Marshall Faulk (@marshallfaulk) November 19, 2014
"Saints' Coaching Effectively Adapts; Team Stays Healthy" This headline more or less sums up the Saints' issues through Week 11. New Orleans entered the season with some of the best talent in the NFL, and were a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Execution has, of course, been a problem, but of all of the alarming trends the Saints have displayed there are none worse than the strange coaching decisions and the injuries that have led the Saints to this point.
Through 11 weeks, the Saints have lost massive free agent pickup Jairus Byrd, first round pick Brandin Cooks, and Byrd's backup Rafael Bush to the Injured Reserve List. These injuries, in addition to lingering injuries to Tight End Jimmy Graham and Inside Linebacker Curtis Lofton, have really hindered the Saints to this point in the season. Of course, injuries only go so far. Every team is hurt at this point in the season, and the best teams are able to persevere.
Coaching has also been a large contributor to the Saints' 4-6 mark. Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, to this point, seem to have one overarching gameplan that they run. Ryan has changed his coaching style from last year in order to try to combat the thinning talent in the Saints' secondary. Last season through 11 weeks, the Saints were 30th in the league in blitz percentage, relying on zones and other schemes to confuse quarterbacks. Ryan has blitzed on a significantly higher percentage of plays this year, coming to a head last week against the Bengals in which he sent 5 or more players on ~40% of passing plays against Dalton. Dalton subsequently carved up the Saints' defense through the air, going 16-22 for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns. He put up a passer rating of 143.9, the best rating against the Saints in 2014.
On offense, the Saints are being defined by what they don't do. They're second in the league in yards per game and ninth in the league in scoring, but they seem to have a very difficult time making plays when they really need to. Against the Bengals, the Saints played an extremely conservative game, attempting 4 passes for 15 yards or more and 0 passes for 20 or more. Their absolute refusal to throw the ball downfield caused the offense to stagnate during long drives, and the Saints put up a mere 10 points at home. Even when they were down 17, the Saints simply would not make throws downfield. This sounds like a simple gripe, but corners were isolated against receivers for much of the day, opportunities were there, the Saints did not capitalize.
In no way am I trying to imply that the Saints' player personnel should be absolved of all blame for how the Saints are playing. After all, they're the ones playing. However, extraneous circumstances have not done the Saints any favors. Between questionable coaching and injuries, the Saints have been caught in a perfect storm in 2014. The Saints have talent, and Payton is still a tremendous coach, easily top 10 in the league and arguably top 5. If they start going week by week, New Orleans can start to see the success that they hoped for coming into the season. With one matchup left against each NFC South team, the division is still very much up for grabs. Every game counts, and if the Saints live by the incredibly trite cliche of taking it "week by week," then they may find themselves as a playoff team yet.