For the New Orleans Saints, it doesn't get much more impressive during the NFL Pre-Season, than it did last night in a 13-0 "shutout" win against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
With the win, New Orleans improved to (2-1) in the 2017 Pre-Season; and for the 2nd straight week after last Sunday Night's win over the Los Angles Chargers in Southern California, the game was dominated by defense --- and especially that of the Saints.
The rapidly rising young Saints "D" recorded its first Pre-Season "shutout "since a 13-0 victory over the Bengals in 2008. It was also just the 5th Pre-Season shutout ever in the team's entire 51-year history.
The Saints still have one Pre-Season game left on their schedule, which will take place this upcoming Thursday Night, against the Baltimore Ravens. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Central time at the Superdome.
They will then open the 2017 NFL regular season in just 2 more weeks from tomorrow night, when they travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota to face the Vikings on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 5 biggest "winners and losers", from last night's impressive Saints victory over the Houston Texans.
THE BIGGEST WINNERS
#5. SHELDON RANKINS, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
There's only word needed to describe last year's top Draft pick and starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins: DOMINANT. On what was the final play of the 1st quarter, Rankins DESTROYED Texans right guard Jeff Allen so bad that it was he that nearly took the handoff from Texans QB Tom Savage, before Texans RB Rickey Ervin could which resulted in a 4-yard loss for Houston.
Rankins also batted down a pass and was able to get penetration on many of his rushes, while flashing what appears to be impressive mid-season form already at this point of the year.
With the Saints losing Nick Fairley to a heart condition in the off-season, the play of Rankins is a very comforting sign for the Saints interior pass rush heading into the regular season. If Rankins is able to play like he did last night consistently, it will be a huge relief for fans and for the team's defensive coaching staff.
#4. AL-QUADIN MUHAMMAD, DEFENSIVE END
You'll recall that Muhammad has already appeared on this list once already this Pre-Season, and you're seeing it again for one simple fact: this kid WILL be on the team's Final 53-man roster when it is announced next week. For the 3rd straight week, Muhammad was able to record a sack; while generating consistent pressure off the outside edge as he played for most of the 2nd half.
As we mentioned after that game a few weeks ago in Cleveland: with Muhammad's strong performance during Training Camp and now in all 3 of these Pre-Season games so far, there is NO WAY the Saints will be able to "sneak" Muhammad onto the Practice Squad.
After last might's performance, it shouldn't be an issue; since the 22-year old Muhammad has clearly went out and earned his roster spot, giving the Saints scouting department what appears to be another late round Draft"gem"to their credit. This kid can play -- and do it well. He'll only get even better, with more time and experience.
#3. P.J. WILLIAMS, CORNERBACK
Let's be totally honest: there are a lot of "haters" and doubters / pessimists out there who openly recoiled in horror at the suggestion of Williams taking over the #1 CB spot at the outside boundary position; in the absence of starter Delvin Breaux -- who's out until the 4th game of the season with a fractured fibula.
After last night however, they have nothing to be worried about -- at least so far anyway. Williams had a PBU (pass break-up) against Texans QB Tom Savage on one play, and "blanketed" Texans WR's with tight press coverage throughout the 1st half that eventually helped the Saints defense get its first defensive shut-out during the Pre-Season, in nearly a decade.
Williams last night thoroughly demonstrated his capability to "lock down" the outside boundary position in Breaux's absence; and while Texans QB Tom Savage won't be confused with a Drew Brees or Tom Brady anytime soon, the fact that Williams played as well as he did should put to rest any lingering doubts about his ability to man the #1 CB spot until Breaux returns.
#2. MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK
Speaking of Saints cornerbacks, if P.J. Williams was impressive last night, then his teammate and fellow CB Marshon Lattimore has to be considered just as impressive if not more so, after a fantastic 1st half performance.
Although he didn't get to face off with either of the Texans starting WR's (Texans top receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Braxton Miller were both given the night off), Lattimore was still able to play "lock down" coverage against Texans QB Tom Savage throughout the first half.
Lattimore was able to make a pair of nice PBU's in single coverage against Houston WR's Dre' Anderson and Jaelen Strong, and even when he gave up a few completions later in the half, it wasn't anything that he was beaten badly on.
As with P.J.. Williams, any concerns about the outside boundaries being defended adequately by these two young CB's while Breaux is out of action, should have been laid to rest. Over time, both Lattimore and Williams will only continue to get better and improve, with each subsequent game.
#1. DENNIS ALLEN, DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Eight tackles for loss. 12 pass break-ups. The first "shutout" for the team during the NFL Pre-Season, in nearly a decade (2008). 16 sacks in 3 games. 6.6 average points allowed by the defense. Those are some of the impressive statistics this Pre-Season put up by the Saints defense; and while there are plenty of people that deserve recognition for those numbers, one man should receive the accolades: defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
Now well into his 2nd full year as the team's man in charge of the defense, Allen has finally gotten all of the pieces into the right places. For Allen, it's never been a question of the scheme that's run, but simply a matter of getting the right players to "fit" into that system, and then being able to have them actually stay healthy long enough to play in it every week.
The most encouraging sign is that outside of a few late 4th quarter deep passes given up to the Browns 2nd-string WR's in the 1st Pre-Season game, we haven't seen all that much of the blown assignments or coverages from the past so far, that we have seen a lot of especially in the past 3 years worth of losing seasons.
