The talk of the town this week has been about the tight end who is now catching passes in another town.
He’s gone. He’s not coming back. And it’s presumptuous to assume that Jimmy Graham would have helped the Saints improve on their 1-for-4 performance in the red zone during Sunday’s 31-19 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He might have helped. He also might have made no difference at all.
There’s no question there are issues that need to get sorted out. After reviewing the film, however, it’s clear the issues weren’t solely due to the personnel on (or not on) the field. The Cardinals had a solid plan for how to defend in the red area and New Orleans didn’t get the results they wanted when setting up plays.
For practical purposes, the Saints only had three real red-zone trips. The first jaunt in lasted one play, a 19-yard pass to Brandin Cooks that fell incomplete. That venture into the red area more of a “stop by” than a trip. The second jaunt resulted in a touchdown pass to Brandon Coleman, who caught a short pass, took it up the sidelines, spun around safety Tyrann Mathieu, and dove into the end zone.
Things fell apart on the third and fourth trips. The Saints were forced to settle for field goals both times.
It’s easy to see what the Saints were trying to do the third time into the red zone. The first play, which was a Mark Ingram run out of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) was run to set up the next play, a screen pass to Austin Johnson out of the same formation. The Saints scored on the same play against the Detroit Lions last season when no one picked up Johnson out of the backfield. The problem is the Cardinals were ready for it and dropped Johnson before he could do any damage.
Coach Sean Payton called the perfect play to exploit Arizona on third down. With seven Cardinals dropped back into coverage, Khiry Robinson ran a screen to the right side of the field. Brees connected with him, and Robinson should have had a clear path to the end zone, but he bumped into a blocker and couldn’t get straightened out quick enough to score or pick up the first down. The execution simply wasn’t there.
The next drive simply didn’t work. The Saints looked to take a shot on first down, but Arizona dropped six into coverage, no one got open, and Brees was sacked. A second-down run was stuffed after 2 yards, and the Cardinals blew up a screen to Mark Ingram on third down. The jig was up.
Perhaps New Orleans could have thrown up a prayer to Graham and hoped he solved the woes if he were still in town. But with the way Arizona was playing, it’s debatable if it would have made a difference.
Quarterback 2.5 out of 4
There wasn’t much there for Brees to work with against the Cardinals. It wasn’t as if the Saints opted against passes further down the field or weren’t trying to get guys open deep. They were. It just wasn’t happening. There were only two egregious examples of Brees missing guys down the field in favor of throwing a screen pass. Both of them, coincidentally, came on the third series of the game. Brees missed Ben Watson down the field for a sure touchdown on a 7-yard screen pass to Khiry Robinson. Three plays later, he missed Marques Colston over the middle on a 4-yard screen to Mark Ingram. The Saints still scored a touchdown on the drive. Brees worked quick, got the ball out before pressure could impact him, and took what was there. It wasn’t his best performance, but he played smart. Arizona dropped seven players into coverage 28 times and blitzed 20 times.
Running backs 3 out of 4
As runners, the running backs didn’t have much to work with. The offensive line struggled to open holes. It’s hard to blame the backs for averaging 2.7 yards per carry when there is nowhere to go. It didn’t make much difference which personnel grouping the Saints ran out of or how many men were in the box. The Saints’ running backs averaged 2.5 yards per carry when there there seven or fewer men in the box and 2.6 yards per carry when there were at least eight men in the box. New Orleans averaged around 2.1 yards per carry out of its 11 and 21 personnel groupings, and 2.4 from its 12 personnel. The most successful personnel grouping was 22, which averaged 3.5 yards per carry, which is surprising since Arizona stacked the box there. The work in the passing game speaks for itself. The Saints’ running backs picked up the bulk of the yardage. And give Mark Ingram some credit: he ran more than just screen routes. There were some darts and option routes mixed into his arsenal. It’s hard to knock this group for what happened in the running game. Robinson had a couple bad cuts, but several runs were forced into gaps that were different from what was intended.
Receivers 1.5 out of 4
It was a tough game for the receivers. Cornerback Patrick Peterson shadowed Cooks around the field, essentially erasing him on many plays. Cooks won’t be the last receiver to fall victim to Peterson’s coverage. The few times he did beat him, Brees found him, including one 30-yard reception down the sideline. The other receivers, however, have to get open, and that was an issue on many plays. And when they did, there were too many errors. Marques Colston dropped two passes and Brandon Coleman let another fall out of his hands. Both players struggled with separation. Willie Snead ran a nice route to get open and picked up a number of yards of the reception on his 63-yard catch. But he also failed to reel in an easy catch. As a blocker, Coleman stood out a few times, including on Ingram’s 59-yard gain off a screen.
