28 October 2013

Ascending The Peak (an alternate route)

Has a dominant Saints' team ever felt more unconvincing?

courtesy of ajc.com
Through seven games the Saints are 6-1 (very nearly 7-0) and winning their games by an average of eleven points.

They might be the best team in the NFC, and are certainly (thus far) one of the best five or so teams in the NFL this season.

Still, it's often felt like there's something missing this year. But that missing element is churning out, as I see it, angst in disproportionate quantities.

The Saints, for the most part, are in excellent shape.

But what's missing?

Partly, it's an offense with a leaky line that's been more scattered than lethal this year.

After seven weeks, this isn't an altogether new phenomenon.

The 2013 Saints have steadily, consistently revealed themselves to be a team distinct from the mold of their 2009-2011 predecessors.

This is a team that is less offensively dominant, but more defensively sound. In the end, they appear to be equally capable of making a run at the Super Bowl this year. It's just unfolding in a different way.

Whereas in the recent past the offense has carried the team in spite of an uneven defense, this year's team is more dependent on the contributions of its defense while the offense has (modestly) leveled off after years of blistering opponents with ease.

While this shift feels odd, and might be mistaken for feeling "worse" than prior iterations of great Payton teams, what we're seeing is just as effective and might even present a more sustainable model.

With seven games in the books, the Saints' defense has surrendered a Payton-era best 17.1 points per game and held three of its seven opponents under 300 yards of offense this season.

The Saints' offense has chipped in with a worthy 28.4 points per game (good for third-best after seven games under Payton, well behind both the '09 and '11 teams).

Though the 2013 Saints' offense hasn't always artfully and effortlessly produced yards and points, they've nevertheless been pretty damn good. In four of their last five games, after a sluggish start, they've scored 30+ points.

Through their first seven games, here's how the offense and defense have fared during the Payton era. This year's team, overall, looks as capable as ever:

Simply, this team is no longer top-heavy on offense. They've distributed the workload to their defense, and it's produced great results through seven games.

Their average +11 point differential puts them solidly aside the great '09 and '11 teams.

More specifically, 2009 produced six defensive touchdowns through the team's first seven games; the 2011 team's point differential over its first seven games was skewed by a 62-7 facekicking of a freefalling, hapless Colts' team.

In short, the point differential (seven games in) in '09 and '11 was weighted by a few unsustainable extremes.

In 2013, the significant point differential thus far has been the result of bland, balanced efficiency on both sides of the ball. This is a good thing.

Of course, the 2013 Saints are far from perfect and have plenty of areas in which to improve if they want to be more than one-and-done in the postseason. And again, it doesn't appear they've yet peaked as a team.

But the foundation of a championship team is in place, even if it frequently feels like the Saints are tripping over themselves.

On Sunday Drew Brees played a near-perfect game, completing 76.5% of his passes to ten players for five touchdowns.

At this point, Brees's rote greatness is barely even noticeable.

With a wide receiving corps that's been less-than-stellar this year, it was reassuring to see Lance Moore return yesterday. But more than that, Kenny Stills appears to be breaking out in a big way.

While Marques Colston has quizzically vanished from the offense (six catches for 44 yards in his last three games), Kenny Stills has emerged as a true weapon for the Saints.

Though Stills might not fit the prototype definition of a "number one" wide receiver, he's far more than a one-dimensional deep threat.

Prior to the season, the GSEZ blog said Stills was "already the best WR on the team." Halfway through the season, that contention may be proving itself true.

On Sunday, Stills' three catches illustrated the range of his nascent talent. On one, he beat the Bills' defense down the left sideline with ease for 69 yards and a touchdown. On his second catch, Stills smuggled himself into the Bills' deep interior and found a crease for an eighteen-yard catch on a first down.

Then, on the game's signature play, Stills improvised in concert with Brees for a backbreaking 42-yard touchdown.

On that play, Stills smartly boxed away his defender and won the jump ball, something he did with equal aplomb two weeks prior (in double coverage) against the Patriots, a skill that belies his size, and a trait reminiscent of the viciously-good Steve Smith.

The timing of Stills's emergence could not be better when you consider the tenuous health of Jimmy Graham, and a wide receiving unit struggling to make an impact.

The offense, and more specifically the team as a whole--regardless of Brees's presence or Stills's emergence or the thunderous big-little duo of Graham and Sproles--will go as far as the offensive line takes them.

If there's one factor (aside from injuries) that will make or break the Saints' 2013 season, it's the offensive line. Without question.

Far too often this year, Brees has been sacked and hit, forced to leave the pocket or unload the ball too quickly. If that continues to happen, I'm afraid we're in for another dose of postseason misery.

