"Losing is the first step towards winning."
This quote and variations of it have permeated the NFL for years. As children we’re taught to learn from our mistakes and not to make them again. This mentality is complete malarkey. At least in the NFL it is. The first step towards winning is preparation. The second: Execution.
The Saints went 11-5 last season, along with a loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. This means that 6 different times, the Saints were outmatched on gameday. There is a blueprint to defeat every team in the NFL, and the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks, Rams, Panthers, and Seahawks again found New Orleans’.
The rhetoric leading up to a matchup is always the same: We need to pressure their quarterback and force him to make tough decisions. We’ll also need to control the clock and make sure that we keep their high powered offense off the field. This is every team’s strategy for beating every other team in the league, but it’s merely the foundation for how to do so. So how did New Orleans get beat last season?
The first game to look at is the first one the Saints lost: Week 6 at New England. To this point, New Orleans was 5-0 and rolling. The first stat to look at in terms of that success is time of possession. The Saints held onto the ball 7 or more minutes longer than all of their first 5 opponents. Against New England, the Patriots held onto the ball for nearly 32 minutes compared to New Orleans’ 28. A small difference, to be sure, but in a game that comes down to the final seconds the way that this matchup did, every second counts.
New England also ran a no-huddle offense for the vast majority in the game. They epitomized the difference between the "no-huddle" and the "hurry-up" offenses. They were slow and deliberate, but refused to allow New Orleans to get a set call in, keeping the defense off-balance. Brady threw the ball 43 times and completed 25 of those passes, but his yards per completion were also noticeably lower. The Patriots weren’t a vertical offense for much of the season, but in this game Brady averaged 10.76 YPC, slightly down from his 11.5 YPC during the 2013 season.
This play wasn’t glamorous, but it adequately shows the way that the Patriots offense was able to keep the New Orleans defense on its heels. This is, as per usual, out of the no-huddle. New England comes out in a spread offense, and New Orleans is running their nickel defense. Brady notices the weak side linebacker leaning forward in a pressure stance and changes the play at the line, noticing that Kenbrell Thompkins will running unabated off the line.
One part of the no-huddle that is often overlooked is the fact that defenders have to think about more defensively. They have to line up, gauge their assignments, make changes at the line, and evaluate opposing personnel. In this case, Thompkins isn’t noticed until it’s too late. The weakside blitz is on, and he’s left wide open on a simple stick route. The topside receiver runs a straight streak as a decoy, holding the topside corner’s attention, and Curtis Lofton, circled in yellow, must break towards Thompkins’s route. This is a one-read play, Brady never looks away from that inside slot, Patriots get an easy 7 yards on the play.
We see an example of a few deficiencies the Saints displayed throughout this game on this particular play. First, they let Thompkins off the line uncontested. After that, they miss the first tackle and let him turn upfield, giving Thompkins a first down. These quick hitting routes were all Brady was throwing the first 6-8 weeks of last season, because he was still establishing a rapport with his receivers. Routes like this are ones that the Saints may be able to allow the completion on, but they cannot let the receiver get yards AFTER the catch.
However, beating the Saints offensively can only work so well. Teams must also account for their offense and all that it offers. And when you’re talking about what the New Orleans offense offers, the first guy that you have to look for is #80: Jimmy Graham.
One thing that having an indomitable player physically does is breeds hubris (see: Matt Stafford to Calvin Johnson). This play is a one-read fly to Graham, who is to high point the ball, regardless of coverage. The line in gray indicates his route pre-snap, the line in red, post-snap.
This is the seams route that the Saints so love to run to Graham. Every single Saint receiver runs a straight fly down the field to hold the corner on them, and Brees tosses it up for Graham. The problem here is that Graham has no separation from Kyle Arrington, the nickel corner on the play. Another problem is that, while the other receivers do have minute amounts of separation, the safety over the top is still looking at Brees and cheating towards Graham’s side of the field. Brees still hasn’t looked away from the tight end, and he ends up heaving it for Graham.
This is as the ball is leaving Brees’s hand. Arrington still has good coverage on Graham and, exacerbating the problem, the safety Devin McCourty is breaking towards Graham before the ball is even in the air. Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas, the outlet on the play, is waiting underneath with about 15 yards of space between himself and the nearest defender.
By the time the ball gets there, this is the final result. The ball is slightly underthrown, and not only does Arrington undercut the route, so too does McCourty. In fact, if only one of them is attacking on this play this pass likely gets intercepted. It doesn’t matter how physically dominant you are as an athlete, a pass like this can absolutely not be caught, particularly one into double coverage. I’m sure most Saints fans remember Graham’s 0 catch final line in this game, and that was because the Patriots cheated their safeties towards him every play that he wasn’t being covered by Aqib Talib. This in and of itself thoroughly limited the New Orleans’ offense. Combine that formula with more late game magic from Tom Brady, and it makes sense that the Saints would lose their first game of the season to this team.