New Orleans Saints fans hope that the return of Joe Vitt as the interim head coach will bring stability to an otherwise tumultuous year so far.
After serving his six-game suspension resulting from the bounty controversy this offseason, Vitt will assume the role of interim head coach in place of Sean Payton, who has been suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season.
However, it remains to be seen whether or not Vitt can turn around the Saints’ 2-5 season.
Certainly there was an understandable expectation that the Saints would struggle in the wake of the bounty scandal and the suspension of Payton, but I expected that the transition would be mostly seamless under the leadership of Drew Brees.
During the lockout in the spring of 2011, Brees had demonstrated this type of leadership by organizing team practices. That said, I don’t know that he hasn’t played this role.
In the final nine games of the Saints’ season, four of their games will be against division-leading competition.
This does not include Vitt’s first game back, a loss on the road to AFC West-leading Denver.
Looking at this upcoming schedule, all of the teams except for Oakland are in the top half of the league in terms of fewest points allowed. Though Drew Brees and the Saints offense are close to the top of the league in points scored, expect these numbers to be skewed in the second half.
Even with four division games remaining, two are against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. The remaining two match the Saints against the Panthers, who have already beaten New Orleans, as well as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that nearly came back against the Saints in Week 7.
By all accounts, the New Orleans offense is fairly one-dimensional. Even though they do a lot of different things, they do most of it through the air.
In lieu of a more traditional running game, a lot of plays out of the backfield go to Darren Sproles on swing passes and wheel routes. The result is more of a pseudo rushing game, and the statistics reflect this.
While the Saints’ offense is first in the league in passing, it is last in rushing.
Lacking variation, upcoming matchups against two top-three pass defenses—the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys—figure to be particularly challenging. Even more unnerving is the fact that Brees, despite his touchdown efficiency, has thrown eight interceptions in just seven games this season.
This is maybe the one place where Vitt should have a significant impact, but it may be too little, too late.
Vitt, a former linebacker turned defensive position coach, will be charged with resurrecting one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Saints have the 30th-worst pass defense and 31st-ranked rush defense this season. Certainly this is due in no small part to the absence of Jonathan Vilma.
With such poor production in both facets of the defense, it is hard for New Orleans to force opposing offenses into becoming one-dimensional. It will be even more difficult given the versatility of many of the offenses that New Orleans still has left to play.
In Carolina, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton poses both a rushing and passing threat. Both San Francisco and Atlanta have franchise quarterbacks with multiple deep options balanced against veteran rushing attacks. New Orleans even has to travel to the Meadowlands to face hot-handed quarterback Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Maybe the most damning evidence against the Saints 2012 season is their Week 8 game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday night.
Through the first six games of the season, the Saints managed a 2-4 record, but each of the games—ugly as they may have been—were decided by eight points or less.
In Vitt’s first game back at the helm, the Saints were blown away by Peyton Manning-led Broncos.
While Manning threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and Willis McGahee rushed for 122 yards and a score himself, the Saints scored only twice. Their last touchdown came just before the two-minute warning at the end of the game.
Denver is the kind of team that New Orleans will see consistently from here on out: a franchise quarterback with a well-rounded offense and defense. If Vitt cannot figure out how to keep those games manageable, it promises to be a long and drawn-out end for the Saints in 2012.