Nearly all of the attention paid to the tight end position in New Orleans this season has focused on a man who is no longer there.
Then Ben Watson proved the position can still be deadly on Thursday night.
Featured heavily in a game plan designed to attack the middle of the Falcons defense, the 12-year veteran reeled in a career-high 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown to pace the Saints’ 31-21 victory over undefeated Atlanta, Watson’s biggest night since a 10-catch, 100-yard performance for Cleveland against the Dolphins in 2010.
“Ben Watson had a huge night,” Brees said. “He was tremendous, and in so many aspects, not just the passing game, but what he does as a complete tight end.”
Watson spent the offseason telling anybody who would listen that no one man could replace Jimmy Graham.
Forget about Graham. Few observers gave Watson much of a chance to even be the Saints’ primary tight end in the passing game. A 34-year-old veteran who spent the past two years doing the dirty work to allow Graham to occupy his featured role in the offense, Watson keeps himself in spectacular shape, but he’d been mostly a blocker in two seasons with the Saints. He made one catch or fewer in 24 of the 32 games he played in his first two seasons in New Orleans.
Most tabbed Josh Hill as the heir to Graham’s role as the primary pass-catching tight end.
But Watson spent the summer proving he had more left in his frame than anybody else could have imagined. A constant presence over the middle in every practice, Watson clearly established himself as the Saints’ best tight end, a development that seemed to suggest the tight end role in the Saints’ offense would look much more like Jeremy Shockey or Billy Miller than anything Graham has done.
Watson proved how devastating the position can still be for the Saints against a Falcons team vulnerable over the middle of the field. Atlanta’s defense, like the one Dan Quinn used to lead in Seattle, relies on talented cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and former Southeastern Louisiana standout Robert Alford to lock down the edges of the field, but the Falcons don’t have a Kam Chancellor or Bobby Wagner to handle tight ends.
New Orleans took advantage by opening drives in formations that forced the Falcons into mismatches against the Saints’ tight ends. Hill added three catches for 38 yards, including two third-down completions on the Saints’ touchdown-producing opening drive.
“To Ben and Drew’s credit, it’s a real good defense that moves well, and we had a few good (naked bootlegs up),” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We just looked at a few of those as drive starters. First-and-10 calls with some of maybe our heavy personality, out of run formations. We were talking about trying to sell the heavy run and try to get in and behind the linebackers.”
Watson, frequently matched up against Falcons strong safeties William Moore and Kemal Ishmael, made Atlanta pay over and over again.
“We were able to hit a lot of crossing routes and we were able to exploit some things in their coverages, and Drew does a great job,” Watson said. “Drew’s the guy you want back there picking apart a defense. He is one of the best ever at doing that, so we’re fortunate to have him.”
Watson’s biggest catch also might have been his easiest.
Facing a fourth-and-goal at the Atlanta 4-yard line, Payton decided he wanted more out of the series than a third consecutive field-goal try. Brees cut the distance in half by drawing the Falcons offsides with a hard count, and then, with Atlanta scuffling, quick snapped the ball and hit a wide-open Watson in the end zone.
A play-action pass to the tight end in a goal-line situation has always been one of the hardest plays in football to defend. By virtue of the space, every defender has to attack the run, and it’s easy for the tight end to slip out uncovered.
“That was a play that we’ve kind of had in the arsenal for a while,” Watson said. “You can go five, six games without having a goal-line situation. Fortunately we had a goal-line situation tonight and we kind of faked the run and had a little pop pass and I was wide open.”
Watson made one more catch, a 14-yard completion early on the Saints’ next drive to help set up New Orleans’ final touchdown.
Atlanta never really found a way to stop the vet.
“Either his number was called or he was just getting open,” Brees said. “He was getting some opportunities, and man, he made the most of it.”