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4th and Geaux: Saints vs. Panthers Edition

Jeremy Shockey should be able to take advantage of Carolina's defense this week. If so, he'll almost definitely celebrate.
Jeremy Shockey should be able to take advantage of Carolina's defense this week. If so, he'll almost definitely celebrate.

The Saints had a nice victory last week. The defense looked great and the offense showed signs of progress against one of the better defenses in the league. Was it a 1-week anomaly or are we back, baby?

It's time for 4th and Geaux.

Last week in review

It was a tale of 2 halves for our offense. The first half was a bit of a struggle against the Steelers' defense, with Brew Drees averaging a paltry 1.9 adjusted yards per attempt (aYPA, a measure of offensive efficiency that accounts for sacks and interceptions, see the archives for more info) thanks to a sack and an interception. In the second half, the offense caught fire, and Drew was dialed in, attempting 22 passes and averaging an excellent 8.0 aYPA, an impressive feat against the Steelers' top-notch defense.

Without the coach's tape, it's hard to know exactly why the Saints were so much more efficient in the second half. However, I have two theories...

Theory #1: Diverse passing game opened things up for our top two receivers

This first theory handily ties back into what I wrote last week. Amazing, isn't it?

I wrote that the Steelers' defense was vulnerable to passes to 3rd, 4th, and 5th wide receivers, as well as passes to running backs and tight ends. In other words, everyone but Marques Colston and Robert Meachem.*

*NOTE: I realize that Colston didn't start this game (Devery Henderson did), but he's still our #1 receiver. You could argue that Henderson is really our #2 receiver, or even that Lance Moore is, but the analysis wouldn't change much, because Brees is so good at giving everyone a turn to catch the ball. In fact, thinking about it, Brees should probably become a Tee Ball coach when he retires, since everyone wins in Tee Ball. Maybe I'll change his nickname from Brew Drees to TeeBall Brees.

Sean Payton and Brew Drees must have read my column (kidding!), because Drew did a great job of sharing the ball in the first half, throwing 16 passes to non-Colston/Meachem receivers compared to only six total to Colston and Meachem. In other words, 72% of Brees' 1st-half passes went to non-Colston, non-Meachem receivers, perhaps trying to take advantage of the Steelers' weakness.

It's possible that Drew's "share the love" approach opened things up for Colston and Meachem in the second half. It's also possible that Colston and Meachem did a better job of getting open in the second half, or that Brew did a better job of seeing them. Regardless, Drew threw 41% of his second half passes toward Colston and Meachem (compared to 28% in the first half) and averaged an excellent 11.7 (nonadjusted) yards per attempt on those passes.

Theory #2: Special teams, and turnovers led to good field position

This second theory (which doesn't exclude the first theory, or other theories, for that matter!) is pretty straightforward: we played well on special teams in the second half, and racked up two turnovers, leading to a great average starting field position.

In the first half, the offense's average starting field position was the New Orleans 33-yard line, which is pretty good. However, thanks to the aforementioned defense and special teams, our average starting field position in the second half was the New Orleans 44-yard line, which is even better.

Those ten yards don't sound like much, but they're extremely valuable. According to Advanced NFL Statistics, having a first and 10 on your own 33 is worth just a little bit under one point on average. In other words, teams that start drives on their 33 score an average of a little less than one point on those drives. Now, you can't score less than one point, of course, but it's an average: on some drives, teams score touchdowns, on others they kick field goals (assuming Hartley isn't their kicker), and on others they punt or turn the ball over. But the "expected value", or average value, of having 1st and 10 on your 33 is about 0.8 points.

The expected value of starting a drive at your own 44 is about 1.5 points. In other words, teams that have 1st and 10 on their own 44 average about 1.5 points on those drives. While that doesn't seem like a big difference, think of it this way: teams that start drives on their 44 score almost twice as many points as teams that start drives on their 33. That's a big deal.

In fact, if all of this math confused you, just take that point away: our average field position in the second half was almost twice as valuable as our average field position in the first half.

So, my second theory can be summed up like this: our better starting field position in the second half led to more points, which led to a more tired, desperate Steelers defense, which led to even more offensive production on our part. A virtuous cycle, no?.

Again, these theories aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they probably are both true to some extent. Regardless, we looked pretty good in the second half, with our defense remaining stout and our offense controlling the game against one of the best defenses in the league. Well done.

Are we back, baby?

The big question is: was this Saints team the "real" Saints team, or was last week's performance an anomaly?

I'm sad to say that I can't answer that question definitively, although I do see some positive signs. The first is that we're starting to get some injured players back. On this week's Who Dat Report, Joe Shorter makes a good case that Darren Sharper frees up our defensive schemes in a way that Jenkins can't, which should lead to an uptick in turnovers.

Additionally, the rest of our secondary is slowly returning to the lineup (except for Randall Gay on injured reserve), which should help us clamp down on opposing offenses, especially once Jabari Greer gets healthy.

On offense, we're pretty healthy at every position except running back, but the running back situation is pretty dire. While Payton and Loomis may have looked into trading Pierre Thomas, he remains an important part of our offense. And I don't need to mention how important Reggie Bush is. Reginald will remain out this week, but hopefully will be back soon, which should help our explosion.

