NFL1000 Week 10 Notebook: Are the Saints Winning in Spite of Drew Brees?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2017

NFL1000 Week 10 Notebook: Are the Saints Winning in Spite of Drew Brees?

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Week 10 of the 2017 season featured just one game in which both teams had a winning record—the 6-2 New Orleans Saints and the 5-3 Buffalo Bills. Turns out, that game was the biggest blowout of Sunday afternoon, as the Saints completely exploited the Bills' leaky (to be kind) run defense and locked down Buffalo's passing attack with their newly dominant defense. With the 47-10 win, the Saints have put everyone on notice—outside of the Philadelphia Eagles, they're in the discussion for the title of Best Team in the NFC, and they look every bit a deep playoff contender. 

    Of course, the Los Angeles Rams, who matched the Saints at 7-2 with a 33-7 beatdown of the Houston Texans on Sunday, would like to be considered in that discussion, and they've proved that their offense is no fluke. With the continued creativity of head coach and offensive play-designer Sean McVay, and the development of quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams are game to deal with any team they face. What a difference one season makes.

    Other teams were dealing with scores of personnel problems, mostly the teams that reside in Texas. The Dallas Cowboys had no shot without left tackle Tyron Smith, as Dak Prescott was harassed constantly by suboptimal protection in Smith's absence.  

    And the Texans need to realize that there's no scheme that will save Tom Savage from getting his brains beaten in. When you combine a bad offensive line with a quarterback who, in the words of veteran Houston sports columnist John McClain, "has the mobility of a rhino," you've got problems. Of course, it didn't help that Houston's defense has regressed mightily (and unexpectedly) in the last few weeks. With Deshaun Watson's injury, the formerly competitive Texans look like a team in need of a serious reset.

    It was a fascinating Sunday—both good and bad—and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape.

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

Are the Saints Winning in Spite of Drew Brees?

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Over the New Orleans Saints' last four games, quarterback Drew Brees has completed 90 of 118 passes for 1,077 yards, but just three touchdowns to two interceptions. Those used to the Saints' seasons over the last half-decade, where Brees had to carry horrid defenses and nearly nonexistent run games, might be surprised to know that the Saints are 4-0 in those games and are on a seven-game winning streak after dropping their first two games in 2017.

    That makes the Saints the second team of the Super Bowl era to run off seven wins after two losses. The other team—the 1993 Cowboys—won the Super Bowl. If the Saints are to match that accomplishment by way of the defense and running game carrying Brees to the figurative and literal end zone, it would be one of the more unlikely stories in recent NFL history.

    The defense, which we discussed in last week's Sunday Notebook, is good enough to do just that. Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, it was the running game that carried the Saints to a 47-10 thrashing, as the Saints ran the ball 48 times for 298 yards and six touchdowns. We'll soon detail just how complicit the Bills were in this performance—their defense can't stop anybody right nowbut rookie running back Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram have become the NFL's most effective one-two combo. Both backs can skirt the edge with their speed, run inside and handle a full complement of routes in the passing game.

    So, why are Brees' recent totals so underwhelming? His deep ball has been on and off over the last couple of seasons, which is a natural function of age, and there appear to be more play calls in which he's asked to simply move the ball down the field with short and intermediate passes. There's nothing wrong with any of that, as long as the run game and defense hold up.

    In that win over the Bills, per NFL Next Gen Stats, no Week 10 quarterback heading into Sunday Night Football averaged fewer air yards per attempt than Brees' 5.4, and only Tyrod Taylor and Philip Rivers had a lower longest pass completed, via air yards, than Brees' 28.6. This is typical of New Orleans' offense over the last month, and though there are legitimate concerns about Brees' future with the team after this season, the present is quite bright.

    Perhaps the Saints will meet a high-octane offense in the playoffs, and Brees will be forced to unleash a game we're used to seeing from him over the years. But right now, we're betting that Brees, head coach Sean Payton and the rest of the franchise are just fine with the way things are going.

    — NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar

Buffalo Bills Exposed as Pretenders

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    The Buffalo Bills' 47-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday was a humiliation on all levels. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor completed just nine of 18 passes for 56 yards and an interception before he was replaced by Nathan Peterman. Buffalo's vaunted rushing attack did little against New Orleans' improved defense, gaining just 69 yards on 15 carries.