Allen has this unit playing fundamentally sound and perhaps more importantly: an emotionally invested, inspired and PASSIONATE brand of defensive football, and if he can just get the Saints defense to "middle of the pack" in the overall NFL defensive rankings in the regular season, the Saints will be a Playoff team.
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
#5. (TIE) MARK INGRAM AND ADRIAN PETERSON, RUNNING BACKS
When you have such an impressive overall performance by a team that looked as good as the Saints did for the most of the game last night, it's a bit hard sometimes to call anyone a "loser" in that sense, but someone more often than not has to get that label.
Last night as a whole, the Saints running game struggled a bit against a tough Texans defensive front, especially in the 1st half against the Houston starters. Ingram tallied 9 yards on 4 carries, while Peterson gained only 15 total yards on 6 carries, in his Saints debut. He also caught one pass for a 1-yard loss. Combined, the Saints "star" RB's tallied 24 yards on 10 carries, a 2.4 average.
Again, the Texans defense are no slouches themselves, which isn't all that surprising given their #1 overall defensive ranking of a year ago. However, Saints fans will be hoping that the team's running game -- which didn't utilize dynamic rookie Alvin Kamara, who was given the night off -- will fare much better in the regular season opener now only 2 weeks away, against a similarly "stingy" Vikings defense.
#4. COREY FULLER, WIDE RECEIVER
Saints fans may recall that after a solid first week of Training Camp, there was a great deal of buzz surrounding 4th year WR Corey Fuller, who the Saints signed off the Detroit Lions Practice Squad late last year. Fuller had a phenomenal 1st week of Camp, and looked to be a virtual "lock" to nail down the team's 5th and final WR spot on the 53-man roster. Funny how quickly some things can change, and only at a moment's notice.
Fuller since that point in time has been surpassed and probably even "blown past" (both figuratively and literally) by 2nd year WR Tommylee Lewis, and last night it didn't get any better. Fuller was flagged for an offensive pass interference early in the 3rd quarter, and finished with zero catches for zero yards.
With the Pre-Season coming to an end this upcoming Thursday Night against the Baltimore Ravens, Fuller has one last shot at impressing the Saints coaching staff; and if he can't, then what once was looking to be a "story book" future for the 25-year old, will not finish with a "happy ending".
#3. VONN BELL, FREE SAFETY
As we mentioned, it's hard to pick out "losers" when the Saints have played as well as they did overall last night, but it can't be ignored how quickly that 2nd year safety appears to have been surpassed on the team's depth chart at free safety.
While Bell will still see plenty of action this year given how often the team utilizes the position in so many of their 3-safety defensive looks, it's evident that the overwhelming talent of rookie free safety Marcus Williams is having a huge impact on the "pecking order" of that position group.
Bell replaced Kenny Vaccaro in the 1st half and played side-by-side with Williams for the entire 1st half of the game; but in the 2nd half, Bell remained out on the field with the 2nd-team defense -- while Williams stood on the sidelines with his helmet off, while talking and smiling and looked to have been took the rest of the night off.
Again, it's a stretch to call Bell a "loser" in any sense; but since it appears that he may have been surpassed on the team's official depth chart at free safety, it is what it is.
#2. GARRETT GRAYSON, QUARTERBACK
Time is starting to quickly run out on Saints 3rd year QB Garrett Grayson; and with the Pre-Season coming to an end this upcoming Thursday Night against the Baltimore Ravens, the 25-year old will likely have one last shot at impressing the Saints coaching staff -- or else his time in NOLA will probably be coming to an unfortunate end.
Grayson completed 2 of 6 passes for a total of 35 yards, and was sacked twice. While he wasn't exactly horrible as he's looked at other times in the past 2 years, his performance certainly wasn't overwhelming enough to warrant being kept as the 3rd QB on the team's Final 53-man roster cuts are announced next weekend.
Should the Saints give up on Grayson? Or, should they re-sign him back to the Practice Squad and then try to help develop him for one more year, to see if he can finally live up to the expectations that the team originally had for him? In a week from now, we'll know just exactly how Grayson does (or doesn't) factor into the Saints' future plans.
#1. STEPHONE ANTHONY, LINEBACKER
For the 2nd straight week in a row, Saints 3rd year LB Stephone Anthony did not see any action at all; and since there's beenno report or revelation of any major injury that would have made him miss this much time (he played and started against the Browns, but hasn't practiced or played since), it's become evident that Anthony's time with the Saints is now temporary at best.
At this point, we can only assume that had Anthony suffered any major type of injury, the club would have openly revealed it instead of the "undisclosed" tag that it's been given to this point; with Payton even having told reporters last week that Anthony would be back for last night's game.
The Saints are pretty much set at the linebacker spot, with A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Craig Robertson, Manti Te’o, and even Nate Stupar having nailed down spots, presumably leaving two more spots open to Anthony, Adam Bighill, and veteran Michael Mauti to fight for.
As of this moment, it's hard to say what the Saints will do with Anthony, who was their second of two 2015 1st Round draft picks; but unless we hear about some sort of a major injury that the team's been keeping secret all of this time, then seeing Anthony get traded and even released, becomes a distinct possibility..........