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The Saints Buckle Down After a Rough Start on the Road to Win Their Fourth Straight Game

Looking at what went wrong early on, and the team’s prospects for the rest of the season

The Saints caught a lucky break on what might have been the toughest matchup on their schedule before the season. A road game at Lambeau Field, against the Green Bay Packers, became a much less intimidating challenge after Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone the previous week. The Vegas sportsbooks adjusted appropriately, as the Saints went from six-point underdogs to six-point favorites after the injury. (A strong argument for Rodgers as the most valuable player in the league.)

The books proved accurate; the Saints won in steady if unspectacular fashion, 26-17. The Saints didn’t do anything special; they just played their brand of football, and played it well, with a steady-moving offense led by the running backs and short passes, combined with a sturdy enough defense to mostly close out the Packers offense.

I was admittedly a fan of Brett Hundley coming out of college; on our 2015 draft board at Zone Reads, I had him as the third-highest quarterback, not as good as Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota but worthy of a first-round pick all the same. I thought he displayed tremendous talent at UCLA and carried a team that often struggled to protect him or catch his passes to respectable records while posting very good numbers. I was curious if Mike McCarthy and the Packers coaching staff would unleash him this week.

They did not.

This made the Saints’ job a lot easier, for sure. Pass defense is simpler when the offense is limited in the number of route combinations it can run and the number of responsibilities it allows its quarterback to handle. The Packers ran an offense like they were trying to hide Hundley, not elevate him. As a result of this– and the Saints’ strong pass coverage– Hundley completed 12 of 25 passes for only 87 yards.

Aaron Jones is the ball-carrier in the middle; all the Saints up front are blocked, which gives him an easy path downfield (made easier by safeties taking poor angles of pursuit).

The Saints got off to a shaky start and the game seemed in doubt after the first few series. The run defense got sloppy on the Packers opening drive, giving up two first downs before poor play up front allowed Aaron Jones to break through on a run, and poor tackling angles from the safeties let him take it all the way to the end zone.

Worse, Drew Brees made a couple of uncharacteristically sloppy decisions on the first two drives, killing promising series with two interceptions. The first one ended a twelve-play drive that was well within field goal range with a deep ball intercepted in the end zone. I want to look at because it seemed to be caused by Brees misreading the coverage.

Let’s take a look at the coaches film.

Here’s the moment where Coleman goes into his break and Brees is preparing to throw to him. It’s difficult to see cornerback Damarious Randall from this angle, as he’s hidden behind Coleman. (Yes, there are two defenders in that spot.) Based on the positioning of the defenders, Brees is expecting Randall to drop into a short zone and the safety over the top to come help with Coleman, indicated by the yellow lines. Thus, Brees throws a deep pass to Coleman’s inside, where he’ll have position on the safety; Coleman’s route is indicated by the blue line.

What actually happens, however, is that the deep safety stays toward the sideline to pick up Ted Ginn, and Randall sticks on Coleman the whole way, indicated by the red lines. Randall already has inside position on Coleman and thus is in perfect position to intercept the pass.

On the second interception, Brees simply threw a ball intended for Michael Thomas into tight coverage, and didn’t put it somewhere Thomas could get it but cornerback Davon House could not.

The third Saints drive went much better, a quick-moving seven-play drive ending in a 12-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. However, on the ensuing drive, the Packers went 75 yards in eight plays, in large part due to Brett Hundley, who was 3-for-4 passing for 35 of his 87 yards on this drive, and ended with a 14-yard score that made it 14-7 Packers halfway through the second quarter, the score the game would eventually take into halftime.

However, the team’s resiliency was impressive this time. They buckled down rather than caving in; they still believed in themselves as the better team, which particularly on defense is a new attitude to have. They continued to let Brees throw the ball despite the interceptions, making a point to get the wide receivers more involved in the second half. The difference was measurable: the Saints had six drives in the first half, and only one ended in points. In the second half, the Saints had five drives; four of them ended in a score, and the fifth one ended in kneeldowns to run out the clock. The Saints outscored the Packers 19-3 in the second half; once they built enough of a lead to force Hundley into throwing to catch up, the game was effectively over.

This time, Brandon Coleman beats rookie cornerback Kevin King (20) and is wide open for the touchdown. Safety HaHa Clinton-Dix (21) can’t get over in time, either.

Since this game didn’t tell us very much we didn’t learn the last few weeks, I wanted to take a look at the broader implications of these wins and where the Saints season might be headed. The Saints have gotten lucky; while they were winning the last two weeks, the rest of the division was losing. The Saints are now in sole possession of first place in the NFC South, their half-game lead over the Carolina Panthers augmented by their three-touchdown win in Charlotte. The other teams in the division are dealing with significant problems: Atlanta’s offense is sputtering after losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan; Carolina’s is doing much the same, although the reasons are less clear; and Tampa Bay can’t play defense. The Saints are, by any measure, the favorites to win the division right now, and the best team in it. (DVOA has the Saints up to fifth, the only NFC South team in the top half of the league, and the only one with both offense and defense contributing positively. They’re also rated fifth by Inpredictable, which compares Vegas lines for games to come up with corresponding ratings, although that may be slightly skewed by Green Bay’s rating, which has partially but not completely factored in Aaron Rodgers’ absence.)

The Saints’ remaining schedule is favorable, as well. New Orleans’ strength of schedule to date is .625, the hardest in the league by some measure (no other team is over .600). 3-3 Detroit is the worst team by record New Orleans has played; all of their other five opponents have winning records. The next two weeks will see the Saints’ first games against teams with losing records, as they first host 3-4 Chicago, followed by Tampa Bay, currently at 2-4 (which means they’ll still have a losing record going into week 9).

On top of that, the Saints play six of their final ten games at home. New Orleans should be favored in all of these games; Washington or perhaps Atlanta figure to be the most difficult matchups, and they aren’t better than the Saints on a neutral field, certainly not with the home-field advantage of the Superdome. The Saints are traditionally such a strong home team that winning all six games isn’t out of the question– and that would be good enough for ten wins, which should secure a playoff spot.

New Orleans has road games at the Bills, Rams, Falcons, and Buccaneers. They may not be favored in most of these– they still might be against Tampa– but none of these games are unwinnable, either. Even stealing one road win would give New Orleans’ playoff hopes a major boost.

But first, they have to get past Chicago. Although the Bears are only 3-4 and with a nonexistent passing offense, they’ve knocked off quality teams in 5-2 Pittsburgh and 4-3 Carolina. The Saints have a favorable matchup, especially since if they can score points at home, they can put rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky in a hole and force him to make plays to come back. As long as the Saints don’t take the Bears for granted, they should be able to take this game. (They’re currently nine-point favorites on most books.)

One more note from the Packers game: Right guard Larry Warford left early with an abdominal injury and the team reported he would miss several weeks. This is a tough blow for a team that’s been dealing with offensive line injuries all year; Warford is the third projected starter to miss time. Senio Kelemete will take his place; he’s an adequate player, but there is a clear downgrade there. Hopefully it won’t be enough to make a significant dent in the unit’s performance. (Kelemete has already had to play substantial snaps when two offensive tackles were out of the game, as Andrus Peat kicks over to tackle when that happens.)

Bonus reading: Read Pro Football Focus’ summary of Marshon Lattimore’s year to date and his extraordinary level of performance so far.

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