Forecast: Saints winning despite being sub-par on 3rd downs

Of the players limited at practice on Wednesday was tackle Terron Armstead, who missed the team's last game on New Year's Eve.

Can a team win a Super Bowl when they aren’t very good at converting third downs on offense and stopping third downs on defense? The New Orleans Saints are about to find out.

The Saints offense has struggled on third down in a way they never have before under Sean Payton and Drew Brees and it has garnered most of the attention of media and fans but the real trouble for the Saints on third down is defense.

If the Saints do win a second Lombardi trophy, they will do so with a worse third down defense than the previous 10 Super Bowl winners. The Saints defense currently allows teams to convert third downs at 41 percent. Take a look at the last 10 Super Bowl winning defenses third down percentages and you’ll notice only 2014 New England cracks the 40 percent allowed threshold.

- 2016 New England 37 percent

- 2015 Denver 35 percent

- 2014 New England 40 percent

- 2013 Seattle 35 percent

- 2012 Baltimore 36 percent

- 2011 New York Giants 38 percent

- 2010 Green Bay 36 percent

- 2009 New Orleans 38 percent

- 2008 Pittsburgh 31 percent

- 2007 New York Giants 35 percent

The good news for the Saints is Tampa Bay converting 13 of 18 wrecked an otherwise decent third down defensive number. Remove the Tampa game and the Saints would be 38.5 percent stopping third downs and be right in line with most past Super Bowl winning defenses of the last decade.

The question is was the Buccaneers game just a weird aberration or was it the product of the Saints missing three starters on defense and two other contributors? Sunday will tell us but the fact the Saints also gave up 455 yards of offense, including 110 yards rushing, makes the defense a question going into the playoffs against Carolina.

The defense has improved so much in 2017 and it has felt spectacular, hasn’t it?

Criticizing the Saints defense after going from one of the worst ever from 2014-2016 to pretty good in 2017 feels kind of like a child complaining he only got three new video games instead of the five he wanted, but the playoffs isn’t about being pretty good, it’s about winning a Super Bowl. The Saints defense needs to be better. The good news is Carolina might be the perfect matchup for them. I’ll get to that in the game preview.

While the Saints defense’s overall bad numbers on third down can be partially explained by one very bad week in Tampa, the offense has no such easy excuse. The Saints offense has struggled on third down all season long. The New Orleans Advocate’s Nick Underhill did a fantastic job of explaining why the Saints aren’t just struggling in third and long situations, they also don’t convert manageable third downs either. The Saints did convert 6 of 12 third downs against Tampa, which was the first time they hit 50 percent on third down since Week 10 in Buffalo.

The Saints have played 16 games and at this point hoping Willie Snead or some other receiver is suddenly going to show up and be magnificent on Sunday to help cure the third down problem seems like believing the Sewerage and Water Board that all the pumps will eventually work for 2018 hurricane season. It really needs to happen but are either of those things likely?

The good news for the Saints is there is a solution to their third down problems on offense; have as few as possible. The Saints overcame being 19th in third down efficiency by having to convert the fewest number of third downs in the NFL in 2017. The Saints only faced 194 third down situations in 2017 because they ran the ball very well and lived on big plays.

Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram combined for 87 plays of 25 yard passes and runs of at least 10 yards. The 2017 Saints ran the ball down your throat and then delivered the knockout blow via big play. Third down wasn’t really a huge factor in offensive success. As far as Super Bowl winners of the last 10 season, the Saints third down offense compares poorly but their 38 percent conversion rate isn’t the worst, in fact they’re better than four of the past 10 Super Bowl winners on third down.

- 2016 New England 45.8 percent

- 2015 Denver 35.3 percent

- 2014 New England 44.3 percent

- 2013 Seattle 37.3 percent

- 2012 Baltimore 36.9 percent

- 2011 New York Giants 37.4 percent

- 2010 Green Bay 41.5 percent

- 2009 New Orleans 43.7 percent

- 2008 Pittsburgh 41.1 percent

- 2007 New York Giants 41.6 percent

As the Saints head into the playoffs their play on third down on defense and their ability to avoid third downs on offense will loom large Sunday and hopefully beyond.

Saints Mood and Meditation Music: Thomas Gold (Featuring Bright Lights) – Believe This is the first Saints home playoff game I won’t be attending since 1987. I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing, but 2017 has been so much fun and magical I want to believe we can have at least one more week of this fantastic ride. So play this song and maybe if we all believe it’ll happen?

The Games Last Week: 1-4 Season: 37-38

Carolina (+6.5) at New Orleans: The Saints have totally controlled the Panthers in two meetings this year. It might seem like five years ago but that 0-2 Saints team was REELING when it went to Charlotte and crushed the Panthers. At the time I wasn’t sure if the Saints 34-13 win was real, I just enjoyed the Saints not being 0-3. It showed the Saints were indeed for real and kicked off this wonderful football season.

The Saints won the rematch 31-21 and were in complete control from start to finish. So why were the Saints able to dominate an 11-5 team twice? The Saints secondary and offensive line are matchup nightmares for the Panthers.

Carolina receiving corps without a fully healthy Greg Olsen is suboptimal and currently only has two receivers and tight ends with more than 30 receptions (Devin Funchess and Ed Dickson). Kelvin Benjamin is third on Carolina with 32 catches; the problem is he got traded to Buffalo in October. The Saints secondary can lock down the Carolina receivers and the pass rush will stay disciplined to keep Cam Newton from scrambling. The question is can the beat up Saints linebackers contain Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen in the passing game?

Greg Olsen scares me the most Sunday. In his last six games against the Saints he’s averaging six catches for 82 yards and has scored three times. I know the Saints defense is better, but tight ends have a history of doing very bad things to the Saints. Greg Olsen is a first ballot Hall of Saints Killers, I don’t care if he’s playing on a broken leg, he still terrifies me.

Carolina was third on defense in rushing yards allowed (88 yards per game) but the Saints averaged 148.5 yards in the two games against the Panthers this season.

I’ll be honest, I’m not nearly as confident as most fans and experts heading into this game. Conventional wisdom says the Saints will win because Drew Brees never loses home playoff games (4-0) and Cam Newton was awful against Atlanta. Cam Newton can’t possibly repeat his 13 for 34 performance he just had against the Falcons can he? I’m guessing not.

Cam will play better and the Saints won’t play as well as the first two meetings, but when the Saints need a play, one of the young players will step up. My guess as to whom? Sheldon Rankins. Why? Playoffs heroes are sometimes the guys we least expect, but Rankins has quietly had a very good second half of the season.

Saints 27-24

Kansas City (-8) vs Tennessee: Can you think of one memorable thing the Titans did all year? Can you name a wide receiver on their team? The most exciting thing about this game is it’s our final chance to hear Jon Gruden gush about mediocre quarterbacks before he becomes coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Chiefs 23-10

Atlanta (+6) at Los Angeles: We are either going to be really happy the Saints avoided the Falcons or mad the Saints missed a chance to crush them in a playoff game. I’m guessing it’s the former.

Falcons 31-20

Buffalo (+7.5) at Jacksonville: All those videos of Bills fans and players celebrating their first playoff berth since 1999 were so awesome. Do you remember former Saints running back and kick returner Marcus Murphy? He’s probably getting a lot of carries in this game because LeSean McCoy might not be able to play for Buffalo. So that’ll be fun to see right?

Bills 16-12

Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at saintshappyhour@gmail.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.

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