify his greatness. The less he says, the more he does, the more resounding the impact of his skills, toughness, and dependability.

If you're looking for a reason (beyond the play of the defense) the Saints are 2-0 this morning, look no farther than the great Marques Colston.

On the other hand, if you're looking to assign blame for the Saints' offensive shortcomings, then maybe relax a little bit first. Sean Payton is still knocking off the rust.

Now, with that said, let's assign some blame.

The offensive line is under a significant reconstruction with the losses of Aaron Kromer and Jermon Bushrod, and reeling from consecutive quizzical performances by (a hurt?) Jahri Evans. The competence of the offensive line is critical to the Saints' big picture goals, and I trust Sean Payton to address this and adjust accordingly. This isn't Steve Spagnuolo we're working with here.

Additionally, let's hope that Sean Payton will eventually admit defeat over the failed Ingram experience. It's time to minimize from the game plan a player whose confidence is shattered, and whose presence on the field hinders the efforts of the offense. Payton might be obstinate, but he wants to win above all else.

Mostly, if there's anything to be confident in, it's that Payton will remedy the woes of his offense. After six seasons of watching Payton, we shouldn't doubt this.

Even better, Payton can work on the improvements with two wins under his belt, and with the strength of a confident, aggressive, burgeoning defense under Rob Ryan.

That defense, by the way, is a sight to behold.

The Saints' defense in 2013, much like the Saints' offenses of recent yore, has brushed off a wave of injuries and shined nonetheless. After two games, this defense believes in itself and has led the way to a 2-0 start.

There's a sense of urgency in the way they've played--intent, fast, and effective. This is translating (at least for me) into a newfound, calming trust. Combine that with a timely dose of some luck in both weeks, and the Saints are winning when maybe they otherwise wouldn't have.

If this is the way the Saints are going to win--"winning ugly"--then so be it. It counts all the same.

Cam Jordan looks like one of the better defensive ends in the league. Curtis Lofton played exceptionally well yesterday. Kenny Vaccaro is a sledgehammer. There's something here. Maybe even a lot.

If 2013 means grinding out defensive wins in the absence of a dominant offense, then that's far better than the alternative of yesteryear.

All in all, after two games, there's plenty to improve upon. But moreso than that, hope is plentiful. When the Payton-led Saints win with defense, and in spite of their offensive failings, then that's the best takeaway from everything that's happened thus far in 2013.

It's a long season and it's not always going to be easy or pretty. It's almost never going to unfold according to plan. But in the end, it's only the wins that matter.

After two games, in that regard, the Saints have been perfect. What else can you ask for?

Remember, it took almost eight weeks for the Saints to kick into high gear in 2011. We're just getting started here.

Enjoy the ride.

... A late edit, but this should be included, even though I neglected to say it:

09 September 2013

Clay Pigeons

First things, first.

courtesy of USA Today

There seems to be no end to the pundits' fascination with the Falcons, and yet again this preseason, we saw the comprehensive crowning of a paper champion.

As has become rote with the Smith/Ryan Falcons, when the big moments arrive, the Falcons shrivel up and lose.

We've seen it again and again and again and again and again and again, and we saw it yesterday too.

3-12 is the mark of a footstool, not a champion.

If the Falcons are so intent on being the best team in the league, then they should first worry about being the best team in their own division. Too bad all those experts don't recognize this.

Until that happens, the Falcons will be little more than the not-quite-good-enough team they've repeatedly proved themselves to be.

Nothing to see here.

As for the game itself, the most lasting impression was Sean Payton's trust in his new defense.

The key moment came on 4th and two from the Falcons' four-yard line, with 3:16 remaining, and the Saints holding a three-point lead. Instead of going for the touchdown and effectively icing the game, Payton opted to kick a field goal and play defense.

Think about that for a second. Payton bypassed the chance to put the game away with his offense, and instead attempted to win it with his defense. To me, this was a rather shocking decision especially in light of Payton's history of aggressiveness.

Added to that, had the Saints gone for it and failed, the Falcons would have faced 96 yards to win and 60+ yards to tie. With all that added up, I was certain Payton would go for it.

But he didn't.

What it amounted to was Payton trusting his defense more than he trusted his offense's ability to execute a two-yard play. It was weird, and seemingly out of character.

And as it turns out, it was the right move. Just barely, but right nonetheless (mind you, I am not complaining here). "Just barely" works every time as far as I'm concerned.

Of course, this is the reason Sean Payton is who he is: because he has a knack for the making the right choices at the right times. This time, it was trusting his defense and, more than that, it was an attempt to build a team that can win games when the offense isn't at its best.

Aside from just being a message of confidence sent to his defense--that he trusts them to close the deal--this might be indicative of a bigger shift within the Saints' overall philosophy.

For Payton to make a decision like this (in a close game against his division rival) is noteworthy.

In a league that's become increasingly spread-oriented and wide open--a large part of that embraced and pioneered by Sean Payton--yesterday's installment of the Saints looked fairly conventional. Maybe that was just the residue of the game planning, or maybe Payton believes a more traditional style is the best way to properly compete in the NFC this year. Only time will tell, but it's worth monitoring.

In a similar vein, as has been mentioned frequently, Drew Brees didn't play his best game yesterday.

By no means was it a poor performance, but we saw Brees miss throws that he's otherwise made effortlessly in years' past. While I don't think this is anything to fret over, and while I still have the ultimate confidence in Brees, there's a larger point to see here.

At some point, and we might already be there, a disproportionate reliance on Brees will hamper the Saints' Super Bowl aspirations.

Maybe that's always been the case, and I've just been a bit fooled by his stratospheric numbers. But one way or the other, if the Saints intend on winning another Super Bowl, it's going to take a well-rounded team that's competent in all phases of the game (duh).

An over-dependence on the offense, largely on the shoulders of Brees, might be enough to win ten games or so, but is it enough to win another Super Bowl? And you know, that's what this is all about.

When we listen to Sean Payton talk about an increased focus on improving the running game and the defense, he's saying, in so many words, that it takes more than just Brees and the passing game to be optimally competitive.

And while he can say this all he wants, what really matters is what happens on the field each week. In other words, will these stated intentions from Payton translate into his game plans?

In my opinion, that's what's going on here: a shift in the deeply-rooted Paytonian strategy to something (partly) new.

Though we're not exactly sure how Payton will approach the 2013 schedule in whole, we have some clues after one game.

If that's indicative of what's to come, this might be a completely "new" Sean Payton after all.