It felt like the Saints had no answer to stop Cam Newton from running the ball.
The Panthers quarterback logged 83 yards on 11 carries during Carolina’s 41-10 win over New Orleans on Sunday afternoon. He felt unstoppable. Even a fumbled snap turned into a 9-yard gain.
But the truth is, 43 of his yards came on two plays. And those two plays were actually the same play run at different times during the game. What made it so effective is that Carolina figured out how to turn pass rusher Junior Galette’s aggressiveness into a liability.
The play called for Newton to fake a handoff to the running back and then take off around the left edge. After the snap, the offensive line pulled to the right side, with tackle Byron Bell giving Galette a free pass into the backfield. Eager to get there, Galette accepted the invitation and bit on the fake.
With no one on the left edge, Newton had his lane. Tight end Greg Olsen laid a block on the linebacker in the second level, allowing Newton to gain an easy 21 yards.
The same thing happened Carolina ran the play later in the first quarter for a gain of 22. Same play, same circumstances, a little better result.
After Galette left the game because of a leg injury, Carolina tried to run the play a third time with Kasim Edebali working the edge. This time, Edebali stayed back and forced Olsen to block him. Newton was dropped after picking up 2 yards.
Galette said a few weeks ago that he needs to do a better job of keeping mobile quarterbacks in the pocket after letting Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton get loose for gains a couple times. That didn’t happen Sunday.
As good as Galette has been getting after quarterbacks, his style can sometimes cause liabilities in the run defense.
Here’s a look at how the Saints graded out in the loss, out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
2 out of 4
There are ways to make this one look better for Brees. For instance, take the nine passes that were either dropped, thrown away or batted down, and Brees’ passing line goes to 29-of-40 instead of 29-of-49.
But if we’re being honest, Brees’ stats were inflated during garbage time. This was not a good performance for him. He underthrew two deep passes, one of which was intercepted, and never really got in sync with his receivers. A lot that is because his receivers couldn’t hold onto the ball, and his offensive line failed to protect him. Still, Brees deserves part of the blame for the offensive mess.
2 out of 4
Mark Ingram ran hard when he had the opportunity to touch the ball. The problem was, after falling behind so early, there weren’t many opportunities for him to do his job. He finished with 10 carries for 43 yards. The coaching staff was likely unhappy with his fumbled screen pass on the second play of the game. Ingram lost the ball because he swung it back while trying to juke around a defensive player, which allowed it to be easily popped out by Josh Norman.
1.5 out of 4
You can’t drop seven passes as a unit and expect to grade out well (Sean Payton has his team with eight drops). Four of those were by Jimmy Graham, who easily put forth his worst performance of the season. Running back Pierre Thomas and tight ends Josh Hill and Ben Watson had the other drops. And not all drops are created equal. Graham, for instance, had one that bounced right off his chest.
-- Nick Toon continues to make use of his opportunities. He had one impressive moment late in the first quarter when he cut his route short and sat in a weak spot in the zone defense. His decision paid off as Brees found him for a gain of 13 yards. He should continue to receive opportunities moving forward.
-- Morgan, who was released by the Saints on Tuesday, logged 37 snaps. He failed to adjust properly to receive a back-shoulder throw on the sidelines during the third quarter, drawing the ire of Brees and Payton. He did, however, remain in the game and played a lot down the stretch.
1.5 out of 4
Too much pressure and too many letdowns. Bryce Harris gets let off the hook a bit becasue he was dealing with an ankle injury after coming in for Terron Armstread, but he still allowed at least six hurries and a sack. Guard Ben Grubbs also allowed a hurry on a screen pass that was dropped by Hill after failing to pick up his man. Zach Strief was also a multiple offender, allowing six hurries.
1.5 out of 4
John Jenkins, who had some positive moments in run defense, and Brandon Deaderick started at the defensive tackle spots. Neither player made much of an impact in the pass rush, which was an issue across the board.
-- Galette was the only defensive lineman who recorded consistent pressure but, as noted, it came at the cost of the run defense at times. Overall, despite blitzing nearly 20 times, the Saints only pressured Newton on eight plays. That’s a big step back after what appeared to be a step forward against Pittsburgh last week.
-- It was good, however, to see defensive tackle Akiem Hicks push the pocket a few times and hurry Newton.
1.5 out of 4
Run fits and coverage continue to be an issue for this group. Curtis Lofton, who has been one of New Orleans’ better players against the run this season, had a somewhat rough performance. He was the man blocked out on both of Newton’s big runs, and he hit the wrong gap on a 9-yard gain by Jonathan Stewart with 5:08 remaining in the first quarter. On a 14-yard gain by Stewart in the second quarter, Lofton was sealed off by the center in the second level and failed to shed the blocker.
-- Lofton performed better in the pass defense, helping to reroute tight end Greg Olsen a few times, but he was competitive in this area despite giving up a handful of receptions. There was, however, one baffling moment when he and David Hawthorne allowed Olsen to sit between them and make an uncontested catch for a gain of 9 yards. Hawthorne also slipped and allowed a reception to Mike Tolbert on the first play of the game.
2 out of 4
Only about 100 of Newton’s passing yards were the responsibility of the defensive backs, and a few members of this unit, including cornerbacks Brian Dixon and Kennan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro had really good games. Lewis gave up a pair of receptions to Kelvin Benjamin before he exited in the second half with “cramps.” One of those, a touchdown catch, probably should have drawn an offensive pass-interference penalty. Lewis had two really good pass breakups on Benjamin.
-- Vaccaro spent the majority of his time blitzing or covering Olsen. He surrendered only two catches to Olsen totaling 5 yards and had a nice pass breakup. The only negative to his performance was that he was likely at least partly responsible for Stewart’s 69-yard touchdown run. However, it appeared the whole team was fooled by Stewart cutting back.
-- There were a few baffling breakdowns in coverage. One came with 10:06 remaining in the first quarter when Lewis and Patrick Robinson double teamed Benjamin coming off the line. This left Jerricho Cotchery wide open. He passed by safety Pierre Warren when going over the middle, but no one picked him up. Lucky for the Saints, Newton overthrew him. The other big letdown was the touchdown where Olsen was left uncovered.
3 out of 4
Jalen Saunders is the real deal. His three punt returns totaling 68 yards were the highlight of the game. Dixon also had a nice tackle on special teams.
-- Thomas Morstead punted five times, averaging 44 yards. He placed one inside the 20-yard line.
-- This score would be a four if not for Shayne Graham missing a field goal.