The Saints did a good job minimizing Calvin Johnson’s impact. And on a normal night, taking away a team’s best offensive weapon usually will lead to success.
But the problem is this wasn’t a typical night and New Orleans isn’t a typical team. So while Johnson contributed only one catch to the Detroit Lions’ effort, the Saints still were beaten at the Mercedes-Benz Supedome 35-27.
It was the same story as it has been all season. If it weren’t for a change at defensive coordinator during the off week, the natural inclination at this point would be to yadda-yadda-yadda through the details because they’ve been warmed over so many times already.
And that actually comes as somewhat of a surprise. It appeared as if the defense was making progress the past three weeks under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Things appeared more cohesive. Communication was better. The team was having more success.
And maybe most importantly, running backs and tight ends were not running free and destroying the defense on underneath routes — or seemingly not with the same frequency as they were earlier in the season. But that’s what happened Monday night.
“We put ourselves in a hole in the first half,” coach Sean Payton said. “When you get behind like that, you’re margin for error in the second half is pretty small. I’m disappointed.”
It wasn’t Johnson or even Golden Tate who gutted New Orleans as Detroit built its lead. Instead it was steady dose of running backs and tight ends who racked up the majority of the yardage.
Of Matthew Stafford’s 254 yards (22-of-25 passing), 158 yards came via his running backs and tight ends. Only 96 were courtesy of the wide receivers. The Lions also ran for 150 yards on 23 carries.
Tate made some plays, finishing with six catches for 45 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came with Delvin Breaux in coverage. But Johnson had only one catch for 19 yards, and was primarily covered by Brandon Browner.
“The did a good job of just spacing it out,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “(Stafford) knew where to go with the ball pre-snap. He did a real good job of spreading it out.”
The work done by the tight ends and running backs continues a trend that has plagued the Saints all season. While there’s much talk about how poor the secondary has performed, the bulk of the receiving yards have come at the hands of other players. Entering action, the Saints had given up 1,063 yards to tight ends and 756 receiving yards to running backs.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that things played out this way. Maybe the last couple of weeks were simply an aberration. Maybe there was no hope. Or maybe this game was the outlier of the Allen era. The truth will bear itself out over the next two weeks.
The issue is that there needed to be a complete change in course for anything to feel good, for belief to grow and for the offseason to be filled with promise. Hope has come and gone too many times over the past two seasons for anyone to be fooled again.
And the Saints tried to make it feel better. They tried to make the game look competitive and even brought the crowd to its feet in the fourth quarter after Hau’oli Kikaha forced a fumble and Drew Brees found Marques Colston in the end zone to cut the score to 28-20.
It wasn’t enough. Maybe things would have been different if New Orleans had scored at the end of the first half instead of being shutdown after the officials erroneously whistled a play dead after the Lions called for a timeout they did not have.
But really, New Orleans’ inability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, as well as stop the run did them in. If running back Ameer Abdullah hadn’t taken a pitch around the right edge for a 24-yard gain on third-and-1 or if tight end Eric Ebron hadn’t caught a pass up the seam for a gain of 18, which put the Lions on the 1, maybe the Saints could have clawed their way back.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” defensive end Kasim Edebali said. “We’re going to watch the film. It’s got to be corrected.”
Maybe the thing to learn is that things are always going to return here unless there are drastic changes. The hard truth is that the coordinator doesn’t matter. He can clean things up and put the players in better position to succeed, but this team simply doesn’t have enough talent.
Perhaps it was foolish to think everything had been fixed after a couple decent games and a strong performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The problems this team faces can’t be disguised by a little Cover 2, some more blitzes and a few disguised coverages.
It’s been said here and elsewhere that Dannell Ellerbe is the key piece on defense, that the team typically wins when he’s on the field. That’s far too simplistic of a statement. The truth is there simply wasn’t another truly capable player on the roster to take his place when he’s been injured.
And that’s indicative of the issues this team is facing. There’s no middle class to the roster — and that’s a result of poor drafting and the $33 million the team is carrying this season in dead money.
There’s the guys at the top of the roster, a small group in the middle, and then the filler. And at the top of the roster, there simply isn’t enough talent — especially since bodies started hitting injured reserve early in the year.
Maybe this game was a good thing. It was a reminder of where things stand — or at least of how low things can swing.
This team needs to go into the offseason with a plan to restock the shelves, both at the top, the middle and the bottom, with equal importance.
Otherwise, this will continue to be a mediocre team that at times looks good, does enough to build some hope and then slips back into the ocean of despair.