With upcoming games against the Jets, 49ers, Seahawks, and Panthers (twice), the Saints will face excellent, physical defensive front-sevens. How the offensive line handles those teams will significantly affect the Saints' big picture in 2013.

Homefield advantage, as always, is a key component for the Saints' postseason hopes. The difference between playing two playoff games in the Dome, or going on the road to Seattle or San Francisco is significant.

So buckle up.

The defining stretch of the Saints' 2013 season will very likely unfold over the next month.

I couldn't be more excited.

14 October 2013

Let It Bleed

The Saints' loss to the Patriots on Sunday was a reminder of the harsh reality of high expectations.

All losses aren't created equal, and Sunday's game proved that even the slightest blemish on an otherwise exceptional season can be downright brutal.

Ultimately, it wasn't so much what happened as much as it was how it happened.

courtesy of the LA Times
In a lot of ways, Sunday's game was reminiscent of the Saints' agonizing loss to San Francisco in the 2011 playoffs: both were road games in which the Saints dug themselves an early hole, then climbed out despite most everything going wrong, then miraculously reclaimed the lead at the end, only to then lose in the most soul-crushing of fashions.

On Sunday, the Saints endured a mind-bogglingly horrible spate of officiating; an off day from Drew Brees; injuries to Jimmy Graham and Cam Jordan; and an uncharacteristic ineffectiveness at the end (more on this later) against a team that's lost just three regular season home games since 2009.

And yet still, the Saints nearly emerged 6-0.

It took an extreme sequence of events for the Saints to lose against one of the NFL's all-time great coaches, coming off of a loss, in a place where he rarely loses.

Where fitful outrage might innately, and rightfully, take hold, it's the larger context that should reign supreme.

In his last sixteen games as the Saints' coach, Sean Payton is 14-2 with the two losses being the aforementioned games. Because the benchmark is now so lofty, and because it's taken damn-near perfect storms of mishap brushed by aberrant endgame lunacy (on the road) for the Saints to even lose recently, it's safe to say that the Saints will bounce back just fine following this loss.

In the meantime, Sunday's sting rates to linger for a while with the bye week on tap.

Additionally, the residual possibility of losing Jimmy Graham for an extended period potentially inflates the magnitude of Sunday's events.

But mostly, a road loss to an AFC team isn't likely to make much of a difference when it's all said and done this year.

As a rule, it's never a good idea to blame the officiating for a loss, and I'm not going to do so here. The Saints had multiple chances to close it out and failed, but still ...

It's not so easy to immediately forget a dodgy, endzone pass interference call on 3rd down that then produced a Patriots' touchdown; or an enraging false start penalty on what should have been a neutral zone infraction, that almost surely cost the Saints points at the end of the first half; or a shifty unnecessary roughness call on Malcolm Jenkins on a drive that later produced a Pats' field goal; or the cynical non-call of the Brees' timeout that either should have been a timeout or a delay of game penalty, yet was bizarrely allowed to unfold as a play in which Jimmy Graham then injured himself and Brees threw an interception, ultimately culminating in another Patriots' field goal; or the maddening unpenalized hog-tie of Junior Galette on Tom Brady's game-winning touchdown pass.

Getting boned isn't anything new to the Saints, and I'm sure Payton and company are prepared to brush it off like the minor disturbance it is.

Those were the infuriating, altering aspects of the loss but nevertheless, the Saints should have finished off the Patriots when they had the chance(s).

On the Saints' final two possessions, both inside of three minutes, the Saints' offense failed to produce a first down that would have iced the game. Instead, they went three-out-field goal and then three-out-punt, the latter sequence setting the table for a brutal loss.

To me, the endgame wasn't an issue of poor playcalling by Sean Payton.

Throughout the second half the Saints had run the ball well, racking up 122 yards on 20 carries. When it counted most, though, the Saints failed to execute in the running game and it cost them.

Payton again opted for the safer route, a trait he's consistently shown in 2013, but in this instance it wasn't a route unfounded. At that point, there wasn't reason to think the Saints couldn't grind out one more first down on ground.

If there was anything in those last two drives that proved strange, it was the awkward 3rd-down bootleg call for Brees. That, of course, diverged from the years-long established personality of the aggressive Payton. But moreso than that, the playcall seemed out of character for a team that's never relied on smoke-and-mirrors to finish off an opponent.

But it was only one of six penultimate playcalls, and had Chandler Jones bit on the play-fake, Brees would likely have run for a first down, and we'd all be hailing Sean Payton for his devious genius.

Instead, Jones played it smart and wasn't fooled. Thems the breaks.

