It was probably the most confounding moment of the game, but it foreshadowed the failures that would eventually sink the Saints against the Bengals on Sunday afternoon.
The play occurred with 7:59 remaining in the second quarter, with the Bengals needing 2 yards on third down. Cincinnati came out in 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back), with two receivers to the offensive right side of the field. The Saints countered with a nickel package to combat the three receivers.
Keenan Lewis and Corey White served as the outside corners on opposite sides of the field, providing their receivers with a cushion of about 10 yards. Patrick Robinson lined up underneath Lewis on the defensive left side, playing closer to the line.
After snapping the ball, everyone but the man Robinson is covering is immediately open, as well as the tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is left uncovered coming off the right side of the formation. Quarterback Andy Dalton quickly recognizes this and immediately throws the ball to A.J. Green, who is open underneath Lewis for a gain of 8 yards.
If you’re still looking for reasons why the Saints fell 27-10 Sunday, these failures on third down are the best place to start. Fourteen times the Bengals faced third down. They converted nine times.
The above example is only the most egregious letdown, but there were others that could contend. But the bottom line is that New Orleans needs to start playing better situational football if it hopes to get its season back on track, contend for a playoff spot, and then make some noise once there.
Here’s how the Saints graded out Sunday, position by position, out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
QUARTERBACKS: 2 out of 4
Outside of a missed throw to a wide-open Brandin Cooks in the first quarter, Drew Brees played an otherwise solid game. There were no turnovers, he completed 80 percent of his passes, and there isn’t much room to question his decision-making. The Bengals did a good job of taking away the deep portion of the field, and Brees responded by picking apart the Bengals short. Brees attempted 28 passes that did not travel more than 10 yards through the air. He completed 26 of those attempts. He missed on all three of his attempts that traveled 20 or more yards through the air, one of which was dropped by Marques Colston. Brees also completed only five of 10 attempts when blitzed.
RUNNING BACKS: 1.5 out of 4
The Saints wanted to run to open up the passing offense. It didn’t work. Despite running on four of the first five plays, and on 17 first downs, Mark Ingram was held to 67 yards on 23 attempts against a team that has been one of the worst against the run this season. The Bengals did not do anything exotic to stop the run. They simply won the one-on-one matchups and closed Ingram’s running lanes.
-- Ingram gained 27 yards on eight plays running behind the outside-zone blocking scheme. The rest of his work came behind other blocking schemes.
RECEIVERS: 2 out of 4
Jimmy Graham played 54 snaps, 35 of which were passing downs, but was only targeted three times for 29 yards. Cincinnati did not seem to pay him an inordinate amount of attention and did not seem to dedicate many resources to slowing him down. When Graham lined up tight, he would be matched up with a linebacker or given a free release and contained with zone defense over the middle. When he was split out, a corner would cover him. There were even three snaps when he wasn’t picked up at all but Brees did not see him.
-- Still odd that Graham wasn’t targeted during the Saints’ trip to the red zone that stalled on downs. He wasn’t even on the field for the incomplete pass thrown to Colston.
-- Colston made a pair of really nice catches, one over the middle and the one on the sidelines where he tapped his toes to get in.
-- The Saints are going to miss Cooks, who suffered a broken thumb in the fourth quarter. He didn’t do much until late in the game, but they won’t be able to catch teams by surprise with plays like the sweep Cooks ran early in the second quarter for a gain of 5 yards.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 2 out of 4
Brees was pressured on only about 10 of 42 drop-backs, so the offensive line did its job in this regard. The regulars were strong from start to finish, but Bryce Harris, who allowed three of those hurries, had some issues holding up his end of the bargain after coming in for Zach Strief.
-- After struggling against other elite defensive tackles this season, the Saints did a good job containing Geno Atkins. Both Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans held their own against him in passing situations, limiting Atkins to two hurries.
-- The inability to get the running game going was a collective failure that included all members of the offensive line as well as the tight ends.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 1.5 out of 4
The Saints never made Andy Dalton uncomfortable. Dalton did not allow that to happen. The Bengals quarterback took an average of 2.02 seconds to get rid of the ball, which did not afford New Orleans many opportunities to get into the backfield.
-- Of the five pressures the Saints recorded, two by Juinor Galette led to Dalton scrambling for 15 yards. On one of those, an 11-yard gain on Cincinnati’s first play from scrimmage, Galette tried to rush inside and was blocked out by right tackle Marshall Newhouse, which gave Dalton a clear path to the sideline.
-- It’s hard to highlight anyone involved in the run defense, but a handful of players did record run stuffs. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley did a good job shedding blocks and finished with three run stuffs. Cameron Jordan, who was silenced in the pass rush, also had a pair of run stuffs.
LINEBACKERS: 2 out of 4
Curtis Lofton continues to piece together a strong season. Had to look hard to find positives within the run defense, but Lofton was fairly easy to locate. He finished with five run stuffs and was consistently in the backfield. Lofton also deserves credit for flushing Dalton out of the pocket for Parys Haralson’s sack.
-- It seems unfair to criticize David Hawthorne for his coverage when there were times he matched up against wide receiver Mohamud Sanu, but the linebacker was targeted four times and surrendered four receptions.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: 1.5 out of 4
Sean Payton lauded Kenny Vaccaro for how hard he played even after the game was already decided. It’s easy to see why. While it appeared some had thrown in the towel, Vaccaro continued to play with maximum effort. With 7:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, he stuffed a Jeremy Hill run, and then did so again about a minute later, looping off the edge to plug the gap Lofton failed to fill.
-- Robinson might have had the best game of any of the Saints’ cornerbacks. He showed up big by breaking up consecutive passes in the third quarter to Sanu on second and third down. Robinson was targeted three times and gave up one reception for 9 yards.
-- Tough day for White. He was targeted four times, all while covering A.J. Green, and gave up only two receptions. But on one of those, he was badly beaten when Green easily beat a jam for a 21-yard reception with 6:26 remaining in the second quarter. On the other, a 13-yard reception, Green got away with a push, and White missed the tackle by coming in too high.
-- Brian Dixon played only 16 snaps and gave up two receptions for 56 yards. It’s hard to blame him for the 38-yard reception he surrendered to Green early in the fourth quarter, because he provided solid coverage and Green got away with pushing off.
-- Safety Marcus Ball’s penalty on third-and-6 with 5:37 remaining in the second quarter was confounding. He simply ran into the offensive line, unprompted.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 2 out of 4
Thomas Morstead had what might have been his best and worst punt of the season Sunday. His punt in the third quarter came off his foot wrong and sailed out of bounds 25 yards down the field. In the fourth quarter, he was able to bounce a punt that hit near the goal line and settled at 2-yard line. He averaged 4.35 seconds of hang time on his three punts. His kickoffs hung for an average of 4.10 seconds.
-- Ball had a nice block on Cooks’ punt return in the fourth quarter, though it was returned only 4 yards.
-- Punt coverage needs to be better. Returner Adam Jones was able to make Ball, Dixon, and Jamarca Sanford miss on one return. Luckily, he was moving laterally.