MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — This wasn’t the team everyone was expecting to see Monday night.
Not on offense, at least. The defense, despite all the hype following a solid preseason performance, looked much the same. Big plays, not enough pressure, points on the scoreboard. All the hallmarks of the New Orleans Saints defense were on display, and the assignment errors that plagued this team before Dennis Allen took over as defensive coordinator reared their head at times against the Vikings during the 29-19 loss.
But this probably wasn’t the offense anyone was expecting to see. When New Orleans signed Adrian Peterson and drafted Alvin Kamara this offseason, it was clear there was going to be more of a commitment to the running game. It just wasn’t clear how committed the team was going to be to pounding the rock.
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Third-and-5 from the goal line? That’s always been a passing play in this offense. Not on Monday night. The Saints ran the ball and ran the ball, and then ran some more during the first half. It was a different approach, one that hasn’t shown up very often during the past three years, all 7-9 finishes. And, well, it didn’t work as hoped, but it was something the team felt it had to do to have a shot at winning.
“There’s some numbers we paid close attention to in regards to the pressures and the sacks,” coach Sean Payton said. “You have to be mindful of the matchups. We knew there were certain things we weren’t going to do in this game, but we just didn’t do it well enough.”
The end stats don't tell the story. The Saints finished the first half with 16 rushing attempts against 14 passes. The second half pushed Drew Brees up to 291 yards on 27-of-37 passing, and the running backs finished with 60 yards on 21 carries, but the game felt well out of hand by the time those passing yards started climbing.
However, the Saints almost had to attack the way they did. With Terron Armstead out of action, and Zach Strief joining him on the sideline before halftime, New Orleans didn’t have the luxury of allowing Drew Brees to stand back in the pocket and scan the field for three seconds. The Vikings were kicking down the door long before that.
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"In a place like this, no matter where you go in the NFL, your run game has to travel,” guard Larry Warford said. “You don't want to leave the game on the quarterback. You can take a lot of pressure off him in this loud environment, this hostile environment, if you establish your run game. We didn't do that as best we could. I don't know what exactly happened."
Even the 4-minute offense couldn’t operate as it typically does. In those situations, New Orleans likes to go with empty sets and spread out defenses. The one time the Saints pulled out one of those looks before the end of the first half, Brees was dropped on his backside. The play came back due to an offsides call, but the point was still made. The protection was too iffy to stick with a look that left Brees so vulnerable in the pocket.
The next time New Orleans tried it in the third quarter, Brees took a sack. In typical fashion, the team used the look to move the ball after they fell behind 26-9 in the fourth quarter, but the game was already out of hand, and those yards gained did little more than close a gap that was unscalable.
This isn’t going to be how the offense operates every week. There hasn’t been a drastic shift in philosophy. New Orleans isn’t going to end a lot of halves with more rushing attempts than passing attempts unless it has built a big lead and is trying to grind away the clock. It was just the way the team felt it needed to go about its business against an attacking defense with an offense short on starters.
“You’re playing in a hostile environment against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league,” Brees said. “You certainly don’t want to give them any extra motivation especially early on the game. We thought that was very important to keep those guys under control, and obviously you can do that with a good, sound run game.”
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It can be difficult to get the passing game going against players like Xavier Rhodes and Terrance Newman, who made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and receivers last season. Rhodes emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL after shutting down the likes of New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Dallas’ Dez Bryant last season. One of the few times Michael Thomas was targeted with Rhodes in coverage, he caught a slant for a gain of 8 yards. It’s likely that most of the Minnesota cornerbacks will walk away from this one with favorable stats.
The plan didn’t work as hoped. But the alternative didn’t start yielding results until late in the third quarter. Through an array of quick passes, and a play-action attempt that got Tommylee Lewis open for a 52-yard gain, the Saints pushed back down into Minnesota territory but couldn’t punch the ball in, which was a problem all night.
The fact that things opened up late in the game when the Saints started operating more in their typical fashion will lead some to question the overall plan. But still, even when Brees was connecting on his passes, he was still taking hits and had trouble finding open receivers. Spreading it out and airing the ball out most likely wouldn’t have worked for a full game.
There isn’t a lot of good to say about anyone on either side of the ball. The team couldn’t score in the red zone until it didn't matter. It couldn’t stop anyone. There are issues to sort out. Lots of them. The good vibes built throughout the preseason have dissipated, and this is what emerged in the light of the prime-time lights.
It didn’t look good. One of the highlights of the night was a 68-yard punt Thomas Morstead that wasn’t returned. Wil Lutz also made all of his field goals. When those are about the only things to mention in the positives column, that means there’s a lot of work to do.
The Patriots are up next.