On a positive note, the Saints' youth movement continues to emerge as viable.

Nick Toon and Kenny Stills have increasingly looked more comfortable and impactful through six weeks. If there's a transition underway among the Saints' receiving corps, it's in good hands. Literally.

On the defensive side of the ball, Rafael Bush played a stellar game on Sunday. Bush has proved himself both smart and an excellent tackler, and the more he's played, the better he's looked. Sunday continued a trend of impressive outings for Bush while filling in for an injured Roman Harper. Here's to hoping Bush remains a key component of the Saints' secondary when Harper returns from injury.

Most notably, Khiry Robinson appears to have officially replaced Mark Ingram in the Saints' backfield.

Robinson has made the most of his limited touches this year, averaging 5.3 yards on his season's 26 carries. In Sunday's second half Robinson again played his role well, igniting a rushing attack that helped the Saints wrest control of the game.

Absent injury, I'm not sure if Mark Ingram will ever log another carry in New Orleans. With the bye week ahead, an Ingram trade might actually come to fruition.

Get ready for the speculation to reach a fevered pitch.

Heading into the bye week at 5-1, the Saints are in fine position to make a run at the #1 seed in the NFC.

In the broader context, that's all that really matters.

All things considered--Sean Payton reacclimating himself, Rob Ryan installing a new defense, the team battling a consistent stream of injuries--2013 has unfolded exceptionally well thus far.

Let not the ephemera of Sunday define the whole.

With a key four-game stretch looming next month--vs. Dallas, vs. San Francisco, at Atlanta, at Seattle--the Saints control their fate in the race for the NFC's top seed.

Sunday's loss in New England, assuming Jimmy Graham eventually returns healthy, won't impact the Saints' 2013 hopes in any lasting way.

In fact, the lessons learned from Sunday's painful loss may prove beneficial as the Saints march on towards the postseason.

07 October 2013

A Converging Menace

In 2009, the Saints' season started with six double-digit wins with the Saints scoring 40+ points in four of those games.

In 2011, the Saints labored to a nondescript start before putting it together and winning nine straight games in resounding, historic offensive fashion.

courtesy of the AP/Commercial Appeal

In 2013, the Saints' early-season story hasn't been one of dominance (like '09) or one of inconsistency (like '11).

Instead, it's been a season that started with a little bit of luck--winning on the game's final play in both weeks one and two--and then continued with three subsequent victories on the strength of defense and an offense that, much like the defense, is re-imagining itself in 2013.

The dominant thread that's weaved its way through the season thus far has been the consistency of the defense who, for the fifth straight game, surrendered fewer than twenty points. As Mike Detillier pointed out, the Saints are 42-3 when the Saints surrender fewer than twenty points under Payton, and on Sunday, that proved true again.

But more than just that, in some ways, this appears to be the most conventional Saints' team that Sean Payton has assembled and, potentially, the best.

As opposed to the previous years of pinballish offensive fury combined with carnival-schemed defenses--some capable, some futile--the Saints of 2013 are shaping up to be a well-rounded, cold, efficient machine.

In fact, they appear to be the league's most complete team: coach, quarterback, offense, defense, special teams, and home-field advantage.

It's been more business and less party, extremes less polarized, baselines higher and more stable.

While a significant portion of popular Saints' dialogue has revolved around the Saints achieving a better balance on offense, it's that "balance" that's of lesser importance to the team's ultimate goals.

Now with a defense more than capable of winning games in its own right, the Saints are balanced in a way that they've never been under Payton: highly-capable on both sides of the ball.

In that regard, they've achieved an equilibrium of competence that seemed unlikely just six weeks ago. And this Saints' team, as a result, looks much different than anyone could have predicted.

When it's all said and done, they just might be comprehensively, unflinchingly fearsome.

The offense, even without much of a running game, has evolved into a unit content to control the ball and devour the clock. For five straight games, the Saints have possessed a significant advantage in time of possession.

Attributing to an average nine-minute advantage in possessing the ball, the Saints have slowly choked the life out of their opponents, especially in the last three weeks.

Whereas in the past the Saints' offensive intent was focused on quick strikes and a relentless tempo, this year's offense is playing with a curbed urgency and one that is, perhaps, more conducive to the team's greater overall benefit.

This Saints' 2013 offense is operating not with pace, but with the luxury of it, fast when necessary but otherwise deliberate and patient. In a league that is trending towards a faster tempo, the Saints--a team that led that fast-paced revolution--are moving beyond that simplified approach.

Thus far it's paid dividends as Payton, yet again, innovates ahead of his lesser peers.