    But the biggest problem for these Bills is one that first showed itself in a 34-21 Thursday loss to the New York Jets in Week 9. The Jets ran the ball 41 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns. As it turned out, that was just a warm-up for what was to happen to Buffalo's defense against the Saints—New Orleans ran the ball 48 times for 298 yards and an astonishing six touchdowns. A now 5-4 Bills team that looked like a real playoff contender a couple of weeks ago is circling the drain, and the run defense is the primary problem.

    Some will point to the trade of tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars on October 27 as a root cause, but Dareus wasn't playing that much when he was with the Bills—Kyle Williams and Adolphus Washington have been the main interior defenders against the run this season.

    There are both schematic and technical issues at play here. Under defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Bills defensive line, usually in a four-man front with the occasional three-man front featuring two outside linebackers, isn't creating any offensive line confusion or matchup disadvantages with stunts and games. Buffalo's linemen are coming straight ahead into blocks, and that's bad news for a group of players who can't pull an Aaron Donald and just bull-rush or speed-rush their way around blockers.

    Moreover, the Bills linemen seem to be playing more for backfield penetration than patience at the line of scrimmage. It's a one-gap scheme in which players are tasked with moving past blockers, but these defenders get pushed out of the gap all too often. With that loss of leverage, it's also easier for rushers to break plays outside as the defenders are getting put on skates with regularity.

    Having an aggressive defensive plan is fine, but if you don't have the players to get that done, it's more a series of plays in which defensive linemen are dominated at the point of attack. And loading up the box doesn't work—according to ESPN Stats & Info, the Saints had nine runs for 128 yards and three touchdowns when the Bills had eight or more defenders in the box pre-snap.

    Since the Bills offense doesn't seem prepared to put up the kind of point totals that would force opponents to pass the ball a ton, perhaps a change in scheme is in order. Bear fronts, in which there's a defensive tackle head-over the center and two more tackles on the outside shoulder of each guard to force those guards to move outside and create opportunities for the linebackers, would seem to make sense. Or, more two-gap schemes in which the linemen stay at the point and move off the blocker to contain the run. The Patriots and many other teams have also shown the value of hybrid schemes in which there are one- and two-gap linemen in the same front.

    If they don't do something soon, the Bills will continue a playoff drought that dates back to the 1999 season. That's right—this team hasn't seen the postseason this millennium, and there's no way it's getting there with this run defense.

    — NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar

Can Ben Roethlisberger’s Inconsistencies Be Fixed?

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers squeaked by the Indianapolis Colts, 20-17, on Sunday, pushing their record to 7-2 to keep pace with the New England Patriots atop the AFC. But watching Pittsburgh against the Colts, and over the past few weeks, you get the sense that the offense remains on the cusp of putting everything together.

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 19 of 31 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception, in the victory. He opened the game with a turnover on his second passing attempt, when he tried to hit Martavis Bryant on a vertical route but left the throw too far inside toward the middle of the field. Ball placement, particularly on vertical routes, has been an issue for Roethlisberger this season, and that has usually been a strength for the veteran passer.

    But Roethlisberger did lead the Steelers to victory, throwing two touchdowns in the second half to spur the comeback. The first touchdown strike came on a seven-yard throw to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. On that play, Roethlisberger executed a Boomer Esiason-like play-action fake before hitting the rookie in stride for the TD. Later, Roethlisberger did a great job of sliding in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield before spotting a wide-open Vance MacDonald in the end zone for the his TD of the game. Finally, his scramble-drill throw late in the game to Antonio Brown that set up the game-winning field goal, while defenders were grasping at his jersey in the backfield, was vintage Roethlisberger.

    Going forward, Pittsburgh would be wise to do two things to stay consistent in the passing game. First, the short and intermediate routes remain areas where Roethlisberger can excel. If the vertical passing game remains spotty, the Steelers can still be very successful in those spots on the field. Secondly, the team looks crisper offensively when it plays uptempo. Going without a huddle seems to get the QB into rhythm and the offense moving very well.

    The Steelers are still one of the top teams in the AFC, but again you get the feeling they could be playing even better football. Focusing on these two areas might be the way to get that offense firing on all cylinders.

    — NFL1000 QB scout Mark Schofield

What Happened to Adrian Peterson in Week 10 Dud?

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    After two 100-plus-yard rushing games for the Cardinals, Adrian Peterson was held to just 29 yards on 21 carries against the Seahawks on Thursday night. With Carson Palmer out injured and Drew Stanton starting at quarterback, the Cardinals planned to lean heavily on Peterson to carry their offense. However, the Seahawks were well aware of the Cardinals' intentions and prepared to stop them.

