Sean Payton wanted to send a message to Baltimore.
Payton wanted to make it hurt, to make the Ravens feel as if his team could inflict its will upon them and do what it wanted. So after pushing down to the 1-yard line on the opening drive of Monday night’s 31-24 loss at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he dialed up a run on fourth down.
The play could have worked. Left guard Ben Grubbs pulled to the right side of the line and opened a hole next to the right tackle. But instead of following Grubbs, running back Mark Ingram went up the middle and was stuffed.
The threat was neutralized, and Baltimore took the ball and scored on the ensuing drive.
“I thought it was an important time in the game for us maybe to send a message and one of the reasons why not only did we got for it, but we ran it,” Payton said after the game. “Listen, that’s two times now, two weeks in a row, we were not able to get it. ... I think our approach going in, and our players knew it, that we were going to be aggressive in this game. And we could obviously look back and kicked it, but it’s something I decided.”
These situations have been a major part of the difference in New Orleans’ past two losses. In those games, the Saints had four drives enter the red zone, totaling 300 yards. Two of the drives resulted in field goals. The other two ended on downs.
The other failed drive Payton referenced that resulted in a turnover on downs came on the second series against the Bengals, when Drew Brees hit fullback Erik Lorig in the flat for a loss of a yard on fourth down.
Seeing those series end with zeros or three points has been frustrating for the offense.
“We got three points out of two possessions that we were essentially first-and-goal inside the 5,” tackle Zach Strief said. “Can’t happen against a good team, we have to take advantage of those opportunities.
Last week, when discussing the hidden yards that can be found in the return game, Payton shared how his team views yardage. It wasn’t the most stunning revelation, but he essentially said his team expects to score a touchdown for every 100 yards gained.
“If you said yardage is worth points, and if you studied over a period of time, and you said 100 yards is worth a touchdown, which is about right,” Payton said. “In other words, let’s say there is no return yardage with either team, and one team has about 400 yards of offense, the other 300, there has been no turnovers, you would say there is a seven-point differential.”
Looking at the four drives during the past two games, using Payton’s theory, the Saints came up 15 points short on the four aforementioned drives since they totaled 300 yards.
Against Baltimore, New Orleans gained 525 yards, meaning it should have scored 35 points. The Ravens, who gained 449 yards, should have been held to around 31 points. The difference was the lost opportunities in the red zone and a Ravens interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Looking at the season as a whole, the Saints have gained a total of 5,113 yards. That should, in theory, equate to 357 total points. Instead, New Orleans has scored 288. The defense, which has allowed 4,835 yards, should have surrendered 338. Instead, that figure resides slightly below Payton’s expectation at 286.
For the sake of reference, the New England Patriots, who lead the AFC with a 9-2 record, have gained 4,954 yards this season, which would equate to 346 points. In actuality, they’ve scored 357.
What it comes down to is taking advantage of situations and executing where it counts. It’s been an issue all season, but especially the past two weeks.
Here’s a look at how the Saints graded out this week out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
QUARTERBACKS: 2.5 out of 4
Brees wasn’t the issue in this game. He was constantly under pressure and missed some throws, but he gained 420 yards through the air. His interception was the result of being hurried into making a bad throw.
RUNNING BACKS: 1.5 out of 4
This was probably the worst game of the season for the running backs. Ingram ran 11 times for 27 yards, and Pierre Thomas picked up 19 yards on five runs. Missing the hole on the first drive of the game was a big setback for New Orleans.
RECEIVERS: 3 out of 4
Not much to complain about. Kenny Stills and Marques Colston stepped it up, and Jimmy Graham also had a decent game. Good to see Joe Morgan break out a little bit. The only question is why he wasn’t more involved.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 1 out of 4
This might have been the worst game of the season for this group, and that’s saying something considering their struggles against top talent. Brees was pressured on 22 plays and sacked four times.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 1 out of 4
Junior Galette showed up. No one else did. The Saints pressured Joe Flacco on just nine of his 25 drop-backs. Of those, four were by Galette and two came from safety Kenny Vaccaro. Cam Jordan did not record a pressure.
LINEBACKERS: 1.5 out of 4
The Ravens gutted the Saints on the ground all day. At least some of that blame has to fall on the linebackers.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: 2 out of 4
Pierre Warren did some good things in his rookie debut, but he also did some bad things, like missing a tackle on a Justin Forsett touchdown run. Patrick Robinson was given the opportunity to start after slipping down the depth chart and failed to take full advantage of the situation by allowing four receptions.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 2.5 out of 4
Thomas Morstead punted four times, placing the ball inside the 20-yard line twice, and had a maximum hang time of 4.78 seconds. Hard to blame Jalen Saunders for the lack of punt returns since Sam Koch did not give him many opportunities.