Though the offense has been more deliberate than fast this season, that's not to say the up-tempo pace is a thing of the past. "Fast" is now less of a philosophy and more of a situational weapon.

At the end of the second quarter on Sunday, we saw that weapon deployed in all its jugular, retro glory. It was a glimpse borne of necessity. And it was fucking beautiful.

With 2:41 remaining in the first half and the Saints nursing a 13-7 lead, the Saints took possession of the ball on their own 29-yard line.

On first down, Brees struck deep down the left sideline for 35 yards to the quietly-impressive Nick Toon.

On the next play, Sean Payton dialed up Robert Meachem on a deep drag route that--if not for an obvious pass interference penalty that went uncalled and prevented Meachem from making the catch--would have seen the Saints go 71 yards in two plays for a touchdown.

But the uncalled penalty just didn't matter.

There's no stopping inevitable.

Even after a penalty set the Saints back five yards, Brees hit Graham down the middle for ten yards, then Sproles for another three, before Pierre Thomas converted a ballsy 4th and two.

From the Bears' 25-yard line on first down, Brees targeted Kenny Stills down the right sideline in the back corner of the end zone. Even though Stills couldn't make the catch, the Bears' defenders by that time were on skates, heads swiveling from the Saints' wide-dervish of distribution, and seemingly slinking away from the onslaught.

With the Bears' defense clearly flummoxed, on their heels, and waiting for the next strike to the end zone, Sean Payton, with masterful timing, called one of his signature plays: the Pierre Screen.

Blocked to perfection by a convoy of offensive lineman and executed with the exquisite vision and savvy of the artful Pierre Thomas, the Saints punched it in the endzone and left just twenty-three seconds on the clock. 20-7. And for all practical purposes, the dagger in the throat.

Six players targeted on eight plays, 71 yards, two minutes, one game-clinching touchdown.

That sequence was a microcosm of the generation-one Payton offense melding with its generation-two counterpart: at once predatory and fast, then clock-killingly diligent and smart, all the while inevitable in its end result.

The Saints' victory against the Bears was an indication, again, of a team that can now win in a variety of ways.

On Sunday, the Saints got it done on the road with a mix of reliable defense, special-teams' excellence from Garrett Hartley, and timely offensive execution. It was another chapter in the smart, complete football of 2013, tracing to Bill Parcells' influence on the ever-evolving Sean Payton.

And it bears mentioning, in my opinion, that the Saints haven't even come close to playing their best this season.

At 5-0, even in increasingly impressive fashion, the 2013 Saints are still just scratching the surface.

The lazy pundits who not long ago collectively kicked dirt on the Saints' grave are now forced to take notice, and the football world is reminded that, in the last half-decade, there's been no better NFL coach than Sean Payton.

That trend continues as the grand reckoning of 2013 rolls on.

02 October 2013

Off He Goes

Sean Payton's 100th game as the Saints' head coach, a milestone in its own right, illustrated many of the reasons Payton is both the most accomplished coach in Saints' history and, in a coach-driven league, the league's highest-paid head coach.

On Monday night, a venue where Payton has flaunted his wares at the expense of overmatched opponents time after time after time, the Saints took another step in putting it all together in 2013.

courtesy of NBCMiami.com

At 4-0, the Saints are perfect in the most relevant way.

In other ways, they are far from perfect. But whatever those imperfections are right now, they haven't prevented the Saints from winning.

The Saints' offense, for the second week in a row, flashed hints of its years-long reign of supremacy as Drew Brees, yet again, unlocked an opponent's defense with an indiscriminate precision and grace.

Sean Payton, still regaining his skills and timing as a playcaller, bludgeoned the Dolphins with a dizzying bevy of personnel and formations. It was vintage Payton, king of the exploit. As Drew Brees said after the game, Payton's goal is to "formation [you] to death."

On Monday night, it was indeed death-by-formation at the hands of the man who is reacclimating himself and reminding all of us that, yes, coaches do very much matter.

For the first time this season, it appeared that Payton was a step ahead at all times, a skill that's separated him as the league's best schemer and play-caller, a master of recognition, foresight, and adjustments. As it stands today, the quick twitch of Payton's brain is perhaps the ultimate offensive weapon in the NFL, and on Monday night, it showed.

For their part, the Dolphins (rightfully) appeared to focus their defensive efforts on Jimmy Graham and, in the process, poisoned themselves with a crippling dose of Darren Sproles.

Sproles, who over three seasons has seamlessly blended into the Saints' offense and special teams with an ease and impact that Reggie Bush never quite could, sped around Dolphins' defenders as if they were mere cones in a practice drill.

