The Saints were nearly perfect.
The team moved the ball, limited mistakes, and were nearly flawless on offense right up until the end, when Luke McCown’s last meaningful pass came up just short in reaching Brandin Cooks in the end zone during last week’s 27-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The game plan and execution resided in harmony for about 58 minutes, leading to New Orleans’ most efficient offensive performance of the season.
It seemed the Saints figured something out with Drew Brees sidelined and McCown at the helm. The offense worked to prop up the quarterback, everyone was put in position to succeed. Could the results force the Saints to consider thinking about using a more horizontal passing attack and forego some of the vertical elements of the past?
“I hope not,” coach Sean Payton said.
In other words, the dink-and-dunk era is not here. While the Saints appreciated the efficiency in which the offense operated and realize the short and intermediate passing attack needs to be on point each week, Payton is not willing to let that be the backbone of his offense. He doesn’t believe it’s a reliable way to score and move the ball.
The mindset makes sense. Since losing to the Panthers on Sunday, the coach has repeatedly referenced how small the margin of error is for this team. He pointed out that it’s rare for the offense to be able to convert a first down after picking up a penalty, and it’s been nearly impossible for New Orleans to overcome turnovers or other mistakes.
Payton believes the odds of being successful with a dink-and-dunk philosophy are low.
“We’re putting up (stats in the meeting) after three games, and that kind of thing,” Payton said. “You’re going to have to have more explosive plays because the odds of just constantly having those 10-12 play drives (are low). You need to be efficient at doing that, and yet there has got to be the ability to (have big plays).”
One of the key changes during last week’s game against the Panthers was that Brandin Cooks operated more like an inside receiver at times. He beat Carolina on a pair of slants, caught three passes on intermediate out routes, caught one pass on an in route, and added a reception on a screen pass. His only go route resulted in an interception.
The Saints moved him around throughout the game, twice getting him open while being covered by a linebacker. His ability to work over the middle and create mismatches were one of the keys to success.
“His speed and quickness give you a great matchup on the intermediate stuff and the downfield stuff as well,” Brees said. “He’s becoming very much a technician in his route running, where all his routes kind of look the same in that 10-15 yard range and then all of the sudden he runs by you or putting his foot in the ground, making a speed cut or breaking down to come back to you.”
The Saints like what Cooks can do on the inside. But moving him there at times against the Panthers was more of a wrinkle than something that is going to become a stitch in the offensive game plans.
New Orleans felt that by bringing him inside last week it would get him away from cornerback Josh Norman and allow Cooks to get a better matchup that he could exploit.
“Typically, I see him as an outside player,” Payton said. “But his ability to change direction and get out of a break quickly help him separate (on the inside).”
So, while New Orleans is looking to remain efficient in the short passing game, the days of the big play are not over. The Saints have only manufactured four runs of 10 or more yards and three passing plays of 25 or more yards. The seven explosive plays ranks last in the NFL.
“During the week, we’re thinking about not only how do we get the ball down the field but how do we get the back down the field,” Payton said. “There are a few different things that go into that. Hopefully we can get better in that area.”
The Saints will continue searching for answers. What they do know is dinking and dunking will not get them there.