    The Seahawks committed an extra defender to the run, using safety Kam Chancellor as an additional linebacker in the box to help counter Peterson. Chancellor was often unblocked as the Cardinals were outnumbered in the box and had nobody available to target him. He finished the game with nine solo tackles, including a safety and a forced fumble.

    The Cardinals didn't help themselves, either. Instead of spreading out the defense and trying to force Chancellor out of the box, they motioned receivers into the core to try to add more gaps up front. The Seahawks defenders often overpowered the blocks of the Cardinals receivers, giving Peterson nowhere to go. This was the case on the safety.

    The Cardinals motioned in a receiver to the core to help pick up Chancellor, but all it did was bring Richard Sherman into the box, too. The Cardinals had seven blockers while the Seahawks had eight defenders in the box. Arizona attempted a zone run to the left, but the Seahawks were too quick for an offensive line that typically uses power, and they penetrated gaps quickly. Peterson attempted to cut his run back, but Chancellor was unblocked in the cutback lane and made the tackle for the safety.

    The Seahawks defensive front won consistently up front. When the Cardinals ran power or gap schemes, the Seahawks blew up blockers, and when the Cardinals attempted a few zone plays, the Seahawks defenders were quicker to the spot. Peterson was given little room to work with whatever scheme the Cardinals tried, and he was unable to gain many yards.

    — NFL1000 RB scout Mark Bullock

Has Adam Thielen Climbed into NFL’s Elite Tier of WRs?

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    Once again, the most underrated receiver in the NFL decided to make his presence known. On Sunday, Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen caught eight passes for 166 yards and one touchdown as he tore up the Washington Redskins defense in a variety of ways. Thielen's touchdown came on an incredible catch as he snatched the ball out of the air, through contact, right at the goal line.

    Thielen was able to win outside against Josh Norman, but also inside as a slot receiver. His versatility, combined with the play of Stefon Diggs opposite him, has allowed Thielen to unleash his potential. The Vikings can move him all over the field to find the mismatch they want, and he can win against any cornerback in the league. He's the Vikings' No.1 receiver and that won't be changing anytime soon.

    Through nine games, Thielen has 793 yards receiving, which is the most in the NFC. But Thielen's success this season isn't a surprise. In his last 16 games, Thielen has over 1,300 receiving yards on 93 receptions. He's been one of the most consistent and reliable receivers in the league the past two seasons.

    What is also impressive about the Thielen's success in the last year is that he hasn't had an elite quarterback to help pump up his stats. While Case Keenum and Sam Bradford certainly haven't played poorly, it's not like Thielen has played with a Tom Brady or an Aaron Rodgers. With the possibility of Teddy Bridgewater returning to the lineup in the near future, Thielen could reach another level that we haven't seen yet.

    There is nothing missing in Thielen's game to prevent him from being considered an elite receiver. His size, ball skills and incredible balance will allow him to thrive no matter who is at quarterback. Thielen is quickly becoming a household name, but he already should have been. If he can continue to play at this level, there will be no questions about whether Thielen is in the upper echelon of receivers. 

    — NFL1000 WR scout Marcus Mosher

Cowboys Offensive Line Got Whipped by the Falcons

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    The Cowboys' struggles up front were the story of the week from an offensive line perspective. The Falcons had Dak Prescott under assault all day, racking up eight sacks in total, the most of his career Prescott's career by far. Falcons edge-rusher Adrian Clayborn, who racked up six of the Falcons' eight sacks himself, routinely abused backup left tackle Chaz Green.

    Green wasn't the only Dallas player who struggled, though. With starting left tackle Tyron Smith out of the lineup, left guard Jonathan Cooper did not play as well as he has with Smith by his side. Right guard Zack Martin also had an uncharacteristically poor performance in pass protection as well. The Cowboys can only hope he doesn't hit a lull like he did at this time last year, because he has been impressive to this point.

    The absence of star running back Ezekiel Elliott didn't help, either, as the Falcons were able to key in on Prescott and the passing game given the lack of any real running threat. The Cowboys have worn teams down all year between the tackles, which helps wear down opposing pass-rushers, but they didn't get that going with Elliott out of the lineup. While that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon, getting Smith back will help right the ship. With Smith in tow, the Cowboys should be able to skew more pass-heavy without needing an elite run game to keep defenses honest.

    — NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Jadeveon Clowney Having All-Pro Season in Absence of Watt, Mercilus

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    Entering Week 10, Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney had recorded 13 tackles at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. For line-of-scrimmage defenders, that ranked 10th league-wide. Only two other 3-4 outside linebackers, Arizona's Chandler Jones and Kansas City's Justin Houston, had recorded better numbers than him before the Texans headed to Los Angeles to play the Rams.

    In a 33-7 loss to the NFC West divisional leader, Clowney was one of the Texans' few silver linings Sunday. Against an offensive line that has played above-average in terms of penetration all season, Clowney notched three tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, good for a loss of 19 yards combined. That vaults Clowney's season total to 16 such tackles. Heading into the week, only Jacksonville's Calais Campbell, a franchise-swinging free-agent signing who may be the Defensive Player of the Year, could beat that total.

    In each of the three drives during which Clowney had backfield tackles, the Rams were unable to move the chains from that point forward. On six of the nine drives when Clowney didn't have a splash tackle (before Los Angeles' last drive to run out the clock), Houston allowed a scoring drive, totaling 30 of their 33 points allowed on the day.

    Since both defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus have left the lineup due to season-ending injuries, Clowney is almost single-handedly the reason why the Texans don't allow opponents to score on every single drive. While he's playing on a bad team—and perhaps a bad defenseClowney is putting up incredible production in terms of backfield tackles, which shouldn't go unnoticed. Even during a year in which the Texans weren't able to meet expectations, the 24-year-old has already matched his single-season sack mark from 2016, when he was named a second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.

    — NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

Denzel Perryman Makes Big Impact in Season Debut

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    Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman missed the team's first eight games of the 2017 season due to an ankle injury. A combination of Korey Toomer, Hayes Pullard, and Jatavis Brown tried to hold down the fort for Perryman, but they were not enough.

    The Chargers were 26th in run defense DVOA in Perryman's absence this season, down from their No. 15 ranking in 2016. They were getting gashed by teams left and right. Without proper linebacker play at the second level, Los Angeles' interior defensive line was left out to dry.

    This week, the Chargers were tasked with stopping the seventh-ranked rushing attack in the league (per DVOA), the Jacksonville Jaguars. Had they been without Perryman again, Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette could have torched the Chargers defense. However, Perryman's return immediately changed the tune on the Chargers' run defense.

    Perryman led the team with eight solo tackles in his first week back. More impressive was how often Perryman was disrupting the line of scrimmage. He did not notch a tackle for loss, but he slipped into the backfield a number of times to force Fournette and others to bounce the play elsewhere. Perryman was right on time with his gap assignment, as he often is, and he was ferocious in attacking downhill. Lingering pain or discomfort from the ankle injury didn't hinder him one bit.

    With the star linebacker back in the mix, the Chargers held Jaguars running backs to 45 yards on 21 carries—barely over two yards per carry for the home team. Perryman's gap control and constant pressure to bounce plays outside helped those around him grab tackles behind the line of scrimmage. As Perryman continues to regain his comfort in the starting lineup, run defense should no longer be a problem for the Chargers.

    — NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

Despite Having Talent, Texans Secondary Continues to Collapse

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    The Houston Texans stumbled to 3-6 after the Los Angeles Rams thumped them, 33-7. Second-year Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw for a career-high 355 yards and three touchdowns on just 25 completions. That's in part a credit to the dynamic attack Goff leads, but the Texans' pass defense continues to be a sieve this season after finishing second in total pass yards allowed in 2016.

    Cornerback A.J. Bouye's departure in free agency hurt the Texans this offseason, and Kevin Johnson missed three games with a knee injury, but his return hasn't bolstered the group. Veteran Johnathan Joseph, who Rams receiver Robert Woods torched on a 94-yard deep post route, has also succumbed to playing below his standard. With almost $19 million committed to the corner trio of Joseph, Johnson and Kareem Jackson and safety Andre Hal having signed a three-year, $15 million extension in August, the Texans aren't getting what they're paying for. That isn't due to a lack of talent considering what this group has done in recent seasons together.

    The Texans haven't gotten reliable pressure since injuries have limited their front seven. That has caused their secondary to be more zone-heavy, and the corners haven't responded well. Goff seemed to have an open receiver far too often, and the secondary has been too conservative and ineffective in stopping screens for limited gains. These veterans must be more aggressive and set the defensive tone to help the Texans be more competitive than what they showed against the Rams.

    — NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton