The New Orleans Saints’ Keenan Lewis isn’t shy about telling people where he thinks he ranks among the league’s cornerbacks.
Ask him, and he’ll tell you he’s one of the best.
While he might not get the recognition he deserves in other parts of the country, he strengthened his case — or made outsiders more aware of the case he has been making the past two seasons — by piecing together what might have been his best performance of the season during Thursday’s 28-10 win over the Carolina Panthers.
It’s difficult to know where to even start when discussing Lewis’ performance. You could start with the pass he broke up that he had no business breaking up with 2:57 remaining in the first quarter, a play that likely saved a touchdown.
Lewis was on left side of the field for the play and was without an assignment. On the right side, Jerricho Cotchery was breaking down the seam with Rafael Bush in coverage. For whatever reason, Bush released Cotchery, and there was no one else in coverage. From the other side of the field, Lewis broke toward the goal line and managed to break the play up.
Sure, Lewis benefitted from a floated pass by Cam Newton, but his recognition was impressive.
We could also talk about the several passes he broke up or how he allowed only two receptions over eight targets, and that both receptions required high effort from the receivers.
Or we could talk about how he ran many of rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s routes better than Benjamin did, essentially erasing him from the game. (Only one of Benjamin’s catches came with Lewis in coverage.)
But, really, it needs to be seen to be appreciated. And on a national stage Thursday night, he made sure plenty of people saw what he’s been talking about.
Here’s how the Saints’ performance Thursday grades out, with a maximum four fleurs-de-lis:
Quarterbacks: Three out of four
-- Outside of some earlier follies, Drew Brees was as sharp as he has been all season and had the Saints moving the chains with several big plays. New Orleans did not attempt any deep shots over 30 yards, but Brees was 9-of-12 on all of his attempts that traveled 10 or more yards through the air. He hit two passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air.
-- The Panthers did not blitz much, but Brees connected on 5-of-7 passes when blitzed. He was sacked on one of those plays.
Running backs: 2.5 out of 4
-- Erik Lorig managed to make an impression during his 22 snaps. It wasn’t a good one.
The fullback first showed up when he missed a run block with 6:18 remaining in the first quarter that got Mark Ingram stuffed. He was then back on the radar two minutes later when he allowed Charles Johnson to push him back on a pass rush and forced him to knock the ball from Brees. It did not appear as though Lorig ever got his hands on Johnson.
With 2:17 remaining in the third quarter, Lorig missed a blitz pickup and allowed Brees to be hit. It’s unclear whether right tackle Bryce Harris, who blocked no one on the play, was supposed to initially pick up the pass rusher.
-- Ingram received few favors from the offensive line, which struggled to open holes for him on many of his 30 rushing attempts, leading to him averaging 3.3 yards per carry. It should be noted that Ingram faced nine men in the box on one carry and eight on 14 others (including a handful of goal-line carries). Ingram (100 yards, two touchdowns) faced six men in the box only twice.
Receivers: 2.5 out of 4
-- Kenny Stills is starting to show signs of life. He was only on the field for 26 plays and ran only 20 routes before suffering a groin injury, but he was targeted eight times and made five catches for 72 yards. He could have come up on 100 yards if not for a dropped pass. He’s not a bruising player by any means, but there were a few moments where Stills could have benefited by playing tougher.
-- It was a quiet day for Brandin Cooks. Two of his three receptions came in the first quarter, when the defense did not properly cover him. Those were the only three times he was targeted.
But it is notable that he’s running more routes down the field. Of the 29 passing plays he was on the field for, only eight of his routes would fall in the short or shallow categories.
-- Jimmy Graham appears to be all the way back. His performance in the receiving game speaks for itself, which included a nice leap over Roman Harper, but more encouraging is that he blocked around 20 times in the run game. His ability to perform adequately in this aspect of the offense will make it easier for the Saints to disguise things.
-- Ben Watson doesn’t get enough credit for the little things he does. He laid a key block on Ingram’s 19-yard run with 14:28 in the first quarter. He also had a pivotal block on a 12-yard run with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter. Those little things are why he manages to hang around at his age and continue to be a key contributor for this team.
Offensive line: 2 out of 4
-- Some will point to the four times Brees was sacked and say this was a poor day for the line. Two of those sacks, though, are on Lorig and Ingram. Another was a coverage sack that was the result of Brees holding the ball for 4.5 seconds. Ben Grubbs is the only man who should be held responsible for a sack.
Overall, it was one of the better performances by the line in terms of pressure allowed. The count here has him facing pressure only nine times outside of the sacks.
-- Jahri Evans goes on the books for allowing a quarterback hit with 9:02 remaining in the third quarter, but that was the result of Harris, who was in for the injured Zach Strief, blocking his man into Evans and creating a pick.
Defensive line: 3 out of 4
-- All the caveats that come with playing against a depleted and struggling offensive line need to be put in place. But even with that disclaimer, this is the performance that New Orleans has been looking for from its defensive line.
Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks (one sack, six hurries, four run stuffs) provided push from the middle, which allowed Cameron Jordan (three hurries, one sack) and Junior Galette (six hurries, two sack) to get higher on the edges. From that perch, the two defensive ends spent the evening making things uncomfortable for Newton.
-- Both Galette and Jordan deserve partial credit for the other’s sack. On Galette’s first sack, Jordan came off the edge and flushed Newton out and into the arms of Galette, who knocked the ball loose. On Jordan’s sack on Carolina’s next offensive play, Galette rushed off the opposite side and drove tackle David Foucault into Newton, who bounced into the arms of Jordan.
-- The defensive line did get too aggressive and at times created running lanes for Newton, which allowed him to slip out of the pocket a few times for big gains. But, considering the overall performance, this is picking nits.
Linebackers: 2 out of 4
-- A somewhat quiet evening for this group. Curtis Lofton had two run stuffs and a fumble recovery, and Parys Haralson had one stuff of his own. Ramon Humber, who was filling in for David Hawthorne, struggled against the run and was too easily blocked out at times. Haralson also had a few nice moments in coverage.
Defensive backs: 3 out of 4
-- One of the game’s highlight moments was actually the result of a mistake. On Corey White’s second-quarter interception, the cornerback failed to stick with wide receiver Brenton Bersin when he cut back to catch the pass and crashed into safety Rafael Bush. It took him a few steps to regain his balance and change direction, but once he did, White was in perfect position to receive the deflected pass.
-- Outside of that one play, which ended well, White pieced together another solid performance. He could have intercepted two other passes and only gave up two receptions for 17 yards with a pass defensed. He was targeted eight times.
-- Patrick Robinson also had another solid performance coming in on nickel packages. He had a standout moment in the second quarter when he read Newton and broke up a pass on the sideline intended for Jason Avant.
-- Give credit to the safeties. Newton only completed one of his eight attempts that traveled 10 or more yards down the middle of the field. Kenny Vaccaro read a designed run for Newton with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter and stuffed him just beyond the line of scrimmage.
Special teams: 2 out of 4
-- Thomas Morstead punted four times and placed two punts inside the 20-yard line. The punt return continues to be a problem: Cooks returned two for 2 yards. Brian Dixon could soon be replaced on the punt team if he does not cut back on penalties.