You win some, you lose some and then you play and get outcoached like the Saints did on Sunday against the Browns.
Generally, we’re talking about New Orleans’ penchant for surprising teams (re: Super Bowl, onside kick) and flat out outperforming the opponent. But against Cleveland, Head Coach Sean Payton got a dose of his own medicine.
The three trick plays were all called at perfect times and executed perfectly. The Saints certainly played their role in each, but by and large the plays were unstoppable.
But that’s not to gloss over the fact that Drew Brees had one of, if not the, worst games in his career. The four interceptions were not pretty and the first pick-six was nearly all his fault. Then again, most of the time, he had nowhere to step up into to make his throws. The line had difficulty blocking the Browns, who played the late downs in an unconventional one-man or no-man defensive front.
So, let’s get to it.
1.) Much has been made of the offensive line’s issues this season in pass protection and run blocking. Drew Brees was sacked three times in the first half. But on the first series, we saw the other issues with the lack of protection – Brees’ sight-lines are thrown off. On third down, he was nearly picked off by Browns defensive back Abram Elam on a throw intended for Marques Colston. David Bowens blocked Brees’ sight, jumping up into the lane.
But there was more at play than just sight-line loss when Brees is getting harried, hurried and hassled like he was against Cleveland. We’ll probably never get Brees to admit it, but he was shell-shocked by the end of the game. Cleveland ended with nine quarterback hits and three sacks.
On the final interception of the day, which Bowens returned for his second pick-six of the day, Brees had the pocket close down when Shaun Rogers beat a double team by Jonathan Goodwin and Jahri Evans. As Brees threw the ball, he began ducking to try and get away from Rogers’ impending hit. It played a part in the poor placement of the ball and Brees not seeing Bowens in coverage.
2.) Play-calling has been questioned at points this season what with the Saints ignoring the run early. But another qualm fans should have is the lack of creativity when it comes to second- and third-and-long. On third-and-15 during the Saints’ second offensive series, before the play happened I could have told you there was going to be a screen called. It’s nearly automatic at this point. And, to me, the only player who gives the Saints a legit screen chance is Pierre Thomas and he’s on the bench rehabbing an ankle sprain.
But that play was doomed from the outset and really, it was an early view into how the day would end. Brees fumbled the snap and running back Ladell Betts got a late release. Meanwhile, after Betts finally got the pass, Goodwin and Jon Stinchcomb appeared to be standing around, helping no one out. It didn’t help that Cleveland, as it did for much of the game, went with one down lineman and sent only one other rusher. Dropping nine into coverage will stop a pass most of the time.
3.) One of the bugaboos that I’ve noticed this defense making more and more – and likely, this is a situation league-wide, not just with New Orleans – is defensive backs playing with their heads down and diving at the feet of offensive players. Cleveland’s first touchdown shows just why this is a bad idea.
In back-to-back plays on the Browns’ first touchdown, we see that Jenkins still had acclimating to do. On third-and-two from the Saints’ 48, Jenkins had running back Peyton Hillis stopped at the point of attack for at least no gain. But he dove to make the stop with his head down. He couldn’t see where Hillis actually was and the running back cut inside of him to gain six yards and a first down.
Two plays later, Patrick Robinson was at fault for the same thing. Hillis was heading to the left end and Robinson had the play sniffed out. But after closing the edge, he ducked and dove for Hillis’ legs. He whiffed and Hillis was able to scamper around him. Darren Sharper cheated to his left early in the play and took himself out of it. Touchdown Browns and an early 10-0 lead.
4.) Mistakes are hard to overcome and the Saints’ third series, which had the makings of a game-changer for New Orleans, turned into a game-changer for the Browns. And mistakes played the biggest role in that.
New Orleans started at its 20 and worked its way down to the Cleveland 20. On third-and-four, the Saints had the perfect play called and it’s one they like to use a lot – receiver slant/post into a defensive hole for a touchdown. And true to form, Brees found receiver Lance Moore for a 20-yard touchdown. But right guard Jahri Evans was called for illegal hands to the face and sure enough, he did it. The issue was it was retaliatory – Browns linebacker Jason Trusnik absolutely destroyed Evans’ face to begin the play. Evans basically ripped of Trusnik’s helmet. Officials will call that every time.
Two plays later, Cleveland pressured Brees despite rushing only two players. That shouldn’t happen. Cleveland’s Shaun Rogers split a triple team by Carl Nicks, Jonathan Goodwin and Jahri Evans and was in Brees’ face quickly. Brees couldn’t step into the pocket and threw to a specific point of the field. But running back Ladell Betts ran an out instead of a hitch on a “choice” route and wasn’t there. Instead, linebacker Scott Fujita intercepted Brees.
5.) Trick plays killed the Saints. All, though, were executed to a T and it would have been hard for New Orleans to stop them.
On the lateral from Josh Cribbs to Eric Wright, the main problem was Saints “gunner” Leigh Torrence taking an inside release. He went straight for Cribbs on the opposite side of the field and Wright peeled off from his double team. He was left alone. Still, the play doesn’t work if Cribbs doesn’t sell the fake so well. He runs hard and only throws back across the field in mid-stride. By then, everyone had all but converged on Cribbs and Wright was alone.
On the fake punt, the Browns obviously spotted a tendency in the Saints’ return. Matt Giordano lined up basically over the center. But after the snap, he took off to his right, getting caught up in the wash heading down the field to block. This left the middle wide open and by the time anyone realized what was happening, punter Reggie Hodges was on his way to a 68-yard run, the longest by a punter since 1970.
And on the pass-back from Peyton Hillis to Colt McCoy, the play again worked because of the Browns selling the play. Hillis took the direct snap and darted to his right. McCoy backed off and for Will Smith, the Saints defensive end on the right side, there’s no reason to think McCoy would be back in the play. Besides, Smith would be penalized for hitting McCoy at that point. Hill then had a perfect throw to McCoy, who smartly stayed inbounds when he was tackled 13-yards down the field.
The frustrating thing for the Saints is that most of what ails the team is, in fact, in the locker room. I’m not big on the clichés these guys espouse week in and week out, but that one seems fair. It’s the penalties and turnovers that are killing the Saints right now. Clean those up and you get the Tampa Bay game. Let them linger and you get the Cleveland and Arizona games.