In many eyes, the New Orleans Saints’ solid play was wiped away when Michael Crabtree pulled himself up and off the turf with 65 seconds remaining in regulation as the recipient of a 51-yard, game-changing pass.
It didn’t matter that the defense shut down Colin Kaepernick during the second half of the 27-24 loss. The breakdown in coverage that led to the tying field goal, and eventual San Francisco overtime victory, is the play that defined the game. It was almost symbolic of all the issues this team has faced this season: another solid performance undone by a handful of mistakes.
So what happened on the play? The Saints were in a Cover 2-zone defense, with Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush serving as the deep safeties. The 49ers were in 11 personnel (two receivers, one back, two tight end), with two receivers to the right side of the formation.
At the snap, Junior Galette rushed wide, creating a seam between the right tackle and guard for Kaepernick to flush to the right sideline. On the left side of the field, Corey White was matched up with Crabtree; and tight end Vernon Davis was streaking up the field, uncovered.
As Kaepernick moved to the right sideline, the Saints defense began to shade that direction to close off half the field. As they did, the safety who was playing over the top of White (Vaccaro) abandoned his deep post to pick up Davis, who stemmed his route about 20 yards down the field.
At this point, White passed off Crabtree, thinking Vaccaro was behind him; and he began to converge on Davis. After realizing he did not have deep help and Vaccaro was also closing on Davis, White turned and went up the field, but Kaepernick had already located Crabtree and thrown a pass across his body for the 51-yard gain.
Some will likely blame Vaccaro as being solely responsible for allowing the play. And while he is culpable to some degree, the real culprit here is that Kaepernick had 6.91 seconds to throw. Things fall apart and the demands of the play change when a quarterback is afforded so much time.
Here’s a look at how the Saints grade out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
2 out of 4
A second look at the film improves the initial impression of Brees’ performance considering he did not get much help from his offensive line. Coming into the game with the NFL’s No. 2 defense, the 49ers sent five or more pass rushers on 25 percent of Brees’ dropbacks. He completed 63 percent of his passes in these situations. But he struggled when the 49ers were able to create pressure with a standard rush, which occurred often. Brees faced pressure on 23 of his 50 dropbacks (46 percent), completing 50 percent of his passes in these situations. This is the second time that Brees has faced pressure on 40 percent or more of his dropbacks. The other game was a Week 7 loss to the Detroit Lions, whose defense is the top-ranked in the league.
- Both of Brees’ interceptions were of his own accord. The first came on a pass to Marques Colston that would have been completed if he had thrown it the sideline instead of delivering a ball that carried him up the field. The second was thrown into triple coverage. Both plays came under pressure.
3 out of 4
The Saints had difficulty getting anything going in the first half. Ingram rushed nine times against 21 passes but began to open up in the second half once New Orleans established a reliable running game. After starting with three consecutive passes in the first quarter, the Saints ran three consecutive times to start the second half. The difference was noticeable. It opened up play-action fakes, and the 49ers could no longer pin their ears back and go after Brees.
- Most of Ingram’s success came from running the ball up the gut. Only 10 of his carries and 34 yards came running behind New Orleans’ outside zone scheme. Regardless, Ingram received few favors from his blockers (fullback Erik Lorig needs to become more consistent) and had to find many of his yards on his own. His best run came with 4:10 remaining in the fourth quarter when he took up the gut, bounced off the pile, took it outside and laid a stiff arm on Antoine Bethea for a gain of 11.
- Travaris Cadet missed a blitz pickup with 1:24 remaining in the first half, but he made up for it 3:42 remaining in regulation, when he laid a late block on Bethea, who was blitzing on Cadet’s blind side. The running back turned to begin a route just as the safety was arriving and laid him out.
2 out of 4
Brandin Cooks put together his best half of the season by catching four passes for 85 yards with a touchdown during the first two quarters. On his 31-yard touchdown in the second quarter, all of the receivers ran vertical routes against man coverage. The safeties, who were playing somewhat shallow, gravitated toward the left side of the field to provide help on Jimmy Graham and Colston. The coverage left Cooks in a winnable one-on-one matchup. He also made a nice adjustment to catch a 40-yard bomb from Brees that was underthrown with 3:32 remaining in the first quarter.
- Jimmy Graham continues to be Brees’ go-to receiver, and he continues to be one of the biggest mismatches in the NFL — a disparity that continues to grow as the tight end’s health improves. However, after watching the failed Hail Mary at the end of regulation, there’s no question he pushed Perrish Cox to the ground. Taking a dive in that situation does not make much sense, considering Cox was in position to make a play.
- The dropped pass by Colston with 3:25 left in the second quarter was a killer. He likely has a touchdown if he hauls in the deep bomb.
1 out of 4
Perhaps the more egregious error of the day came with 2:43 remaining in the first quarter when Jahri Evans failed to get out his stance and lay a block on defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who forced Brees to throw the ball away.
- The Saints have invested too heavily in their interior line to have such letdowns. Evans allowed five hurries and a sack, while Ben Grubbs surrendered three hurries and two hits. Center Jonathan Goodwin also surrendered four pressures.
- Right defensive end Zach Strief was by no means perfect, but he laid a great block on the touchdown pass to Graham.
1.5 out of 4
The defensive line created only about a dozen pressures and struggled against the run all afternoon, allowing Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde to average a combined 4.8 yards per carry. The good news is that four of those pressures turned into sacks for Cam Jordan, Tyrunn Walker, Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber.
- It was by far the best game of the season for Walker. Along with a strip-sack that resulted in a fumble Jordan recovered, he also recorded a quarterback hit and another pressure. That’s no small feat considering he played during 15 passing downs.
- Junior Galette was again active in the pass rush, recording five pressures, but he got too wide a few times and allowed running lanes for Kaepernick.
- Kaepernick’s 19-yard run in the first quarter came against an Amoeba package in which there was only one man on the left side of the defensive line. Kaepernick spotted this hole and took off through it for the big gain.
2 out of 4
Big game for linebacker Ramon Humber. Though there were some issues with his gap discipline, he showed up and recorded at least six run stuffs and a sack. He has some things to clean up, but it was about as good of a performance as can be expected from someone who serves predominately on special teams.
- Curtis Lofton had a somewhat silent day against the run but was solid in pass coverage. He was targeted four times and gave up one reception for 5 yards.
2.5 out of 4
Remove the 51-yard bomb to Crabtree and the grade goes up. Focus on the second half — minus the aforementioned play — and the score is one of the better ones of the season. It was that kind of game. The secondary had some issues in the first half slowing Kaepernick and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, but things settled down in the second half, and the secondary held San Francisco to 6-of-17 passing for 91 yards. Boldin had one catch on five targets for 9 yards in the second half. Some of the damage Boldin was able to do during the first half (five catches, 86 yards) can be credited to finding weak spots in the zone coverage.
- One player who stood out down the stretch was Brian Dixon. He broke up consecutive passes intended for Boldin during the final minute of regulation. Big showing for the undrafted rookie who saw his snaps increase after Keenan Lewis was knocked out of action with a hurt left knee.
1.5 out of 4
Not a great day for the specialists. Thomas Morstead punted six times for 299 yards with two touchbacks. One of those was the result of Nick Toon failing to down the ball at the 1-yard line. Cadet was decent as the kick returner, bringing back four kicks for 96 yards