Offensive line 2 out of 4
The offensive line did a great job in the passing game. Brees only faced pressure a handful of times, and most of those were on screens, when the offensive line releases to sell the run. The only time Brees was sacked it was the result of good coverage and came 4.75 seconds after the snap. Hard to blame the offensive line there. The group also received some help from their quarterback, who got rid of the ball in under two seconds on 22 occasions. It’s hard for a defense to get pressure when the ball is coming out that quick. As a whole, the offensive line did not perform well in the running game. Evans is on the hook for four run stuffs, beginning with one of the first drive when he missed a block and forced Robinson to try and cut back from the A gap to the B gap. Center Max Unger allowed Ingram to be stuffed for a loss of 3 yards, and guard Tim Lelito is also responsible for two bad runs. Zach Strief also missed a block on one. The offensive line was a strength of the running game last season. The unit will need to tighten up this week.
Defensive line 2.5 out of 4
The switch to 7-tech defensive end appears to suiting Cam Jordan well. He had a strong performance from start to finishing, contributing in the pass rush, pass defense, and against the run. Jordan recorded four hurries, including one where he reached Palmer but was too high and let him escape a sack. He had an opportunity for another sack that was thwarted by weak zone coverage. Jordan also broke up two passes and stuffed a pair of runs. One of his finer moments came on the second drive when he tossed tight end Darren Fells to the ground and dropped running back Andre Ellington for a loss. One of Jordan’s pressures led to a poor moment for Akiem Hicks. After Jordan flushed Carson Palmer out of the pocket on the opening drive, Hicks was blocked out of the play, allowing Palmer to turn up field. Hicks did chip in with a couple hurries in the pass rush. John Jenkins and Kevin Williams were solid against the run. Rookie Bobby Richardson also showed up with a pair run stuffs at the end of the third quarter. He also had a hurry. Richardson showed solid ability to get off blocks. We’ll see if it holds up. Overall, the Saints had 14 hurries and only blitzed nine times.
Linebackers 2 out of 4
Tough to know for sure what happened on Arizona’s final scoring play, a 55-yard screen pass to David Johnson, without knowing the call. Stephone Anthony was the first linebacker in pursuit, but he initially took a step toward a tight end and then bailed. In a man concept, the running back would be his responsibility, but it’s possible the linebackers were playing zone inside. His responsibility or not, he took a poor angle to the play. Overall, Anthony had a mixed. He had a nice pass breakup, but there were other times where he could have been more decisive in zone coverage and in pursuit to the ball. When he is, good things happen, as illustrated by his run stuff on Ellington on the first drive. David Hawthorne gave his best effort to cover Fells on a touchdown play but that’s where the Saints are missing Dannell Ellerbe. Hau’oli Kikaha finished with a handful of pressures and showed an impressive motor. His forced fumble was the result of a second effort. There were a few moments where he could have used a more measured pursuit to the play that left the edge open, but nothing that led to critical errors.
Secondary 2 out of 4
The Saints mixed between a lot of single-high safety and two safety looks. The defense performed better in man coverage, and it looks like it could take some time for Damian Swann to settle into zone concepts. The rookie played a pretty solid game but had two moments where he struggled in zone. One of them took a potential sack away from Jordan. Some might place the blame on him for Palmer’s first touchdown since he was the closest to the receiver. The blame there goes to the line for allowing Palmer eight seconds to throw the ball. Delvin Breaux was pretty solid. His coverage on John Brown on a pass breakup in the fourth quarter was as good as it gets. The issue there are all the penalties. His instincts seem to tell him to grab. That needs to end. Overall, Breaux gave up two receptions on three targets for 22 yards. Both Breaux and Swann are on the hook for a 48-yard reception to Fells. Breaux should have probably gotten a jam on his man and Swann needs to fight over the pick quicker. Kenny Vaccaro had a strong performance. He broke up two passes out of the slot and blitzed well. One of his blitzes almost led to an interception for Browner. The only bad marks are one missed tackle on a run by Vaccaro and a potential reception that fell between him and Browner in a zone. Browner was beat pretty good on the first play of the game on an inside slant. The Saints need to protect him from shifty receivers when possible. Rafael Bush was placed on injured reserve today, but he took a couple bad angles to plays and missed a pair of tackles. Jamarca Sanford, a natural strong safety, was not exposed playing free.