Saints Under Siege

Monday October 20th, 2014

Outside of the Seahawks, who sit at .500 after a loss to the Rams, the Saints may be the biggest disappointment of the still-young season. New Orleans fell to 2-4 after blowing a 23-10 lead with 5:17 remaining in Detroit.

New Orleans slumped to a 1-3 start and needed an overtime victory against the Buccaneers to get to 2-3. There were myriad problems, many of them on the undisciplined defensive side of the ball where coordinator Rob Ryan was either making questionable schematic calls, or his players were flat-out not executing.

But the Saints had a bye in Week 6. The NFC South may be the worst division in football (no one is above .500), and there was plenty of time to get things fixed. For much of Sunday’s game at Detroit, it looked like the Saints were on the right track. Ryan seemed to have things figured out on his side of the ball, and Sean Payton was figuring out a way to be effective against a stingy Lions defense (although he continues to be too pass-heavy).

And then, with less than six minutes to go, things fell apart on both sides of the ball. That is how debacles like this happen. Even more worrisome for the Saints: The problems that arose were the same ones plaguing them before the bye week. If they couldn't right the ship with an extra week to prepare, they may never do it.

It started when the Lions had a third-and-13 from their own 27-yard line with 3:52 to play. All the Saints had to do was make Detroit earn their way down the field and chew up clock. Instead, cornerback Corey White made the unbelievably dumb decision to go for the ball on a nine-yard pass to Golden Tate, rather than keeping Tate in front of him and making the tackle. Then safety Kenny Vaccaro didn’t get to the sideline to force Tate back inside. The result: a 73-yard touchdown.

It was the latest in long line of poor play from Saints defenders with the game on the line. Sure the players are partly to blame, but when you see the same mistakes repeating themselves, it’s obvious they aren’t being coached well enough. Still, the unit played well for most of the game, and their mental errors are getting less by the week. There’s hope that the unit continues to progress.

That might not be the case on the offensive side of the ball. According to what they’re being paid (only the Falcons, at $72.4 million, spent more cap room on offense this season than the Saints’ $70.2 million, according to overthecap.com), there is talent all over that unit. But they’re not getting the job done, specifically on the offensive line.

In many ways, the Saints’ problems are very similar to what the Patriots were going through during the first four games of the season. Drew Brees is getting pressured way too much. Whether that’s a result of Payton’s lack of patience with the running game, the offensive line not blocking well, or Brees not seeing the field clearly, it’s hard to say. It’s probably, like most things, a combination of everything.

Brees (age 35), Tom Brady (37) and Peyton Manning (38) are the aging pocket quarterbacks in the league. They have carried their teams for a long time. They just can’t do it when they are pressured one out of every four snaps. That’s why, on the same day Manning is being celebrated for setting the league’s all time mark for career passing touchdowns in a blowout win over the 49ers, Brees is struggling and Brady’s Patriots barely squeaked by the outmanned Jets.

Pressure affects every quarterback, no matter how talented they are, be it in the form of sacks, hits or hurries. Pressure speeds up passers—especially those that operate strictly from the confines of the pocket. It throws them off rhythm. They don’t anticipate receivers coming open. They rush through their progressions.

Look at the difference in pressure felt by Brees, Manning and Brady in their games so far (data thanks to ProFootballFocus.com) and it’s clear who has been successful and why.

BreesManningBradypressure Sheet1

In his six games this season, Brees has been pressured at least 25 percent of the time in five of those games. Brees got his best protection (21.1 percent pressure) in the win over the Vikings. In total, Brees has been pressured on 29.2 percent of his dropbacks.

Brady has felt pressure on more than a quarter of his dropbacks in four of his seven games. Those four games included the Patriots’ two losses (when Brady was pressured 40.0 and 42.3 percent of the time), with the other two narrow home victories over the Raiders and Jets (teams that are 1-12 combined). For the season, Brady has been pressured more than Brees (30.8 percent).

Then there’s Manning. He has crossed the 25 percent pressure threshold only twice: the loss against the Seahawks and the struggle against the Jets. Manning has been pressured on less than 19.2 percent of his snaps in four of his six games. Neither Brees nor Brady has been kept that clean in any game.

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For Brees, the final two drives against the Lions were a microcosm of the season thus far. On 11 dropbacks over the final two drives (one a run by Brees), he was pressured eight times, including the interception with 3:20 to play that allowed the Lions to take the lead. Brees has to find a way not to make that mistake, but those things happen when you’re constantly feeling the heat.

The Saints’ offensive line has to play better if they are to turn this season around. Guards Ben Grubbs ($11 million) and Jahri Evans ($9.1 million), who have the second- and third-highest cap numbers on the team, haven’t been close to good enough this season. The Saints better hope this is a slump and not a sign they are in decline, or else the line could implode. Tackles Terron Armstead (two pressures allowed on the final two drives) and Zach Strief (three) must play better down the stretch.

Brees can get his groove back like Brady has, but only if the offensive line improves its play. If that doesn’t happen (and it can be helped in part if Payton reemphasizes the running game), then the Saints’ disappointing start is going to lead to a full-season failure.

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