4 Downs: Four Reasons Why the Saints Fell Short of Expectations
The New Orleans Saints ended yet another postseason in bitter disappointment on Sunday, falling at home to the Minnesota Vikings 26-20 in overtime. Yet another pass interference no-call would ultimately finish a New Orleans season. This time on the other side of the ball, when Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph clearly pushed off New Orleans (alleged) defensive back P.J. Williams on the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime. Make no mistake though, the Saints were outplayed on both sides of the ball for the first three quarters of this contest. Only a furious fourth quarter rally by a few of their prideful stars even put them in a position to pull off a win.
Instead, New Orleans must endure another offseason asking themselves what might have been after having their biggest flaws exposed by a Vikings team considered inferior on paper. Here are a few main reasons another Saints season fell short of expectations.
1. Crippling Mistakes and Missed Opportunities
New Orleans has been on the wrong end of some blatantly ridiculous officiating no doubt. But the Saints have also shot themselves in the foot often this season. Their talent was often enough to overcome penalties, missed scoring chances, or other critical miscues, but would ultimately be a major contributor to a season falling short of expectations.
2. An Underachieving Secondary
New Orleans entered this game without starting cornerback Eli Apple, sidelined by an ankle injury. Janoris Jenkins had an outstanding game in place of Apple, though. Jenkins held Minnesota star receiver Stefon Diggs without a target in the first half and limited Diggs to just two catches for 19 yards in the game. Jenkins was also in on a sack, forced a fumble, and was excellent in run support among his 8 tackles.
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore played beneath his Pro Bowl standard on Sunday, and free safety Marcus Williams was caught out of position on some key throws. Lattimore was lackadaisical in coverage on Viking receiver Adam Thielen on two separate completions that led to scores. On the first drive of overtime, the star corner was sidelined after being injured on a tackle, getting replaced by Patrick Robinson. Minnesota took immediate advantage of inept Robinson coverage and a slow adjustment by Marcus Williams, hitting Thielen for a 43-Yd completion down to the Saints two yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Kirk Cousins smartly targeted P.J. Williams and hit Rudolph for the win.
Lattimore is one of the league’s top talents and the Saints made a big addition when adding Jenkins late in the year. Rookie defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has a bright future with the franchise. Other than that, the team faces a lot of questions among the unit this offseason. Apple, P.J. Williams, and Vonn Bell are all free agents. Robinson should not be back with the team, and questions continue to surround Marcus Williams. Several new faces may be added to a defensive backfield that again gave up some back-breaking plays with the season on the line.
3. Offensive Guard
The entire New Orleans offensive line played one of their worst games of the season at the worst time. The Vikings sacked quarterback Drew Brees three times and put him under duress many others. Elite tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead each struggled but weren’t even the weakest link in a poor line performance this day.
Minnesota’s defensive coaches identified the Saints offensive guards as a vulnerable area. To take advantage of this, they used their disruptive defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on inside rushes with great success. Left guard Andrus Peat and right guard Larry Warford adjusted poorly to the strategy, as Griffen and Hunter accounted for all three sacks along with forcing a crippling 4th quarter fumble by Brees.
The Saints could not establish any consistent control along the line of scrimmage, reflected in their inability to run the ball consistently. New Orleans finished with 97 rushing yards on 17 attempts, but an almost superhuman effort by Taysom Hill inflated that number. Alvin Kamara averaged just three yards per carry and Latavius Murray was used sparingly.
Armstead, Ramczyk, and rookie center Erik McCoy are perennial Pro Bowl talents, but both guard positions may see an offseason upgrade. Peat is an unrestricted free agent and won’t be back with the Saints. Nick Easton played well in Peat’s spot when he missed time with a broken arm down the stretch. Warford’s play regressed this season. Given the size of the veteran lineman’s contract and potential salary cap issues, the Saints may look for a younger and cheaper option at the position.
4. Wide Receiver
A thin and often criticized Vikings secondary contained All-Pro New Orleans wideout Michael Thomas, who managed 7 receptions but just 70 yards. Tight end Jared Cook had a monstrous fourth quarter and finished the game with 5 catches for 54 yards. Rookie Deonte Harris had a big 50-Yd second quarter reception to set up a score and Taysom Hill caught a 4th quarter touchdown pass from Brees. The New Orleans passing attack was ineffective outside of that, however, because of the inability of the other complimentary receivers to gain separation. Veteran WR Ted Ginn Jr. had one reception on two targets, while Tre'Quan Smith had no catches on only 1 target.
Wide receiver was highlighted as a major need by most observers before the 2019 season even began. The team did little to upgrade the position in the offseason and nothing at the trade deadline. Cook emerged as a dangerous pass-catching compliment to Thomas, and Kamara is one of the most productive receiving backs in the NFL. The lack of a viable number 2 wideout doomed an otherwise lethal offense though, and reconfirmed what should be this franchise’s top priority going into another early offseason.