The Saints entered the week not knowing who would be playing quarterback against the Carolina Panthers or how healthy their quarterback would be.
So when the team began game planning Tuesday, it had to come up with something that would work for both Luke McCown and Drew Brees and accommodate Brees’ injured shoulder, if he were able to find a way to play. What New Orleans ended up coming up with is one of its better game plans of the season.
Instead of relying on drawing up plays that required the quarterback to elevate the players around him and make several intermediate throws, as usual, this week’s plan was built around ball security and a short passing game. The players on the field propped up the quarterback instead of the other way around.
Luke McCown executed the plan almost perfectly. Every decision played to the strengths of the team. Instead of trying to do his damage on the outside of the field, Brandin Cooks caught many of his passes over the middle and lined up inside more often than usual. Willie Snead got open with his precise route running, and Marques Colston worked the seams and soft spots in the zone.
Deep passes were used only when they were needed. The Saints worked to set up the next first down instead of the next shot play. They protected the ball and methodically moved the chains. Everything was nearly flawless until McCown slightly underthrew a pass to Cooks that was intercepted by Josh Norman in the end zone to seal the Panthers’ 27-22 win.
What the Saints might have stumbled upon is a formula for success moving forward. This was, unquestionably, the best the Saints have looked all season on offense. Even when Brees returns, a precision passing attack might be the way to go — especially if he’s going to be battling a sore shoulder moving forward.
Sunday showed the Saints don’t need shot plays to win games and that the pieces are there to consistently and methodically move the ball. The offense remains a work in progress, but the Saints might have stumbled into something against the Panthers.
QUARTERBACK: 3 out of 4
Outside of screens or passes in the flat, McCown’s most effective pass inside the numbers came on curl routes (4-for-4, 26 yards). He also connected on three seam routes for 50 yards.
Outside the numbers, he connected on 4-of-5 out routes for 43 yards.
RUNNING BACKS: 2 out of 4
One major change this week was that New Orleans faced seven or fewer men in the box on 16 of 24 carries. The Saints ran out of three-receiver sets on 11 plays.
Ingram continues to be effective in the passing game. He caught five passes for 49 yards and continues to be able to run more than just basic screens.
C.J. Spiller needs to be on the field more often. His wheel route that resulted in a 19-yard gain late in the game was one of the better plays of the season.
RECEIVERS: 2 out of 4
Brandin Cooks almost had one of his better games as a member of the Saints. If the pass to him in the end zone was just a touch longer, he would have wrapped up a banner day.
The big difference is that he did a lot of damage on the inside of the field and then used his ability to change direction to get open outside the numbers.
He picked up 15 yards on a pair of slants, one of which was with a linebacker in coverage, added 33 yards on three intermediate out-routes, gained another 16 on an in-route, and used his speed to gain 15 yards on a screen pass.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 2 out of 4
The pass protection was pretty good.
The run blocking, while improved, still left something to be desired.
The line gave up only three hurries (one each for Tim Lelito, Terron Armstead and Zach Strief) and one hit (Lelito). Tight end Josh Hill gave up another hurry.
But the run blocking, while better than recent weeks, could still improve. Strief allowed an Ingram run to be stuffed on the fourth play of the game, and then later allowed his man to shed a block to limit Khiry Robinson to a gain of 3.
Lelito also missed on a block a third-down play when Robinson was stopped for a gain of 1 yard.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 1.5 out of 4
The low point for the line came late in the second half when Cam Newton was allowed to stand in the pocket for about six seconds and then took off up the middle for a gain of 9 yards.
Carolina had three runs of 10 or more yards on option plays. Overall, the Panthers averaged 5.5 yards on options.
LINEBACKERS: 1.5 out of 4
Rookie Stephone Anthony, in particular, had several issues. His low moment came when he was slow to recognize Panthers tight end Greg Olsen crossing through his zone and left him open for a gain of gain of 15 yards near the end of the second quarter.
This has been an ongoing issue for Anthony and showed up a few times in Cover 3 concepts Sunday when he got caught watching the running backs instead of dropping into his zone.
SECONDARY: 2 out of 4
This game took Brandon Browner out of his comfort zone and left him in several situations that do not suit his skill set.
Many of the times he gave up receptions in zone coverage did not look as bad on review as they did live.
One such play came up during the first half when Browner surrendered a 14-yard reception to Ted Ginn on a slant route. Browner started out playing about 10 yards deep and made the right decision to concede the reception and prevent a longer gain after catch. If he had been more aggressive, there’s a good chance Ginn would have scored.
Where Browner looked bad was on a pair of big receptions to Ginn (55 yards) and Olsen (52).