It can’t be fun to board a plane a few hours after losing a football game and fly home with thoughts of the past few hours swirling around.
What went wrong? Why did it happen? How does it get fixed?
Those are some of the questions the New Orleans Saints will have to answer after Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots. A string of coaching decisions was one of the key factors to the loss that dropped New Orleans from the ranks of the unbeaten and moved the Saints to 5-1. But there are some X’s and O’s observations that need to be addressed.
Shutting Down Jimmy Graham
Entering the game against the Patriots, tight end Jimmy Graham had tallied four consecutive 100-yard or better receiving games, and his 593 yards through the air still ranks Graham as the NFL’s top receiver. But New England found a way to shut him down.
Graham had looked unstoppable before Sunday. He was such a force that the only perceived solution to stopping him was tackling him at the line of scrimmage.
That strategy wasn’t employed—the penalties would have surely piled up. New England head coach Bill Belichick came up with a better idea: Use cornerback Aqib Talib on Graham.
Talib was effective from the first target of Graham. The tight end lined up outside to the left with Talib in single coverage.
Graham ran a short post pattern, and Talib got his hand into Graham’s body enough to disrupt the pass.
Whether Graham lined up outside or in the slot, Talib stayed with him. Talib is New England’s best cover corner, and despite giving up six inches to the tight end, Belichick’s game plan worked.
But Talib had to leave the game with a hip injury. After that, cornerback Kyle Arrington took over as the guy to cover Graham. The Patriots didn’t leave Arrington on an island, however. Whenever the defensive scheme allowed, New England brought help over to keep Graham at bay.
In the second quarter, on Graham’s first target after Talib left the game, Arrington stayed tight on the oversized Graham and got help at the end of the play.
Arrington might have stopped the completion without assistance, but the extra contact helped jar the ball loose.
Graham was targeted six times, with Talib in coverage for three and Arrington the other three. Graham was held without a catch, and only two throws were off target. The other four passes were broken up, and one of the errant throws was picked off by Arrington.
Typically, quarterback Drew Brees has all the confidence in the world throwing toward Graham in double-coverage. But Sunday’s effort from the Patriots negated that confidence. Talib and Arrington effectively took away Brees’ favorite target. When that happens, Brees must move away from forcing the ball to Graham and look to other receivers.
Nothing Doing with Colston
When defenses are able to contain Graham—and that doesn’t happen very often—Brees’ next option is his No. 1 wide receiver Marques Colston. But Colston was blanketed for much of the day and was only targeted three times. Colston caught just one pass for 11 yards.
New England cornerback Alfonzo Bernard did a fantastic job of keeping Brees from being able to fall back on Colston. Bernard kept tight coverage and didn’t even allow Brees a window to throw to Colston until the third quarter.
When Graham and Colston are both taken away from Brees in the passing game, the Saints could look to run the football. While the running game did churn 131 yards on the ground in New England, the idea of running the football hasn’t been a great option this season.
Even with the 131 yards Sunday, New Orleans ranks 23rd in the league with just 86.7 yards per game on the ground. Brees has better options through the air than relying on the rushing attack.
Options ‘B’ and ‘C’
While running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas should often be used in the passing game, their output through the air is more like an extension of the duo in the running game. New Orleans wants to run the football, but when they can’t, Brees must find both on short-yardage plays in the flat or in the screen game.
Brees must also find wide receiver options when Colston and Graham are removed from his bag of tricks. Those two options right now are wide receiver Kenny Stills and tight end Benjamin Watson.
Stills showed off his skills with his fourth-quarter, 34-yard touchdown reception, but he also caught two other passes for 30 yards. Even as a rookie, he can be relied on by Brees when other targets are covered.
Watson was targeted four times and he pulled down three passes. His second catch in the first quarter showed just how much of a weapon he could be, especially if the defense is going to use its best cover personnel on Graham and Colston.
Watson slipped behind linebacker Brandon Spikes and rumbled for a 25-yard gain after catching Brees' pass.
There was no-one on defense within yards of Watson when he made this catch, and that can continue to happen in the future for the Saints. Watson might be the third or fourth option in the passing game for Brees, but he’s an extremely effective third or fourth target.
Brees must do a better job of leaning on guys like Stills and Watson earlier in games where the defense is good enough to take his top targets away.
Lucky for Brees, and the Saints, not many teams can do such an admirable job of shutting Graham and Colston down at the same time.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.