It’s the huge piece missing in the New Orleans Saints’ 2017 puzzle since the season-opening loss at Minnesota.
At that point, the thinking was: “It’ll get better once Willie Snead returns from his three-game suspension.”
But once Snead was eligible, then he was battling a pulled hamstring.
During that process, the Saints had figured out a way to win with defense.
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But not even an eight-game winning streak could cover up the huge hole that only seems to be getting larger by the week.
So many fans and media — and, who knows, perhaps even coaches — get fooled by game results. If you win, all is well. If you lose, the world just might be crumbling at any minute.
In the case of the Saints’ offense and its ability to execute on third down, it started out bad and it’s only gotten worse.
And much, much, much more frustrating.
And even more unexplainable.
On Sunday in Los Angeles, a defense without either of its starting cornerbacks just couldn’t overcome it.
The issue is the Saints’ offense stinks on third down — for the first time in the Sean Payton era.
In the 26-20 loss to the Rams, New Orleans converted just three of 13 chances. Sure, some of those were third-and-long, but plenty of them were third-and-three and third-and-five situations the offense just doesn’t seem capable of conquering.
Payton’s offenses have always been great at it. From 2006 through last season, the only time New Orleans wasn’t in the top four in the NFL on third-down conversions was being No. 6 in 2009. In five seasons, including the last three, the Saints’ offense finished No. 1 in the NFL on third down.
In 2017, New Orleans is No. 14 at a rate of 38.8 percent.
By comparison, Carolina is No. 5 at 44.6.
That’s right, Carolina — with Cam Newton at quarterback, a leading rusher with only 486 yards, its elite tight end hurt all season and its top wide receiver traded at midseason — is dwarfing the Saints in third-down efficiency.
It’s maddening, and it doesn’t make any sense.
Sure, the Saints are 8-3. Sure, it’s possible to win with defense. But this team is going to have a tough time beating elite defenses down the road or outscoring the Falcons if it doesn’t miraculously discover a plan on third down.
The scary thing is, at what juncture in a season do you reach a level where you are what you are?
Folks, Snead has three more receptions than I do this season and I’m fat, old and never played football in my life.
I just don’t buy Snead suddenly has no idea how to get open against a zone defense, or he’s no longer capable of catching a pass.
Moreover, nobody’s saying tight end Coby Fleener is good. But Fleener had 50 catches on 82 targets last season for 631 yards and three scores … and he didn’t even know the plays yet.
This season, when he theoretically at least understands the offense, he has 22 catches on 30 targets for 295 yards and two scores.
It’s just nuts.
You can’t throw the same two or three receivers over and over again and expect for defenses not to adjust.
Is it possible the Saints’ receiving corps is just the worst in the NFL and never gets open? I guess.
Frankly, that’s the only explanation that makes any sense.
I’ve heard that Drew Brees is just washed up. I don’t buy that one. He’s actually on pace to break his all-time record for completion percentage in a season.
Then I’ve heard Brees has zero arm strength left. For one, he’s never had any arm strength, and secondly, then why does he constantly throw deep on third-and-short (other than to give me a heart attack)?
How can having a thoroughbred like Alvin Kamara not open up things for his teammates?
How can being the No. 3 rushing offense in football not open up at least a few passing lanes?
At times in the Payton era, it was almost a science how often Brees threw to wide-open receivers on third-and-five. In my mind, those conversions took place in the huddle with the play-call.
This season, if a running back or receiver doesn’t make a defender or two or three miss, it’s time to punt. They never ever seem to throw to open receivers anymore. The drop-off is remarkable.
I’ve even heard the theory that Payton is sand-bagging. Just when the defenses think the offense is totally broken, he’ll start throwing it to Snead and the tight ends again.
As crazy as that sounds, it makes more sense than what I’m watching every week on third down.
The cushion is gone. Especially if Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley don’t return Sunday against Carolina, it’s time for the offense to carry a bigger load.
And it all starts with somehow coming up with a plan on third down.