Throughout the season, I’ll be looking back at each Saints game and breaking it down with several observable and interesting things that stood out in the game. This week’s is late; I apologize for that. It will normally run on Wednesdays.
The Saints season-opener might not have been pleasing to the eyes of fans who love offense, but for anyone who enjoys defense, it was the game for you.
Gregg Williams used four different defenses, used at least three different blitz packages and the Saints kept a future Hall of Famer off kilter all night. That’s not mentioning what the Vikings did to a potent Saints offense.
But slowing the game down made me even more impressed with what the Saints did, especially on the offensive line. The Saints kept one of the, if not the best defensive line, at bay. Jermon Bushrod all but neutralized Jared Allen and Carl Nicks provided running lane after running lane.
Defensively, the Saints let up some “leaky” yards and allowed a few plays over the top. But by and large, their ability to keep Adrian Peterson in front of them and to keep Brett Favre guessing helped keep Minnesota out of the end zone.
Opening Drive Magic
A look at the opening drive gives a look at just how efficient the Saints can be on offense, especially when quarterback Drew Brees has time. On first down, TE David Thomas chipped DE Jared Allen before heading out on the route, giving Brees time to find WR Marques Colston down the field for a 28-yard gain.
RB Reggie Bush had a very nice blitz pickup on the second play after carrying out a play-action fake. Brees rolled left and hit WR Lance Moore for 12 yards. A play later, using a five-wide set, Brees found Bush, but the Vikings’ Antoine Winfield made a nice play to break up the pass.
The fourth play was a Bush run around left end when he set the physical tone for the game, running for eight yards before plowing over Minnesota cornerback Asher Allen.
But it was the fifth play of the drive that showed just how tough the offense can be to stop. WR Devery Henderson, split out right, ran an out route in single coverage. Despite good blocking from LT Jermon Bushrod, Brees stepped up before sidestepping to his right. Henderson, without even a nod from Brees, changed his route to a fly route and Brees put the ball over the cornerback and into Henderson’s hands for a 29-yard touchdown.
This one goes to two players – weakside linebacker Scott Shanle and strong safety Roman Harper. Both stood out and in positive ways. Shanle and Harper both graded out high.
I’ll start with Shanle. He finished with a team-high seven tackles, including one for a loss. He played very big in the first half and watching this game in film study shows exactly why the coaches like him. He reads the game incredibly well. Shanle made three big plays on the Vikings’ first three series, including on third-and-two on the opening drive to force a third down. Several other times, Shanle was in the right place to keep a longer play from happening. Shanle did get beat by TE Visanthe Shiancoe for a 33-yard gain, but that’s a tough matchup for Shanle, especially when Shiancoe gets off the line untouched.
As for Harper, we’ve always known he could play the run. But against the Vikings, he played the pass equally as well. On the first Minnesota offensive play of the game, Harper was the only unblocked player and sure enough, he made the tackle keeping the gain to only three yards. On Jonathan Vilma’s interception, Harper was on a delayed blitz from the left side. His pressure forced Brett Favre to release the ball early and throw behind Shiancoe. Harper was moved to cover Shiancoe for a bulk of the second half and it showed. The tight end didn’t even have a pass come his way until early in the fourth quarter and Harper broke that up.
When the Saints won the Super Bowl, they were a very balanced team, passing just a wee bit more than running the ball.
Thursday night, the Saints were way out of whack, especially in the first half when Head Coach Sean Payton called for 21 passes and three runs. By the end of the game, the Saints finished with 25 runs and 36 passes.
Replaying the game makes one thing stand out: the Vikings weren’t buying any of the run fakes by the time the second quarter ended. Linebackers were barely even playing the play-action fakes.
Yet, in the second half, when the Saints ran 22 times and passed 17, Minnesota was buying the run. It was very evident on the touchdown drive in the third quarter that once Payton committed to the run, the Vikings were committed to believing it.
And, more noticeably, the drive-saving third-and-one pass from Drew Brees to Heath Evans showed exactly what play-action pass can do. Vikings safety Antoine Winfield hit the line and let Evans run right past him because he thought Pierre Thomas would be carrying the football. When Winfield realized it was a pass, it was too late – Evans was open in the left flat and Brees was able to loft the ball over Winfield to the fullback for the first down.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins gets this puppy, for the game’s hardest hit. Safety Roman Harper certainly hit Brett Favre hard on the blitz that forced the game’s only turnover.
But Jenkins gets the award for his hit on Vikings receiver Percy Harvin in the second quarter. It was first-and-10 from Minnesota’s 18 and the Saints were in a 3/4 defense. Harvin found a mismatch with New Orleans’ Jo-Lonn Dunbar on him. Brett Favre noticed and got Harvin the ball. Out of nowhere, Jenkins came up and pounded Harvin, releasing a loud thud that TV microphones picked up on.
This goes to the aforementioned third-and-one play call by Payton. This is a perfect illustration of the head coach having a feel for the game and what’s going to work in a certain situation. Very gutsy play call.
Great Decisions of the 21st Century
Gregg Williams has been called a mastermind and a genius before, but his best decision might have been putting Roman Harper on Shiancoe in the second half. Shiancoe didn’t have another catch despite being thrown to three more times.
Where’d He Go?
Jared Allen came into the game after finishing with 14½ sacks in 2009. He plays a critical role in game-planning each and every week for whoever is playing the Vikings.
The Saints had a plan for him and it worked. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod didn’t need much help Thursday night, taking on Allen single-handedly a lot of the time.
But Heath Evans and tight ends Tory Humphrey, David Thomas and Jeremy Shockey all blocked or chipped or pushed Allen ever so slightly on their release. And play-fakes with Reggie Bush running end around fakes consistently made Allen pause before heading upfield and into the backfield, by which time Pierre Thomas was usually by him already.