No sooner has the NFL started and we’re through 25% of the regular season already. With the Saints sitting at 2-2 are the Whodat Nation heading for another middle of the road season, or is there reason to be optimistic after the first four games?
The Saints matched up against the Vikings in the first week on the back of pre-season talk around Adrian Peterson’s first game as a Saint, in non-other than his record setting previous home of Minnesota. With so much focus on AP’s debut it was easy to forget the Saints’ familiar woes on the road and the Vikings’ top 3 defense from 2016.
A 19-29 loss for the Saints was a quick reminder of last season – little to be excited about, but a great deal to worry about.
After a woeful defensive performance in Week 1, the last thing the Saints wanted going into the first home game of the season was an appearance by the GOAT. Tom Brady was coming off a rare home loss to the Chiefs so who better to rebound against than the swiss cheese of NFL defenses, in the Saints.
The Saints’ second loss of the season 20-36 turned out to be as inevitable as Brady’s bust in Canton and the expectation of reaching the playoffs is disappearing as quickly as the fans’ patience for their team’s defense.
Bart Bell couldn’t have been more on point when he said, “on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team.” as this perfectly sums up the Saints’ third game of the season.
Running out 34-13 winners on the road in Carolina, the Saints put a poor start behind them and looked like a team capable of playing both sides of the ball. However, even the worst defensive teams have good days, so this performance was taken with a pinch of salt.
Next stop London…
Coming into Week 4 the Saints and Dolphins couldn’t have approached the 20th London game any differently. The Saints made the trip on Sunday night, straight after their impressive road win, while the Dolphins took the trip on Thursday night, four days after a 20-6 loss against the apparent NFL worst, New York Jets.
20-0 winners and 2-0 in London! It seems the early bird travelers have the best of London games, and would it be unreasonable to believe the Saints have finally figured out how to defend the football?
First quarter round up
Four games in, the Saints are sitting at .500 and the manner in which the team got there certainly has more ups than downs. A particularly bad road team have come away with two victories from three on their travels, a young defense is playing with purpose and an understanding of Dennis Allen’s schemes, and Drew Brees’s offense just keep on keeping on!
After the first two weeks, fans would’ve been forgiven for forgetting a preseason showing signs of a massively improved defensive unit as the team finished those four games as one of the top ranked. Admittedly, the first true test comes in Week 1, but it was a surprise to see the secondary so badly picked apart by Sam Bradford and the defensive line dominated in such a fashion to allow rookie Dalvin Cook to put up 137 scrimmage yards in his debut.
Week 2’s defensive performance may not have surprised so many people with Tom Brady visiting New Orleans on the back of the loss to Kansas City. The Brady led Patriots rarely lose two in a row and the Saints were playing from behind early on and could do nothing to overcome the 20 points put up by New England in the first 15 minutes.
Despite some reasonable looking individual stats for players in the opening two weeks, defensive assignments were missed at crucial times and one big play followed another. Overconfidence after a great pre-season could’ve been a factor, or even a lack of focus, but after an astounding 1,025 yards of total offense was given up in the first two weeks, the defense, and in particular the secondary were left eating humble pie.
So what changed going into Weeks 3 and 4? From the fan’s perspective, timing! Key defensive stops made on 3rd down to nullify drives, pressure on the quarterback forcing bad throws and every defenses’ aim, turnovers.
Saints’ defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said to ESPN:
“I think sometimes you need that shock and that wake up call to let you know where you’re at and what you need to do to get better. And I think our guys really focused on the things that they needed to do for us to improve as a defense.”
The wake up call certainly landed with a bang as Weeks 3 and 4 saw the defense hold both the Panthers and Dolphins to a combined 474 total yards while also grabbing four interceptions and eight sacks.
With two rookies starting in the secondary in Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, plus a number of second-year players stepping into starting roles, it’s understandable for a team to have a few growing pains. Lattimore has looked solid in man coverage already and opposing quarterbacks are throwing elsewhere, but he’s just one cog in what was a faltering system.
Veteran players have also stepped up in the last two games, and more consistency from safety Kenny Vaccaro has been a huge factor in the worst to first play of the defense while also offering an up-turn in his fortunes, after potential trade talk was widely spoken of after Week 2.
Aside from Drew Brees being a standout player over the first four weeks and a re-shuffled offensive line keeping Brees protected, rookies Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore have added talent to both sides of the ball and improve the team. There’s nothing stopping Michael Thomas being a perennial pro-bowler (other than maybe the retirement of Brees) and early season form suggests he’s heading in that direction. The team’s young talent is stepping up and after a shaky start the older heads appear to have caught up!
As for the Adrian Peterson project, this ended up being a non-event and his steady path to retirement has a new home in Arizona after the Cardinals acquired him for a conditional pick in return. It was noticeable early on that AP was struggling with his bit-part role, highlighted with a very public sideline disagreement with coach Payton in week 1, plus more consistent play from Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara left AP as the odd man out. He won’t be missed in New Orleans!
What the future holds?
Week 6 offers a Detroit Lions home game, followed by a Week 7 road game at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, then Weeks 8 and 9 back in New Orleans against the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.
The three home games are all very winnable, so what’s to stop the Saints being 5-3 at the midway point of the season? Injuries and inconsistent defensive play will be the biggest factors here.
The Saints have been juggling their offensive linemen since losing Terron Armstead in preseason and now veteran tackle Zach Strief has landed on injured reserve with a knee injury sustained in the Wembley game. Professional linemen can play anywhere across the line, but there’s nothing like the best guys starting in their preferred position to create holes and pockets, just look at how it’s worked out for the Rams this season!
Linebacker looks to be a weak spot on the team, particularly after trading away Stephone Anthony, but the old attitude of the next man up taking his chance can prove massive in positions that rely more on reactions and reads. Solid contributions from Ken Crawley and PJ Williams in the secondary are testament to this ‘next guy up’ philosophy and there’s a level of expectation on the man due to fill in for rookie Alex Anzalone who has also landed on injured reserve after the London trip.
If Dennis Allen can bottle what his defense have conjured up recently and continues to perform at those levels, there’s no reason the Saints don’t win three of the next four games as Drew and his crew go about putting 25-30 points on the board each game.
Come 5pm (EST) on November 5 the Saints will be sitting at 5-3 (or better).
If you see things going differently for the Saints, please leave your comments below and let us know where it’ll all go wrong?
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