There were more than 140 plays during the Saints’ 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns Sunday. But only one aspect of one of those plays mattered to fans in New Orleans.
How did Andrew Hawkins get so open on Cleveland’s final offensive play from scrimmage?
Only those inside the Saints’ locker room know the real answer to that question. But watching the play back, it’s clear that several aspects of the coverage broke down, letting Hawkins get behind the defense for the 28-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal.
At the start of the play, Miles Austin went in motion from the offensive left side of the field, creating a trips/bunch formation on the right side. The Saints were in main coverage, but Patrick Robinson initially failed to follow Austin and had to be directected by safety Jairus Byrd to go to the other side of the field.
The Saints blitzed six men and had Byrd stationed up in the box. There was no deep man on the play. The Saints lose if the cornerbacks get beat.
With Robinson late getting over, Corey White, lined up across from Hawkins, gestured at the line of scrimmage. As the play began, Robinson took Taylor Gabriel coming over the middle and was flagged for holding. White initially took a few steps with Hawkins up the field, but shed him to cover Austin in the flat. Lewis also closed in on Austin.
This left Hawkins wide open behind the defense to make the catch.
So who was to blame? It could be any of the three cornerbacks. Without knowing the assignments of each player, it is impossible and would be irresponsible to assign blame to an individual player.
Chalk it up to busted coverage and a defensive failure.
Here’s how the team grades out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
QUARTERBACKS 2 out of 4
It took Drew Brees and the Saints offense nearly a whole half to settle in and figure out how to move the ball against the Browns’ defense. Cleveland did a good job disguising things, generating pressure, and taking away the outside of the field early in the game.
--There was one 3-and-11 play in the first quarter when Cleveland dropped seven men into coverage. Brees had nowhere to go, and his pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage. With 8:04 remaining in the second quarter, the Browns dropped nine men into coverage after running back Travaris Cadet motioned to the outside. Brees was forced to tuck the ball and run. The Saints did not use an empty backfield again the rest of the game.
--With the outside of the field well covered, Brees picked his spots and focused on moving the ball in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Of his 22 final passes, Brees threw seven over the middle. Eleven other passes were short attempts to the outside or screens. Brees took only two deep shots the whole game, completing one.
RUNNING BACKS 3 out of 4
There isn’t much bad to point out about the running backs. Mark Ingram’s vision on a few runs deserves to be lauded. His 15-yard run with 11:01 remaining was the result of him cutting back to the left side of the field after realizing there were no holes to the right. He does, however, owe Austin Johnson a thank you for laying out Joe Haden on a 26-yard run in the first half.
--Khiry Robinson might not be as explosive as some of the other running backs on this team, but he displays patience and waits for holes to open up.
RECEIVERS 2 out of 4
It was a quiet day for most of the Saints receivers. Marques Colston played 42 snaps, ran 28 routes, and was not targeted once. A review of the game shows that he was a victim of quality coverage. In his return from a quad injury, Kenny Stills was mostly silent, catching two passes for 20 yards. He had one nice reception in the second quarter where he beat Joe Haden for a 14-yard gain on a comeback route. Brandin Cooks also struggled to get involved and had the game’s only dropped pass.
--Jimmy Graham makes things look too easy. He was the passing game Sunday and was able to get open at will. The Browns covered him with a linebacker and safety most of the first half. After that failed, they used cornerbacks Justin Gilbert (five passing plays) and Haden (three plays) on him in the second half. It still didn’t help.
--Tight end Ben Watson gave up one sack, one pressure, and was responsible for two run stuffs. Graham is also on the hook for a run stuff.
OFFENSIVE LINE 2.5 out of 4
The line gave up some early pressures and endured some struggles early in the game, but this was another solid performance. There were five hurries allowed: Zach Strief (one), Ben Grubbs (one), Jahri Evans (two), and Terron Armstead (one). Brees was also hit twice because of letdowns from Grubbs and Armstead. Center Jonathan Goodwin was responsible for a run stuff. Two hurries and a sack were without individual blame. The group also did a good job opening up holes for the running game.
DEFENSIVE LINE 2 out of 4
Cam Jordan arrived Sunday. The defensive end put only two tackles and two passes defensed on the official stat sheet, but he was active throughout the game, recording four hurries, two quarterback hits, and one run stuff. Overall, the defense created more pressure than it did during an underwhelming performance against the Falcons. The only problem was that Junior Galette (one sack, one quarterback), who spent most of the day at defensive end, was the only member of the line to get after quarterback Brian Hoyer. The Saints need the front four to continue to get better in this respect.
--Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks had several run stuffs.
LINEBACKERS 2 out of 4
The run defense was pretty solid outside of a few letdowns. David Hawthorne had 1.5 run stuffs. Curtis Lofton showed up with a quarterback hit and showed impressive coverage by defending a deep pass to tight end Jim Dray early in the game. One big letdown by the linebackers came in the first quarter when Lofton tripped over Hawthorne on a 15-yard gain by Terrance West.
--Hoyer handled the blitz well, completing 13 of 19 passes when the Saints brought extra pass rushers. Galette’s sack came on a blitz. Safety Kenny Vaccaro blitzed several times and recorded three hurries.
SECONDARY 1 out of 4
Patrick Robinson was flagged for jumping offside on a Cleveland field goal. The flag should have been on Vaccaro, who jumped first.
--It’s odd to see how much cushion the cornerbacks give the receivers on some plays.
On one instance, on a third-and-4 play in the third quarter, both Corey White and Robinson provided a comfortable cushion to the receivers, which allowed Austin to get open for an easy first down. It would be nice to see the corners play more aggressive in situations such as these.
--Robinson had good position in the first quarter when he was flagged for pass interference. Unfortunately, he recognized the ball too late and collided with Gabriel.
--White played well after taking over for Robinson in the base defense and moving to the inside on nickel plays.
He didn’t shut anyone down, but the receptions he gave up were for short yardage.
--Much better tackling this week. Vaccaro had several open-field tackles that prevented big plays. Overall, he played much better than he did against Atlanta.
SPECIAL TEAMS 2.5 out of 4
Thomas Morstead averaged 4.8 seconds on his punts and had an average distance of 41.2 yards
--Shayne Graham connected on his only field goal from 27 yards.
--The Saints allowed Marlon Moore to return a kick 32 yards.
--Khiry Robinson returned a kick 28 yards, but Cadet questionably brought two out for a total of 35 yards.