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 on 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 the 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 only used 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
The only thing to question about McCown’s performance is the pass to Cooks that was intercepted. The play was specifically called to make that throw, and Cooks had a step on Norman, so it’s understandable why McCown decided to stick with him. However, if he had looked off him, he would have seen Colston open over the middle or C.J. Spiller open in the left flat. But it’s easy to see that after the fact. McCown got the look he wanted. The pass was just a tad short. McCown succeeded by attacking the short areas of the field. He only threw deep passes and both fell incomplete. One of those was misplayed by Brandon Coleman, who appeared to lose track of the ball as it fell incomplete. 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
Mark Ingram was the only consistent performer out of the backfield. His longest run was only for 9 yards, but he was steady and was able to get the yards that were there, finishing with 50 yards on 14 carries. 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 also 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. He’s explosive. This seemed like the kind of game where he could run some routes out of the backfield, from the slot, or split out and pick up yardage over the middle.
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. All of the plays allowed him to use his ability to quickly change direction or ability off the line of scrimmage to win his routes. Marques Colston made a few really big plays in this game, including a 22-yard reception up the seam, and continues to find soft spots in zone coverage, but his two dropped passes on a fourth-quarter drive were killers. He now has three drops this season. Willie Snead, who had a good game up until that point, also dropped a pass during the drive. Ben Watson’s fumble was the biggest error of the day for the offense. He needs to do a better job protecting the ball. Prior to that, he had a couple big receptions. His 20-yard catch on third down came up just shy of being one of the bigger plays of the day when he failed to get the first down. He showed ability as a receiver throughout camp. Sunday was the first glimpse of it this season.
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 only gave up 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 three later in the first half. Lelito also missed on a block a third-down play when Robinson was stopped for a gain of 1 yard. There were holes, but not enough considering the number of light boxes this team faced. Senio Kelemete wasn’t flawless in the running game, but he was solid. On Ingram’s touchdown run, he pulled and was able to get over enough to disrupt one of the men in pursuit. Center Max Unger also had a key block on that play. Kelemete also had a key block on a 5-yard run by Ingram up the middle earlier in the half. Unger had a few moments where his athleticism really showed up. One of those was on a 15-yard screen pass to Cooks in the fourth quarter when he raced up the field and laid a block on a defensive back. Armstead is good at everything. He makes things look so easy sometimes it’s easy to take him for granted.