Well, it had to end eventually.
The New Orleans Saints suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the New England Patriots on Sunday. After the 30-27 defeat, a great deal of pundits are already questioning if the Saints' red-hot start was too good to be true.
After playing an up-and-down game throughout much of the contest, the Saints seemingly had the game-winning score after a Patriots turnover with around two minutes remaining.
It was conservative play on both offense and defense that ultimately led to the Saints' undoing.
Despite the loss, I firmly believe that there are lessons the Saints will take with them on their journey to the Lombardi Trophy. A loss in this manner may actually be the highlight of the Saints' season thus far. If you felt good about the Saints' chances before, you should be even more excited for the future after this defeat.
The Ability to Switch Your Pitch
If you've followed my coverage of Saints football, you ultimately heard me mention this a dozen times. It's in reference to the Saints' and their fans' unwavering view of how the scheme is implemented.
Most think the Saints don't have to run the ball to win due to having virtually the most potent pass attack in the NFL. Some actually believe that the screen game will suffice as a substitute to the run.
I think both of those theories are borderline asinine.
There will always come a point at which what you do best is negated by strong play from the opposition. We must all realize that the opposition is full of paid professionals as well. Past performances are not totally indicative of future results.
The Patriots were able to slow down the Saints' proverbial fastball by taking away their primary weapon on offense, tight end Jimmy Graham. Not one person would've imagined that Graham's streak of 100-yard games would end in such emphatic fashion (zero total stats).
Patriots' corner Aqib Talib was charged with the monumental task of slowing down the hottest player in the NFL, who also happened to be six inches taller and over 60 pounds heavier!
Talib played the game of his life, frustrating Graham from the onset and rendering him helpless in the process. In addition, star receiver Marques Colston joined Graham in seclusion, as the duo totaled one catch between them.
Signal-caller Drew Brees looked rather ordinary at times, flat-out missing on wide-open targets.
If you would've told me beforehand that Brees would end up with a 75.7 rating due to going 17-of-36 for only 236 yards, with one touchdown and one interception—at New England of all places— I would've told you the outcome would be the Saints being eviscerated.
But that was not nearly the case.
The Saints got the ball rolling last week with a performance that saw more effort than production from the run game. Running back Pierre Thomas generated 36 yards on a season-high 19 carries! As a team, the Saints ran the ball 29 times for 64 yards, an average of 2.2 per carry.
Although the production wasn't there, the threat of the run forced the Chicago Bears to defend all areas of the field, which lessened the impact of their defense as well as the threat of a Saints turnover on offense.
In the game against the Patriots, both the effort and the production were on a level playing field.
In what was easily the most unimpressive first half of the season from the Saints' offense, the run game generated only 19 yards on six carries, in what looked like more of the same old, same old.
But in what was the most impressive second-half showing from the staff and personnel alike, the Saints ended up with 131 yards on 26 carries, showing they have the players to execute a balanced attack—they just have to have the mindset to get the job done.
Khiry Robinson came in and sparked the entire team with an extremely physical and dynamic style. I thoroughly believe his play changed the tenor of the entire game, as the Saints were trailing when he finally got his chance.
Pierre Thomas was running with a vigor that was reminiscent of what Robinson brought to the table. Even fullback Jed Collins got into the act, getting an elusive 3rd-and-1 conversion for a team that struggles mightily with those.
The Saints' run defense was getting gashed in a major way, and it took the Saints returning the favor to truly even the score—literally and figuratively.
The fact that the Saints could compete on the road, when the pass attack was below average by New Orleans standards, might be the turning the point of the season.
The ability to switch your pitch at a moment's notice will be what separates the Saints from other contenders.
Defensive coordinators now must take into the account that the most accomplished pass outfit will also line up and bloody your mouth with physical runs from physical players.
Always Be Closing
Although the run got the Saints back into the game, it may have been their uncharacteristic lack of aggression on offense that became their undoing in the end. Who would've thought that the Saints would lean on their defense to close out a game?
The Saints had two separate drives to send the Patriots to their demise, and as effective as the run game was in getting the Saints back into the game, its lack of effectiveness gave the Patriots the ball back.
The Saints had the unenviable task of needing to run the clock out against a team that has the tools to score whenever it needs to.
But like a scene out of the Twilight Zone, the Saints couldn't convert the couple of pass plays they did call in those situations, instead relying on their successfully revamped defense. This would've been fine if the defense had executed in the final stanza as it did before.
Instead of running the normal defense, the Saints elected to go into more of a prevent mode. Allowing Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady time to find holes in a zone defense is a form of football suicide. This was after the Saints celebrated a late interception as if the game was over at that point.
If that wasn't the kicker, two huge mistakes by starting corners Keenan Lewis (throwing a receiver out of bounds) and Jabari Greer (letting a receiver get behind him) ended up being the proverbial nail in the coffin.
This team should have the same ability to execute at the end of the game as they showed in taking the lead in the first place. There's no need to change your entire makeup in an effort to hold onto a lead.
The Saints are an aggressive team on both sides of the ball; a team that goes outside of itself mantra-wise usually ensures a loss.
The Saints enter their bye week at 5-1, which means they have two weeks to stew over this loss. This defeat may prove to be the rude awakening the Saints need to keep their heads out of the clouds, or it could be so painful that they never seem to recover.
I don't know about you, but I believe in the former rather than the latter.
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