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.

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