All looked lost a few weeks ago. After entering the season with Super Bowl aspirations, the New Orleans Saints appeared a dysfunctional bunch who could not get out of their own way long enough to achieve success.
The defense couldn’t get on the same page, Drew Brees was throwing mindless interceptions, Jimmy Graham was hurt, and the season got off to a 2-4 start. But now, after beating Green Bay and Carolina in the span of five days, the Saints are in first place, and anything seems possible.
It would have been an outlandish statement a few weeks ago, but this team could still achieve double-digit wins if it remains hot and gets a few lucky bounces. And it might not even take that much to win this division. Going 8-8 might be enough in a weak NFC South where the Saints are the only team without a losing record.
At the season’s midpoint, here’s a look at the first eight games and where the Saints could go from here:
WHAT WENT RIGHT: There were moments when the Saints played awfully and still managed to stay in contention. That counts for something. But outside of beating a red-hot Packers team, the greatest sense of comfort was provided during last week’s win against the Panthers.
Earlier in the season, when things went wrong, New Orleans would turtle and let the game fall apart. You could just tell when a mistake was made that it was going to be damning to the game’s outcome. That didn’t happen during the 28-10 win in Carolina. Brees’ interception and fumble on the Saints’ first two offensive drives were footnotes on an otherwise strong performance. Better yet, this team finally won its first regular-season away game in eight road trips and no longer has that demon.
On a personnel level, the Saints do not have much to worry about. Brees is still one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, and all of his weapons are starting to click. Wide receiver Kenny Stills was slow out of the gates because of a lingering quad injury, but he’s turned it on the past few weeks and appears to be going full speed. Marques Colston is also showing signs of life after appearing to be a liability over the first few weeks.
The Saints also appear to be better at grasping how to integrate rookie receiver Brandin Cooks into the offense. Early in the year, he was almost a scatback masquerading as a wide receiver. Many of his contributions came on screens, shallow routes and handoffs. The past two weeks, he’s been running deeper routes, and the gimmicks the team employed to get the ball in his hands have gone to the wayside. Finding a balance between the two approaches will most likely be what’s best for the player and the offense.
Defensively, the pass rush is starting to come together. Defensive end Junior Galette has been strong since the start, but it often felt like he was acting alone. However, over the past two weeks, defensive end Cam Jordan has become active, and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is pushing the pocket and creating pressure.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton has been one of the MVPs on defense, performing strong against the run and routinely showing up with multiple run stuffs. Considering some of the issues this team had early with tackling, his presence cannot be overstated.
The secondary has faced issues, but it’s locked down a bit since Rafael Bush took over at safety for the injured Jairus Byrd, and Kenny Vaccaro was freed up to focus on playing strong safety, as opposed to doing that and covering the slot.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Mostly everything went wrong during the first six games of the season. Brees threw multiple interceptions that left observers dumbfounded over the decision-making, the defense melted down each week.
The good news is that many of those issues appear to be in the past. At the risk of placing too much emphasis on the past two contests, it would be a bit of a surprise if those issues continue to plague this Saints.
That’s not to say all is cured. There are still defensive breakdowns each week. However, it now seems this team is better suited to find ways to plug the leaks.
On a personnel level, losing Byrd was a big blow. The safety struggled early and failed to perform up to expectations, but there’s no doubt he is one of the most talented players on the roster and would have provided considerable upside.
The other issue this secondary faces is at the second cornerback spot. The spot opposite Keenan Lewis has been full of leaks, first with Patrick Robinson and now with Corey White, and needs to be more consistent. White appears to have turned a corner, and Robinson has played well in nickel packages, but the confidence in that position is simply not there.
MAJOR ISSUE HEADING INTO SECOND HALF: Sean Payton has a big decision to make that could impact the second half of the season. By carrying 54 times for 272 yards, Mark Ingram has provided evidence that he can carry the load at running back.
When Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas return to health, Payton’s going to have to decide if the team is better suited platooning or relying primarily on one man.
There are pros and cons to each side that will need to be sorted through.
MVP: There are a few options, and none would be a bad pick.
Brees was eliminated because some of his turnovers sunk this team, Ingram falls out of consideration because he missed three games with a hand injury, and Lofton comes up short because he is only an adequate coverage man.
That leaves us with Lewis, who has played at a high level at a position of need, and Galette, who has been the most active pass rusher.
Lewis’ performance against Kelvin Benjamin last week was one of his best of the season, but he’s also played well against more accomplished players, such as Dallas’ Dez Bryant. That’s why he’s the pick. It’s hard to imagine where this team would be without him.
BEST PERSONNEL MOVE: The decision to retain Bush has paid dividends. An exclusive rights free agent, Bush signed an offer sheet with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, but New Orleans took the necessary steps to keep him in the fold. If Bush had gotten away and the Saints had not made a corresponding move to solidify the depth at safety, Byrd’s injury could have been devastating.
WORST PERSONNEL MOVE: The Saints overestimated their depth at cornerback. The team likely thought Champ Bailey would make an impact and felt comfortable enough with what it had at the position to select Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the draft. Bailey has since been released, and Jean-Baptiste remains a project who hasn’t been able to get on the field much, leaving little depth at cornerback.
BEST MOMENT OF THE FIRST HALF: The off week. New Orleans came out of it looking like a different team. Even though the Saints lost to the Detroit Lions, they played well enough in that game to build confidence, and then rolled over the Packers and Panthers.
WORST MOMENT OF THE FIRST HALF: The collapse against the Lions, which was best exemplified by the 73-yard touchdown reception White allowed that served as the beginning of the end. New Orleans lost other games this season in heartbreaking fashion, but it felt more like the Saints gave this one away as opposed to the Lions taking it from them.
PROJECTION: The prediction here before the season was that the Saints would go 12-4. That can be thrown out the window.
The new feeling is that New Orleans finishes 9-7. There are a lot of tough games coming up. But the Saints have five home games and only three on the road. If the Saints can go 4-1 at home against the 49ers, Bengals, Ravens, Panthers and Falcons, and then win at least one of three on the road against the Steelers, Bears and Buccaneers, they’ll get to that mark.
With the feelings of optimism generated over the past two weeks, this prediction almost feels cautious.