HOUSTON — Zach Strief wouldn’t get into it.
He didn’t want to talk about specific players. He felt to do that would be to oversimplify things.
The New Orleans Saints offensive line’s struggles during Sunday’s 24-6 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium were not exclusive to one opponent.
“I think as an offense we didn’t do very well,” Strief said. “The plan all week was to stay on course, good down and distances. We were inconsistent in the run game and really didn’t protect our quarterback enough to stay in good situations.
“That’s a good defense. ... We didn’t do anything to make them play any worse than they have been. I would say they pretty much kicked our tail today, and that’s across the board.”
He’s not wrong. The Texans’ Vince Wilfork, Brian Cushing, Jadeveon Clowney and several others had positive moments. But the conversation is inaccurate if defensive end J.J. Watt does not dominate the discussion.
He was the best, most disruptive player on the field and caused the Saints to game-plan for him, just like every other team does.
And when things were going wrong or quarterback Drew Brees (25-of-44 for 228 yards with one interception) ended up on his back, it was often Watt standing over him after the play.
Watt ended up on Strief’s side of the line on 51 of 58 snaps, including penalties. Call it bad luck but, as far as the New Orleans offensive line is concerned, Strief became the main character in the subplot of Sunday’s game involving Watt.
He certainly had some good snaps. Watt was blocked by a single man on 24 passing plays and double-teamed on 20 others. Among those plays were some standout moments by individual players and some duos. But there were also enough losses by the offensive linemen and tight ends to allow Watt to affect the outcome.
Officially, Watt was listed with seven quarterback hits, two sacks and two tackles for loss. It appeared he also had at least three other pressures, if not more. One of those hits, which occurred when tight end Ben Watson chipped Watt and passed him off to Strief, led to an intentional grounding penalty.
But Strief wasn’t the only player to be taken advantage of by Watt. Rookie Andrus Peat, who was making his first start at left guard, gave up one sack and one hit. Watt beat left tackle Terron Armstead, who lined up on the right side a few times to help out, including one situation where he got to Brees for a sack.
“They just do a lot of different things, a lot of games,” Peat said. “Guys line up all over the place. Their front seven is really good.”
The Saints had a plan they thought was going to help neutralize Watt and Houston’s other pass rushers. It was simple: Get the ball out quickly, don’t give them time to reach Brees and force other players to make plays.
“We didn’t want to feed their ego,” Brees said. “We knew that they feed off of those type of situations where they can pin their ears back and rush the passer. That really puts you at a disadvantage, and there are times that you have to resign yourself to the fact that you may have to punt this thing and play the field-position game a little bit.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as hoped. New Orleans opened the game with a heavy dose of screen passes and other short and intermediate routes. The Saints only gained one first down on their first three series as those screen passes often resulted in lost yardage.
That was a problem. Deeper yardage meant Watt had more opportunity to get after the quarterback, and Brees would have to hold the ball longer. And losing ground on first and second down was a major problem.
The Saints faced nine third downs of 9 or more yards, including two that were 20 yards or longer. It should be no surprise that New Orleans finished 3-for-12 on third down.
“I think it’s an aggressive defense, a team that plays downhill, and we tried to take advantage of that a little bit and tried to get guys to back off a little bit,” Strief said. “But ultimately it had the negative, the reverse effect of that. We didn’t execute the plays, and all of the sudden they’re more aggressive and more downhill.”
But not all of Watt’s success came in situations where New Orleans was at a disadvantage in terms of down and distance.
Three of his hits came on throws that occurred in less than 2.5 seconds, as well one of his sacks. The rest were over that amount of time, including one hit that came 4.19 seconds after the snap.
Some of those plays were, indeed, the result of the situation. One of Watt’s hits came on second-and-21, another on third-and-12, but most of his damage was done on manageable first- and second-down situations, as Strief alluded.
Overall, Brees took an average of 2.56 seconds to get rid of the ball, which is on par with his season average.
But as Strief said, it wasn’t just one man. Other players on the line were making plays and the secondary covered well, which created situations for Watt and the others to get after Brees on early downs.
All of it added together led to one of the more frustrating performances in recent Saints history, and the first game under coach Sean Payton when the team didn’t record a touchdown.
“There’s a number of losses that get you frustrated,” Payton said. “So let’s not look for the ‘most frustrated ever’ headline. It’s disappointing to lose a game like that, and certainly it’s disappointing to not score a touchdown. That’d be a fair assessment of it.”
Payton said he’d need to watch the tape before commenting on Watt’s performance. But even though others also played a role, it seems fair to conclude the Texans star defensive end affected this game unlike anyone else.