Professional sports are about winning. There are no moral victories; there are no trophies for participation. Athletes are paid handsomely to play a game for our entertainment. But the expectation is that they will perform exceedingly well and win the contest. However, when your team is historically poor and underachieving on a regular basis, sometimes you want to stop and look at progress being made. The Who Dat Nation wants to hope it’s more than just a mirage; that maybe it’s a sign of things to come.
The New Orleans Saints lost to the New York Giants on Sunday 16-13. That’s what the papers will say and what the record will show. It’s another loss. If you throw in preseason (and in a sense, you must do so because you have rookies on your team who are impressionable) the Saints haven’t tasted victory in any of their six outings this year. Addthat on top of that last season with the preseason, and our sophomore season guys have a combined record currently of 7-19. That’s just a lot of losing, and it ingrains a losing culture, which is what is used to be prevalent in this area before Sean Payton and Drew Brees came to town.
So to combat the losing culture you must imbue some of the positives while working out the negatives. This is going to be a long season it seems. There will be plenty of negatives. Is there some hope? If you allow for the moral victories, then maybe there is hope.
Last year’s matchup of these two teams went for 101 points and over 1000 yards of offense. Drew Brees threw for seven touchdowns and Eli Manning passed for six touchdowns of his own. While it was known that the Giant’s defensive line was improved over last year, their defensive backfield was still a question mark. Furthermore, the Saints entire defense was unproven. It stood to reason this could be another offensive game, particularly after the Saints scored 4 touchdowns last week.
How wrong everyone was in that thought. Sunday’s version of the Saints defense didn’t give up a single touchdown. They played exceptional and didn’t break. Yes, they allowed 417 total yards – get used to it. This defense isn’t built to stop people, it’s built to slow them down and then hold them from scoring touchdowns. The 400 plus yards of offense against them will be the norm, not the exception. And they allowed way too many big plays down the stretch. That has to be rectified.
Now for the positives. Not only did the Saints defense not give up a touchdown, they held a Giants offense with three solid receivers to three field goals. They also got two sacks on Eli Manning and forced three turnovers in the game. Again, Kenny Vaccaro was a man to be reckoned with on defense as well as Craig Robertson, who is looking to push another person into the dead money pile (Robertson is filling the role of Dannell Ellerbe, who has to this point played six games for the Saints, none of them this season). Expectations were high for Sterling Moore, the cornerback the Saints added before the first week of the season. Moore has had some success in the past in covering some of the game’s elite wide receivers including Odell Beckham, Jr. and Julio Jones. His performance Sunday was solid and promising. He was second on the team in tackles and had one nice pass defense in covering Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham probably won the war for the day, but Moore won his share of battles.
For the second game in a row, we lost a starting defensive back. Rookie P.J. Williams has been hot and cold as a starter for us so far this year making some big plays and whiffing on some, but it seemed like he was trending in a positive direction. Unfortunately, on a tackle early in the game he landed awkwardly and then was kneed in the back of the head by a teammate. Williams suffered a concussion and was taken from the stadium on a stretcher. The positive news is that upon getting to the hospital, Williams had feeling and movement in all his extremities, and there was some speculation he might have been able to fly home with the team on Sunday.
In Williams’ absence, the Saints called more upon Vonn Bell – a safety by nature but pressed into action as a general defensive back, as the Saints played more zone with the less agile defensive backs on the field. Bell turned in a nice day with nine tackles, including one for a loss. And low and behold a Jairus Byrd sighting was on the field! Byrd had what seemed to be his most productive day as a Saint.
All these were positive signs for a Saints defense that is still second worst in the league and still gives up way too many yards. The Black and Gold are far from a finished product, but the trend seems to be in the right direction.
Offensively however, the Saints shot themselves in the foot. Steve Spagnuolo’s Saints defense in 2012 was the worst in NFL history, but he must have learned some things by practicing against Drew Brees every day for a year. His Giants defense wasn’t spectacular against Brees, but they definitely did a good job of keeping the Saints offense in check. The Saints were plagued with drops as well as Colby Fleener and Brandon Coleman’s hands looked like a backboard when Shaquille O’Neal was shooting free throws…brick city. Toss in a lack of offensive line blocking, so we abandoned the running game early, and the plays were a one dimensional recipe for disaster.
Pete Carmichael was on play calling again this week and went to the run early but abandoned it quickly.
The Saints had only 14 rushing attempts in a game is simply not enough, and it’s definitely not balanced. The offensive line all took steps backwards in their game, two grades according to Pro Football Focus. The one spot that is particularly troubling is the one we knew all along, which is the guard position. Both Jahri Evans and Andrus Peat are grading poorly, particularly in run blocking.
Moreover, this is to be a more positive rant, and there was more positivity to be seen. It seems that the staff is now willing to be more open to admitting shortcomings. Marcus Murphy being inactive and Tommylee Lewis being active in the return game shows they know that Murphy has great speed, but he’s not very elusive. Furthermore, the Saints hasn’t excited any type spark on returns.
This Saints team is far from great; not even very good right now. And on the surface, it seems like a long year is looming. Losing two games by a total of four points is tough. But to look at the glass half full, this team that isn’t terribly good has lost two games on last minute plays. The games have come down to the very last play. Outside of one quarter, the defense hasn’t given up touchdowns, only field goals. Would a healthy Sheldon Rankins, Delvin Breaux, Dannell Ellerbe and PJ Williams make a difference? The Saints may find out come late October. The offense scored 34 points in the first game. Is it possible that Fleener figures out the playbook and develops softer hands and a better rapport with Brees? Can the offensive line improve, or can we find improvement to replace offensive linemen? Can we gain and sustain a running game? If the Black and Gold can have any two of these things in combination, this Saints team could go from the bottom of the barrel to the middle of it. Defensively that’s all we need. The Saints don’t need our defense to be in the top 10, they just can’t be bottom five. Offensively, we just need consistency. If those things can happen, this team could compete again. If they can’t, the preseason prediction of six wins (already in jeopardy) may be several games overshot.