More questions than answers for the Saints

New Orleans Saints (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
New Orleans Saints (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

It would have been nice if the New Orleans Saints’ season had just ended with a bad game. Maybe they turn the ball over 3-4 times, and you easily point at that as the difference. Or something along those lines.  But if it were that simple, it wouldn’t be Black and Gold football.

No, these Saints had to play a game that was so lacking, on so many levels, that it left you questioning everything you previously thought about the team.

The 35 points the Saints gave up in the first half were the most ever under Sean Payton.  It’s beyond unfathomable to see that defense, which had been steadily improving through much of the second half of the season, take such an obtuse step back in a game against a team they are more intimately familiar with than any other in the league.  It leaves fans with more questions than answers at this point.

Question 1: Which defense is for real?

The Saints began the season with many injured players on the defensive side of the football, and added more to the injured list in short order.  By the time we went to San Diego, we were without our starting weakside LB, our (then) starting middle linebacker, 3 cornerbacks, a defensive tackle, and a pass rushing defensive end.  This doesn’t include Hau’oli Kikaha, who we knew wouldn’t play this year.  That’s 7 major contributors to our defense on a down by down basis.

As we regained some of these players, our defense improved. The Saints didn’t ever have the type of pass rush/pressure on the QB that we’d like to see from our front 4, but they became a much tougher force through the middle of the season. In fact, there was a stretch from games 7 to 14 where the Saints defense only gave up 22.9 ppg. Now, that’s not an excellent number. (It includes giving up 27 to KC where we turned the ball over 2 times and gave up an interception return for a TD. And 28 points to Detroit on 4 Drew Brees turnovers). But it’s plenty for a team that scores 29-30 points per game. In the end, injuries struck again and hampered the defense. But 17 weeks into the season, that’s hardly a valid excuse. Every team has some injuries.

What we need to figure out is: which defense is the real Saints D? The one that was very good against teams like the Giants, Seahawks, Broncos, Panthers (in Carolina), and Rams? Or the one that was so miserable in 2 games against Atlanta and then poor against Detroit (not all their fault, but still poor) and Arizona?

Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (right) celebrates with his team following a defensive stop against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (right) celebrates with his team following a defensive stop against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

Question 2:  Is this the right defensive scheme?

The Saints defensive numbers don’t always bear out what really is.  The Saints are still a bottom level defense, but as was pointed out earlier, there was a stretch where they played fairly well. A few games where they were mediocre or poor weighed down their overall numbers significantly.  But even an untrained eye could see a marked difference in this year’s defense and last year’s defense.

This year’s defense was much more focused.  And even with so many injuries, the Saints competed in a lot of games.  But the question of scheme remains.

The Saints employ a defense that is short on stunts or twists from the defensive linemen.  The blitzes are good, but not exotic.  The talk for a while was to go with a more 3-4 look, but they went back to the 4-3 defense.  Now the Saints truly play a 4-2-5 defense.  There were scant few packages this season where they employed 3 linebackers, opting to go with 3 safeties almost exclusively, playing Kenny Vaccaro almost as a 3rd linebacker/hybrid.  It’s similar to the old Pittsburgh defense with Troy Polamalu kind of doing his own thing, disrupting the offense.  However, Pittsburgh ran a 3-4 defense, so it’s a different animal.

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Several things popped up over and over this season that Dennis Allen never remedied.  Vonn Bell is not good in man-to-man coverage.  There’s a problem working with 3 safeties – you will always have a safety on a wide receiver in nickel and dime packages.  That’s a tough matchup, and there are few safeties who can handle it.  That’s the job for a corner.  I know we were short on cornerbacks due to all the injuries, so maybe that played a part in it, but if the Saints could go out and find Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb, both of whom played decently, then it stands to reason that they could find more corners.  Either way, the scheme hurt there.

Also, when you are only playing 2 linebackers, you NEVER have anyone covering the flat on a swing pass.  How many easy 10 yards did we give up on backs catching a swing pass out of the backfield and there was no one within 10 yards of him in the flat?  If you are going to run with 2 linebackers, one safety or a defensive end has to be responsible for the running back out of the backfield, or a tight end on a slide out route.  It’s a bad look.  We need to re-evaluate the scheme.

Is it because we don’t have the right linebackers?  We have 2 but not 3?  Obviously when healthy Dannell Ellerbe is a baller.  And Craig Robertson can play as well. In fact, he was better before he was moved to the middle linebacker spot – he plays better on the edge.  So maybe we need a middle linebacker who can handle the responsibilities.  Obviously, the team doesn’t have much confidence currently in Stephone Anthony. We will have to wait and see if he grows more in the offseason.  It can happen.  It was about this time that Cam Jordan really started to get it and take off, in his 3rd season with the Saints.

Question 3: Is anyone willing to question the offense?