Time and again, Sproles, a devastating bundle of short-fused dynamite, exploded through the Dolphins' defense to their unrecoverable detriment. His 222 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns harkened back to Sproles' transcendent 2011 season, and reminded opponents of ill-prepare that Sproles is to be ignored at their peril.

Meanwhile, by the time the Dolphins had scrambled to adjust and account for Sproles, Payton and Brees shifted their focus to Jimmy Graham who hulked his way to another eye-popping performance, kneecapping the Dolphins' hopes in the process.

Not yet done, Payton called on Marques Colston to close out the game in the absence of a trustworthy running game.

All seven of Colston's catches came in the second half as the Saints' protected and cushioned their lead, bled the clock, and served notice to a national audience that this is a team primed for the rumble.

As Jimmy Graham said after the game, those are not so much chips on the team's shoulders as they are bricks.

Take heed.

Added to that, through four games, the Saints have one of the league's better defenses.

Fuckin' a.

"You think you know, but you don't know. And you never will. Ok? Just for your own information." 

After professional stints in Arizona, New England, Oakland, Cleveland, and Dallas, Rob Ryan--a lovable gypsy soft-selling his brand of unconventional defense--has truly found a home in New Orleans.

Ryan has embraced what was not long ago the most narrow viaduct of hope, and built it into something resembling an ever-widening span of unpredictable frenzy and efficiency.

With 25% of the regular season completed, Rob Ryan has the Saints highly perched in several important defensive categories: points allowed (5th), passer rating (3rd), takeaways (5th), red zone scoring attempts allowed (5th), and 3rd down conversion percentage (10th).

More impressively, the Saints have yet to surrender twenty points in a game, a stat incredible in itself (all things considered) and one that places the Saints alone with the Kansas City Chiefs in that category.

As Wang smartly pointed out last week, the Saints' defense has almost certainly benefited by dint of circumstance. With injuries displacing a variety of players who otherwise would have been playing, this defense might not have emerged had it not all unfolded this way.

As a result, the defense has assumed the promising, new face of youth: Jordan, Galette, Hicks, J. Jenkins, Walker, Foster, Wilson, Bush, M. Jenkins, and Vaccaro. At 26 years of age, Rafael Bush is the oldest of the aforementioned ten names.

It's a core that is morphing the Saints into a different breed of team they've previously been under Payton. As opposed to the three seasons under Gregg Williams, this feels altogether different with regards to the defense's youth, base efficiency, consistency, and ceiling.

It's only a sample of four games against lesser-than-stellar offenses, but it's a start ripe with promise for a group pecking with attitude. And mostly, it's tough to argue with the results.

The Saints' schedule should prove much more challenging in the coming two months. Trips to Chicago and New England in the next two weeks, and a four-game stretch in November that includes Dallas, San Francisco, (at) Atlanta, and (at) Seattle will ultimately tell the tale of the Saints' regular season.

The Saints have taken care of business in four games where they've been favored; soon we'll see how they respond to playing in difficult road environments and in games in which they'll be the underdog. The die isn't cast quite yet.

Sean Payton is aware that 4-0 is of little consequence if the Saints stumble in the next two months. During Monday night's postgame press conference, Payton certainly didn't act like the coach of a 4-0 team fresh off of a 21-point win on national television.

Instead, Payton appeared annoyed and cranky. Though he might have been, the likelihood is that Payton was also partaking in a bit of rehearsed acting. Payton, who learned this tactic from Bill Parcells, has often said it's important to keep his players balanced, minimizing the extreme highs and lows of emotion that inevitably accompany each season. Payton has maintained this balancing act, apparently, by being demanding and unsatisfied during the prosperous times, while being reassuring and uplifting during the struggles.

After a fast start, it would be easy for the Saints to sit back and admire their early-season accomplishments.

But Payton's not going to let that happen, and we saw that soon after Monday's game. "Don't eat the cheese" and all that.

When you consider the differences in the Saints with and without Sean Payton, these are the little things that turn mediocrity into excellence: a focus on the big picture, and a plan for getting there.

For 2013, the Saints haven't fully materialized their potential (i.e., played their best) and this is probably a good thing, especially considering their record. As bold as this may sound, the possibilities for this team, if and when they put it all together, are as promising as they've been in the Payton era.

The best news, perhaps, is that Sean Payton is still rounding back into form as a coach and playcaller. And as he gets better, so will his team.

With the Saints at 4-0 and intact with a surging defense, that should be a disconcerting thought for the rest of the NFL.

For he still smiles ...
And he's still strong ...
Nothing's changed but the surrounding bullshit that has grown ...
And now he's home ...
And we're laughing like we always did ...