The Saints’ late meltdown against the Lions might be more stunning on second viewing.
Even though you are already aware of what’s coming and how it happens, it’s odd to see the Detroit Lions raise their game to such a high level and New Orleans crumble under the pressure.
This late disparity was evident across the board, but at its greatest in the trenches.
It would be inaccurate to say the Saints handled the Lions’ fearsome pass rush, which hit, sacked or pressured Drew Brees on 20 of 47 drop-backs — but eight of those came during the final 14 plays.
So depending on how you look at it, the line was either very strong for three quarters against one of the best pass rushes in the league, or they played over their heads and the truth eventually came out.
The truth probably lies in the middle of those two extremes, as it usually does, but it’s undeniable the shift in power helped knock the wheels off what was one of New Orleans’ best performances to that point.
The two biggest culprits down the stretch were tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief.
Armstead was beat twice by defensive end Ziggy Ansah for pressures, and again by George Johnson when Brees was intercepted by Glover Quin, which led to the go-ahead touchdown. Meanwhile, Strief was beaten twice for quarterback hits.
Ben Grubbs and center Tim Lelito, who replaced the injured Jonathan Goodwin, also gave up pressures during this stretch. The rest fall in the team category since guys were either unblocked by design or because of a failed assignment.
Despite the poor performance down the stretch, it might be premature to panic about their performance. There have been some letdowns along the way — like in Week 5 when Jahri Evans struggled to contain Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, or the group’s spotty play against Dallas in Week 4 — but it’s too soon to go up in arms about this group.
If it continues, and letdowns become the norm, then it might be time to take a harder look. Here’s how the Saints grade out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
2.5 out of 4
Brees’ play during the first 56 minutes of this game was a big reason the Saints had the opportunity to meltdown in final minutes of the 24-23 loss. He completed 25 of his first 31 attempts for 325 yards, connected on deep passes, and did everything he was supposed to do. Then the Detroit pass rush came alive in the fourth quarter, Brees struggled to handle the pressure, connected on three of his final 14 attempts, and threw a costly interception that ultimately sank the Saints. He should have noticed the robber, Quin, on the pass that was intercepted, but it’s hard to blame Brees for the loss considering his play kept them in the game for so long.
1.5 out of 4
The running game never got started against the Lions’ front four. Mark Ingram, in his first game back from hand surgery, had runs of 10 and 17 yards, but also lost yards on four other carries. Pierre Thomas managed to break loose for a gain of 12 yards to start the third quarter thanks in part to a block by tight end Jimmy Graham, who was initially expected to miss this game because of a shoulder injury.
The running backs made their biggest contributions in the passing game.
The game plan was heavy on screen passes, likely in part to help negate the impact of the Detroit pass rush, and Thomas and Cadet showed up in this regard to varying degrees.
Thomas logged four catches for 17 yards, while Cadet had six catches for 51 yards.
Cadet’s biggest play came when he was split out as a receiver and made a 25-yard reception as the middle receiver in a three-level passing concept.
Khiry Robinson took a step back after breaking out against Tampa Bay. He fumbled in the second quarter and missed a blitz pickup that led to Brees being sacked. He played only five snaps.
Detroit should have been a flag late in the fourth quarter when Nick Fairley busted through the line and basically tackled Cadet before he could go out for a pass. Not sure how the officials missed that.
3 out of 4
The Saints can survive without Graham. While the tight end logged 30 snaps, he was mostly a decoy and targeted only two times. Graham wasn’t a threat in the passing game, but he still manage to draw double coverage at times. Detroit primarily used a linebacker to cover him as the game wore on, and there was one play on which he wasn’t defended at all, but there were a handful of snaps when he drew a cornerback in coverage. It was surprising to see him participate in blocking.
Marques Colston came back to life. The wide receiver did not build much confidence with his play during the first six weeks of the season, but showed he can still be productive as the primary receiving option. He caught six passes for 111 yards and had no trouble getting open for Brees.
Kenny Stills also showed signs of life as a deep threat. His 46-yard reception for a second-quarter touchdown was one of the better plays the Saints have produced this season.
Brandin Cooks struggled to get involved but flashed on a nice inside-out move late in the second quarter when he pulled away from Rashean Mathis en route to making a 14-yard reception on an out route.
1 out of 4
The letdown at the end ruins what was an otherwise decent performance.
It seemed the plan was to double-team defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh whenever possible. It worked for the most part, but he still managed to record three pressures.
2 out of 4
The Saints made the most of their opportunities Sunday, recording three sacks despite generating pressure on only 11 of Matthew Stafford’s 44 dropbacks. This remains a work in progress.
Junior Galette continues to pick up steam. He was once again the most productive player on the defensive line, recording a sack and three hurries. His most impressive play was a hit on Stafford with 8:14 remaining in the first quarter. Galette initially was going to rush to the outside but cut behind Glenn Foster and hit a lane between the guard and center.
Galette’s sack came out of an Amoeba look in which he was lined up next to Cam Jordan.
Jordan had a good day against the run but needs to make more of an impact in the pass rush. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s fined for his roughing the passer penalty.
Akiem Hicks had a pressure and a couple run stuffs.
3 out of 4
Curtis Lofton might have had the best game of any Saints’ defensive player this season. The linebacker was part of at least six run stuffs and snuffed out a couple other screen passes. He also showed up with solid coverage.
David Hawthorne also might have had his best game of the season, showing up with three run stuffs.
2 out of 4
Stafford completed seven passes when throwing at Corey White. The only one he missed was sailed out of bounds. Still not sure what White was looking at on the 73-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate in the fourth quarter. His ball recognition needs to improve.
Keenan Lewis surrendered only one reception. Stafford either respected him or the plan was to go after White and Brian Dixon.
Dixon was shaky in coverage on a few plays.
He took himself out of position on a pair of receptions. Safety Rafael Bush bailed him out of giving up a big reception in the fourth quarter by traveling 20 yards to break up a pass. The pass interference Dixon was called for was unfortunate.
Not sure who to blame for the game-winning touchdown pass to Corey Fuller.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste was initially in coverage and seemed to pass Fuller off.
Unfortunately, White and Bush were both in coverage on another receiver. The cornerbacks on the other side of the field appeared to be in man coverage.
Rookie Vinnie Sunseri had a big pass defensed in the end zone on a third-down play.
3 out of 4
Cooks had a 15-yard punt return, which is notable for a team that has struggled in this regard throughout the year.
Shayne Graham keeps things interesting, but he connected on all of his field goals with a long of 48 yards.
Thomas Morstead punted four times, placed one inside the 20, and none were returned. His average hang time was 4.48.