I am.  I will ruffle the feathers of the faithful because no one seems to notice the elephant in the room.  Yes, Drew Brees threw for 5,000 yards.  Yes, Mark Ingram rushed for 1,000 yards.  And yes, we had two 1,000 yard receivers.  Yay.  The Saints still went 7-9 for a third straight season.

Everyone is quick to point fingers and say DEFENSE! Or to look at the Denver and Carolina games and yell SPECIAL TEAMS!  Yes, defense could improve and yes, special teams were very un-special early in the year. Although one must note improvement in the quality of the kicking game after the Carolina game, around the time they added the new special teams coach…

But no one wants to say there was anything wrong with the offense – they just look at the big numbers and say if we have that much offense we should win more.  In that point, one would be correct – with that much offense, we should win more.  But big numbers don’t always tell the tale.  Drew Brees threw 15 interceptions this year.  Before you bash this reporter – I’m a huge Brees fan and I believe he deserves the accolades.  But I think even Brees will look at his numbers and know where some of the issues lie…

The Black and Gold had 2 interceptions returned for touchdowns this season.  There was that stretch where Brees had no TD passes and 6 interceptions in 2 games.  We discussed earlier that stretch where the defense only gave up 22.9 points per game.  During that stretch of 8 games, the Saints were 3-5.  They averaged 25.3 points per game, buoyed mostly by 2 40+ point games. Remove those and they only averaged 18.8 ppg in the other 6… Poor.  Your defense is doing well and you only win 3 games?  But the blame is on the defense?  Not so fast.

In Kansas City, 2 offensive turnovers equal a TD and a lost possession, amounting to a loss.  Denver at home, forget the blocked FG for just a second – we are -2 in turnover margin and lose by 2 points.  Offensively we gave away 2 more possessions than they did, and it cost us.  At Carolina, a first possession fumble deep in our own territory gave up a field goal early, and an interception on the Saints side of the field cost them a TD.  Yes, the blocked field goal hurt, but the offense didn’t do well either.  They only scored 20 points.  This is supposed to be a high-powered offense.  If we had all this firepower, where was it then, when we truly needed it?

Simply spoken, we’ve turned the ball over in crucial situations.  It’s not just that we lost the overall season turnover battle – something any pundit will tell you is one of the more critical components of a team’s success – we gave the ball away in too many crucial games and situations.  This is the offense’s issue.  One can point fingers at the defense for not creating more turnovers, but this offense is supposed to score points all the time.

Jan 1, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on the sideline in the third quarter of their game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 38-32. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on the sideline in the third quarter of their game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 38-32. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

Question 4: Is Sean Payton the right person to call plays?

Early in the year, this reporter noted that Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had taken over play-calling duties for the Saints.  The team seemed fresh and invigorated under his play calling.  Payton’s play calling is labored.  Often the team seems to not get plays in or off in time. There are too many delay-of-game penalties or time outs when Payton is calling plays.  He’s got other responsibilities on the sidelines that require his attention.  Carmichael is solely focused on the offense.  He gets plays in efficiently and quickly, they seem to not be so predictable or labored, they keep in mind that the offensive line isn’t so great so they are designed to get the ball out of Drew’s hands quickly. Payton gets bogged in the play itself it seems.

Carmichael called plays seemingly through the Carolina game.  Up to that point, production was fair.  Turnovers were a problem but that’s not a play design issue.  Payton famously took over for the game against the Rams and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  After running roughshod over Williams’ defense, the offense put out two of its worst performances of the season.  No rhythm, no flow… no offense in 2 games.  It just doesn’t seem that Carmichael’s play calling would have yielded the same offensive results.

Question 5: Is there any sense of urgency anywhere?

During the season, many fans noted what seemed to be a lack of urgency in games where the Saints were behind.  Many teams have a 2-minute drill somewhat scripted and they move with a sense of purpose – the Saints often seemed to not have that same type of purpose or urgency.

Now that the season is over, we can apply that same mentality to their future.  Is there a sense of urgency to win now?  Sean Payton has quelled the trade rumors to a degree, but they will continue if there are vacancies to be filled.  But if he stays, is his leash long?  Should he be given the whole season to get things right?  Or if this team is around 3-5 or 2-6 at the midway point next season, would it be time to cut the cord?

The trade rumors now are intriguing because they give you value for your coach.  If your coach endures another 7-9 season next year, not only should he be fired, but how much value will he retain at that point?  And if he’s 3-5 or 2-6 halfway through the season and you fire him, you’ve gotten nothing for him, and you still owe him 3 years on a contract…  Tough decisions and some urgency there.

On top of it all, Drew Brees isn’t getting younger.  Sure, he threw for another truckload of yards, but today that’s just padding stats.  His time is coming to an end, whether it’s just an end with us or an overall end.  If you are going to win, it must be soon.  We saw Atlanta go from junk to jewelry in one season; there’s no reason the Saints can’t do the same.

Next: Accepting the painful: The 2016 Saints.

Many questions for the offseason – will the Saints have the answers?