Finally, let's not forget how easy our schedule has been and will continue to be. I've harped on this each week, and will continue to harp on it. Our schedule has allowed us to survive the poor play from our offense. If we'd played a difficult schedule, we'd be at or below .500 right now. We'll have more of the same going forward: we have a lot of time to get the offense going again, because we 5 of our 8 remaining games are against terrible teams. So, our schedule affords us time to return from injury, time to work on the offensive scheme, and time to improve. I think that we'll be looking pretty a few weeks from now.

I've got a box full of letters...

I didn't receive any questions this week, which makes my job easy. Do you have a question for the mailbag? Leave it in the comments or send it via email to stuart (at) whodatreport (dot) com.

Sizing up the opponent

While Carolina is one of the worst 2 or 3 teams in the league, they do have a solid defense, which could pose trouble if the Saints' offensive renaissance turns out to have been a mirage. While we should beat Carolina without too much trouble, there are some potential challenges. Let's go in more detail in our statpoints.

Saints Statpoints

Saints offense vs. Panthers defense

This is the key matchup of the game. Carolina's defense is quite good, probably in the top 10 of the league, and the Saints offense has struggled for much of the year. According to Football Outsiders team defense stats, Carolina excels against passes to wide receivers and running backs, but is the worst team in the league at defending against tight ends. Much of the blame for that is on middle linebacker Dan Connor, who has been solid against the run but a liability in the passing game. While Jeremy Shockey has been a mild disappointment for the Saints, he and David Thomas may get some opportunities this week.

One thing Carolina does not do well is get sacks. They have 11 on the year, and are 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate statistic. That bodes well for Drew Brees, because he'll probably need time to find open receivers (or tight ends!) against the stout Carolina pass defense.

Carolina's run defense is solid, as well, so I expect this week to mirror last: the Saints will make a few running attempts but will focus primarily on the passing game. If the Saints do have a good game rushing, most of the yards will probably come in the second half while the Saints nurse a lead.

Overall, I expect the Saints offense to do well against Carolina, but wouldn't be surprised if points are at something of a premium.

Saints defense vs. Panthers offense

Carolina's offense is probably the worst in the league. They've averaged a terrible 1.7 aYPA and haven't been able to run or pass the ball effectively. Gregg Williams, Darren Sharper, et al. should have no trouble containing the Panthers, especially because RB DeAngelo Williams probably won't play this weekend.

One weakness of the Saints defense this year is sacks. The Saints are ranked 25th in adjusted sack rate, and haven't done a good job of getting to the quarterback. Fortunately, the Panthers' tackle Jeff Otah is still out with a knee injury, which should give the Saints a chance to make some hay.

The last time I was this confident about a game, the Saints lost to the Browns. What we need to look out for is just what beat us against the Browns: a desperate game plan, with trick plays, etc., designed to help the Panthers earn a fluky win. We shouldn't let that happen this week.

That's a lot of trash talking for a team that we only beat by two points a few weeks ago, eh? Well, I'm a writer, so I'm allowed to be overconfident. We just have to hope that the Saints' players aren't feeling the same way.

Beer of the week: Because sober analysis requires good beer

After my disappointment with last week's beer, commenter CajunCavern pointed out that a "beer of the week" should be something good. CajunCavern is totally right (and more of a beer expert than I am), but I'm hampered by what's available. I like to review something from our opponents’ city (or region). So, I’m stuck with whatever the beer store has. Sometimes, that's not so good. Although, I will say that last week's Weyerbacher did grow on me a little by the time I finished the last bottle.

Lucky for me that North Carolina is a hotbed of microbrew action right now. I took a trip to Asheville last year and could've spent the entire time sampling beers. If only I didn't have to work...

Anyway, so this week's beer comes from Highland Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina. The beer is Highland's Oatmeal Porter, and it's pretty nice.

Highland Oatmeal Porter is a typical porter in that it's dark and malty, although this particular beer is a few shades shy of black. There's a sweetness to the beer, and a moderate taste of coffee, but not as overwhelming (to me) as it is in other porters. This is a very smooth beer, perhaps a little light and "simple" for my taste, but still quite good. Highland Oatmeal Porter is what some people call a "session beer", meaning that you could sit down and drink a few without getting sick of them. I consulted Coach Payton, and he told me to rate Highland Oatmeal Porter a Pierre Thomas: a nice addition, and one I wouldn't mind leaning on in the right situations, but something I'd be willing to trade if the right offer came around.


That was way too long...could you just give me a one-paragraph summary and prediction?

Sure. The Saints may or may not be back, baby! Either way, they did a nice job against the Steelers. They're still excellently positioned for the playoffs. This week, the Saints shouldn't struggle at all, because Carolina's one of the worst teams in the league. Of course, the last time I said that was against Cleveland. If the Saints don't win handily, we'll need to reevaluate this team, but they should win handily. Look for our tight ends to be a key to this game. Finally, Highland Oatmeal Porter is pretty good.

You can listen to Stuart each week on The Who Dat Report, or follow him on Twitter.