In a game that made Dave's article in response to Marshall Faulk's GMC question of the week strangely prophetic, the New Orleans Saints fell to 2-4 on the season to the now 5-2 Detroit Lions. For the first three quarters, the Saints held Detroit to 10 points on 173 total yards. They went into the 4th enjoying a 17-10 lead, but then the wheels simply fell off. New Orleans was outgained 171 yards to 60 in the 4th, and outscored 14-3.
What this game really proved was one thing: The New Orleans Saints just can’t close. And it’s in every facet of the game. The Saints had every opportunity to put the dagger in the Detroit Lions. In the 4th quarter, Kenny Vaccaro picked Matthew Stafford off at the New Orleans’ 6 yard line and ran it back to midfield. In response, New Orleans took off 3 minutes on 6 plays. 5 of them were running plays, including a 1st & 15 rush to Mark Ingram and a 2nd & 15 rush to Austin Johnson. On 3rd & 10, Drew Brees tried to dump the ball off to Travaris Cadet, and the Saints had to settle for a field goal.
The Golden Tate touchdown was simply a total breakdown defensively. After Corey White (for whatever reason) tried to jump an out route that was about 3 yards short of the first down marker, Tate gouged the New Orleans defense for a 73 yard touchdown, weaving through them seamlessly. Poor angles from Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis only made it look easier for the elusive Tate. This is an alarming trend in the 2014 New Orleans’ defense. Towards the end of games, they just can’t seem to execute. It may not always end in game breaking plays such as this one, and oftentimes doesn’t, but there is no excuse for such a massive collapse in execution, let alone one that makes a game a one possession game.
The following drive, Ford Field was quite possibly louder than it has ever been. It was hard to tell from the concourse if it affected the New Orleans’ offense, but the fact is that from the playcalling to the player execution nothing went right. After an illegal hands to the face penalty on Detroit got the Saints a first down, the Saints proceeded to pick up a yard from Ingram on first down, before killing the clock on an incompletion to Marques Colston. On the ensuing 3rd & 9 play, Brees threw a pick to Glover Quin that was returned to the New Orleans’ 14, which set Detroit up in perfect field position to take the lead. After what appeared to be a 4 & out, Rafael Bush was flagged for interference on Reggie Bush. The Lions scored on the following 3rd down, giving them the lead with 1:48 left.
Which brings us to the aforementioned post from Dave on last minute drives. With one timeout, the Saints never appeared to find a rhythm. Brees went 2/7 passing on the final drive, both of his completions going to Cadet for -1 yard and 8 yards. These two plays led to a 4th & 3, which fell incomplete. Brees picked up more yards on a 13 yard 4th & 10 scramble than he got throwing on the entire drive.
The reason that I’m picking through this quarter in rather excruciating detail is to illustrate the simple comedy of errors that led to the Saints snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The problems lie far beyond play calling or lack of execution. The fact of the matter is that the Saints simply aren’t doing what it takes to close out games. It happened against Atlanta (twice in one game); it happened against Cleveland; Dallas was, of course, never close; and it happened again against Detroit. The one team that New Orleans has closed out in a big way was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they never even saw the ball in overtime. The Saints are 0-4 on the road this season, and they’re 2-0 at home, but the road losses feel like reruns of the 2013 Patriots game. They become porous and lax in the 4th quarter.
Something has to give for the Saints. They’re 2-3 when they lead with less than 4 minutes. In every game but Dallas, New Orleans has been leading at the 4 minute mark. And in 3 of those games (all 3 road games), they have blown that lead. Whether the cause is discipline, playcalling, or execution, something simply is not clicking for the Saints at the end of games. They simply don’t have that killer instinct right now, and it’s going to catch up them soon. We can only say "at least the rest of the NFC South lost" for so long before time runs out.
There are three silver linings to be found in all of this. First off, for at least one more week, we can in fact say that the rest of the NFC South lost. The Saints are still, miraculously, second in the South, behind the 3-3-1 Carolina Panthers (that one tie could really muck things up). But the Saints need to start winning soon, because they’re nearing the halfway point of their season. The other silver lining is that the Saints are in games. It isn’t often that a 2-4 team is only blown out once throughout those 4 losses. It’s even rarer that a 2-4 team is leading with less than 4 minutes in 3 of those games. No one wants to talk about the bounces or the calls, but the fact of the matter is that they’re playing games that are coming down to once bounce or one call. No one can argue that the 2014 Saints aren’t exciting to watch. The final silver lining is that half of their road games are done, and only a quarter of their home games are completed. The remaining road games will be tough. Two are divisional (Carolina & Tampa Bay), so they could likely bounce either way, and the other two are in Pittsburgh and Chicago during the cold months. The Saints’ struggles in those climates are well documented, if not slightly exaggerated. However, at home the Saints are 2-0, no matter how ugly those wins may be. They haven’t lost a game at the Superdome since Week 17 in 2012, putting their current winning streak at 10 games.
Next week, the Saints play the 5-2 Green Bay Packers at home, in primetime. In this context, the Saints are even more dominant. The Saints can run with any team in the league. The fact is that they haven’t closed them out. But it’s naïve to say that the Saints are "3 plays away from 5-1," or something along those lines. That simply isn’t how the NFL works. It will be interesting to see how the Saints respond to a loss as difficult as yesterday’s in a context in which they generally thrive. The Saints aren’t out of the hunt yet, but the window is closing rapidly. With 4 of their next 5 games coming at home, the time to string together some wins is now, and there's no better time to start than in a sure to be rocking Primetime Dome next week.