The New York Giants were a team it had beaten the three previous times by an average of 23 points per contest. The defense had never given up more than 27 points against the Giants in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.
Yet Sunday, the unit yielded 52 points. Yes, you read that correctly. 52 points.
Of course, the biggest question is simply "How did the Saints give up 52 points on Sunday?"
One thing is sure, it was not because the defense was just awful. In fact, the unit yielded only seven points in the first quarter despite playing every single snap inside their own 50-yard line. Elbert Mack even provided six of the team's 27 total points on the dreary day, when he stepped in front of an Eli Manning pass and returned it 73 yards for the opening score of the contest.
On the day, the Saints outgained the Giants by nearly 100 yards, 487 to 394 yards. In fact, it was the defense's third straight outing of giving up fewer than 400 yards in a game, after starting the season giving up 400-plus in each of the team's first 10 games.
Clearly, defense was not the main culprit. It did play a role. But two other factors must be highlighted before we place any blame on the defense.
The two are very nearly related, as one was part of the reason the other was so atrociously shocking. First, was the fact the Saints had four turnovers. They caused two turnovers, so the differential wasn't as bad as in previous weeks.
Still, it is rare for a team to be able to win when it goes minus-2 in turnover differential. We knew going into the game, turnover differential would likely play a role, as the Giants were second in the league at plus-14 headed into the Dec. 9 contest.
On the four turnovers, the Giants began the following drive in plus-territory each time. The average field position in such circumstances was the New Orleans 30-yard line. The result was two six-yard touchdowns (one through the air and one on the ground), a field goal and the previously mentioned Elbert Mack pick-six for New Orleans.
On the four turnovers, the Giants scored 17 of their 52 points. That's approximately a third of the team's total. Thus, it's fair to say that turnovers played a large role.
But a congruent argument and amount of blame can be placed on the special teams unit, specifically the kickoff team.
This first still shows something very disturbing. The Saints allowed the Giants to wall them off and parted the Red Sea for rookie returner David Wilson.
While Wilson has blazing speed and proved he is an electric player, the Saints made life very easy on him. Lane discipline (which is taught to freshman football players in their initial 'Hell Week' practices) was horrendous for the Saints all day long.
You can see from the photos that Will Herring would often get caught trying to get inside of the Giant blocking him, when his assignment required him to stay outside of the blocker in order to force Wilson back into the interior of the coverage unit. Other players would crash as well and would try a slide tackle on Wilson, also known as "arm tackling."
This slide doesn't appear much different. The primary difference is that Elbert Mack seemed to have contain but got caught leaning inside just enough to give up the cutback lane to David Wilson, who then burst up the sideline to outrun all 11 Saints special teamers.
On the day, the Saints gave up 287 yards on five kick returns (57.4 average). As observed during the game, and confirmed by film study, Thomas Morstead's kickoffs were flat and placed with low trajectory, which meant limited hang time, which put the coverage unit in a bind.
As the game progressed, Morstead and the Saints made an adjustment by attempting pop-up kicks, hoping that give the Saints more time to cover less ground and make a tackle. It literally worked just one time.
Not counting the return touchdown, the Giants' average starting field position after kick returns was the Giants' 48-yard line. It doesn't matter how good or bad a defense is, when it is facing that kind of starting field position, it is going to have a tough time succeeding.
David Wilson's Six-Yard Touchdown Run
The Saints defense performed admirably against the Giants rushing attack most of the day, especially statistically. The totals were 25 attempts for 138 yards (5.5 average). That looks bad unless you take out David Wilson's 52-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter when the Saints' entire team had given up (more on that play soon).
Without that run, it was 24 carries for 86 yards (3.6 average). Here we see the Saints had a good defense called against the Giants' off-tackle run. When Victor Cruz motioned to the strong side of the formation, the entire Saints' linebacking corps shifted with him to force this very run play back inside.
David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton get eaten up by Giants' blockers, but that should be OK as Jon Vilma scrapes across the formation and has a chance to take Wilson down around the three-yard line. The problem is he gets bowled over by the diminutive runner.
The result, of course, was a touchdown the Saints had defended well, but just like on special teams, shoddy tackling cost them a score.
David Wilson's 52-Yard Touchdown Run
Whereas the Saints had Wilson's first touchdown schematically well-defended, the statement does not ring true in regards to this second run.
Again, the same concepts from special teams creep over to the rush defense. The Giants do a great job of walling off the interior of the Saints' defensive line. On the edge of the picture, we see two Giants' linemen creating a second wall on the outside, opening the largest cutback lane you'll ever see in the NFL for David Wilson.
Martez Wilson tries to push the play back inside. That's good. But the interior got worked. And the Saints' safeties were slow to come up and took poor angles. The result was more slide-tackling attempts to no avail.
Call it effort. Call it attention to detail. Call it whatever you want, but it was sloppy defense all around.
But as shown by statistics and film study, the passing game is really the method the Giants used to make hay and put points on the board. Three clips will show how they did it.
Martellus Bennett Six-Yard Strike From Manning
This was the first of Eli Manning's four touchdown passes on the evening. The pre-snap read for Manning shows him he will have athletic tight end Martellus Bennett matched up one-on-one with Curtis Lofton.
Manning knows by having his fullback Henry Hynoski occupy the left curl-to-flat area, he occupies Roman Harper and Jonathan Casillas. He also knows on the opposite side, Malcolm Jenkins is playing a cover-two coverage where he is forced to bracket Victor Cruz in the right slot.
This allows Bennett to work one-on-one with Lofton. That's a matchup the freakish tight end will win more often than not. With no pass rush in the contest, the Saints were doomed when the Giants used this kind of concept.
Hakeem Nicks 25-Yard Touchdown Bomb
Again, Eli Manning takes advantage of the Saints in a man-to-man coverage. This time it's clear from the pre-snap read that Roman Harper (circled) is the lone high safety. That is enough to tip off Manning that he can take the vertical route for Nicks on the right side.
He chooses this one, not because he likes the Nicks-Patrick Robinson matchup better than any other, but mainly because it gives Harper less time to potentially track down the deep throw.
Of course, it was rather irrelevant as Nicks beat Robinson off the line with a double move. Robinson was turned around as Nicks ran right by him. He even was turned around as the football landed in the arms of Nicks right over his head.
Victor Cruz 10-Yard Touchdown Reception
Call it dumb if you like, but again the Giants find the Saints in a Man-Free, Zero Blitz. In other words, the Giants formationed the Saints into a favorable coverage.
On this particular play, Victor Cruz is lined up on Johnny Patrick in the slot. He simply runs a double move and gets up the seam against Patrick, who looked clueless as the UMass product burned him.
On all three passing touchdowns shown here, the Giants simply found favorable one-on-one matchups and exploited them with superior talent. Frankly, it wasn't anything fancy at all. It was solid football where a great quarterback used great receivers to win one-on-one matchups against average defenders.
After statistical and film review, the easy answer appears to be that the Giants used great field position and a bevy of big plays to score 52 points. The Giants have been doing that all season long. They are a team that lives and dies by the big play.
The Saints are a defense that has given up plenty of them all season long as well. The collision course went exactly as expected.
It was great game planning and execution from the Giants. And the Saints simply did neither very well in this sad, sad contest.
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