There haven’t been many opportunities to discuss poor offensive performances by the Saints.
Even when things were bad, and the team was trapped in mediocrity, Drew Brees and the offense performed above the barrier of scrutiny most weeks. There was the 2016 game at Tampa Bay, the 2015 loss to Houston, and the weird season finale against Tampa Bay to close out the 2014 season. Other than that, not much to complain about during the past five seasons until Thursday’s 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
This game will fade away. It’s an outlier. The Saints aren’t going to be outplayed and struggle to move the ball very often. Still, we have to talk about it when it happens even if it probably doesn't mean anything in regards to the bigger picture.
The most striking aspect of the performance — and it was mentioned immediately after the game — was that there were some passing plays that looked off. The Saints had what a strict grader would call five dropped passes, but on a handful of them, the placement of the passes contributed to the difficulties.
The next few paragraphs are written with the following disclaimer: Drew Brees threw passes that were technically accurate throughout the game. Those passes hit his receivers in the hands, which means they should have been able to pull them in. But Brees has made a career out of being more accurate than just about anyone else in the world, and phrases like “covered” has never meant much because of his ability to put the ball where only his receivers can get to it.
So when Keith Kirkwood dropped the first pass of the game on a crossing pattern, the natural inclination was to blame the receiver. The ball hit his hands. He should have caught it. And while this is true, a pass more toward the sideline probably leads to a completion. It was the same thing on the second play of the game. Michael Thomas ran a hitch, and he had to go up and reach back for it to be in position to make a play.
A screen pass to Mark Ingram was off the mark, and on another incompletion intended for Kirkwood, the ball could have been better placed. Dan Arnold's fumble was the result of a pass being thrown behind him.
It was just a day when Brees didn’t appear to be otherworldly accurate on every pass he threw, which had been the case every other week this season until Thursday night. Maybe that was the toll of playing three games in 12 days. Dallas had to do the same thing, but Brees is 39.
The Dallas defense did an excellent job of being physical and getting away with some borderline penalties. While Michael Thomas drew a few holding penalties, he had at least two other targets where the Cowboys were grabbing and holding him before the ball arrived without a flag. The flipside to that is Kirkwood got away with a little push on his 30-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. It was a rough night for officiating.
Dallas’ coverage was suffocating at times. The Cowboys used primarily Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks and made it hard for the Saints to throw the ball down the field. Only one of Brees’ passes traveled 15 or more yards through the air. A stunning 21 of his attempts went 5 or fewer yards through the air. That was 75 percent of his passes, his highest rate of the past three seasons.
Brees also topped 70 percent against the Panthers (Week 13), Bears and Dolphins last season. He did not exceed the mark in 2016. The resurgent screen game, which has been led by Alvin Kamara, is likely one reason for the uptick. On Thursday, it seemed to be out of necessity due to coverage and pressure.
Brees was under pressure often more often than he has in most games this season. He attempted eight passes while under duress, connecting on five, and was sacked once. There were a couple of plays on which more than one player pressured him.
Most of the pressure came from the right side of the line, where Ryan Ramczyk had an unusually tough time containing DeMarcus Lawrence. He surrendered five pressures, far more than what is typical from that side of the line. He had allowed fewer than 10 this season entering action.
Guard Larry Warford allowed three. Jermon Bushrod, who was filling in at left tackle for Terron Armstead, allowed two, while Andrus Peat gave up one.
It was just a bad day for this group. It very likely isn’t indicative of anything to come. The Saints should regroup and bounce back soon, but it also might be time to take Cowboys more seriously down the stretch.