My first reaction after the Saints beat the Falcons ten days ago was to give the game ball to the defense. How strange was it that I was praising a defense that had just given up 445 yards to Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense? Not very! We've all felt that this 2015 Saints defense had a lot of potential and that it was just a matter of time until they started to fulfill it. Yesterday in Indianapolis, Rob Ryan's unit showed us how bright the future could be for New Orleans defensively. They sacked Andrew Luck four times, intercepted him twice and had him pressured all game long en route to a 27-21 win, the team's second victory in a row.
What impressed me most? What didn't I like from the Saints' win in Indy? Here are the five big things that stayed with me:
1) That's My Breaux!
Before the start of the season, cornerback Delvin Breaux became somewhat of a cult figure in New Orleans. He was the CFL kid who had signed with LSU, broke his neck and almost never played football again. He was the quintessential feel-good story and the Saints gave him a shot. Right now, he's the 10th rated cornerback in the entire NFL according to Pro Football Focus. His +6.3 grade has him ahead of the likes of Patrick Peterson, Janoris Jenkins, Sam Shields, Aqib Talib, Richard Sherman, and the list goes on.
The crazy thing is that Breaux has had a lot of coverage busts: the expected growing pains from a guy who is a de facto NFL rookie. He's also had things like losing the ball in the lights in the Superdome or tripping and falling twice while covering T.Y. Hilton yesterday, allowing two long touchdowns. What this tells me is that Breaux has tons of room to improve and get even better than the shutdown corner he is quickly evolving into. Thanks to his physical play and the way he blankets teams' number one receivers, the Saints have hardly missed their offseason number one cornerback, Keenan Lewis with Breaux in the lineup.
2) Where Will You Run?
The Saints came into Sunday's contest against the Colts averaging a paltry 3.4 yards-per-carry, which ranked in the mid to low 20s in the NFL. Yesterday, New Orleans rushed for 183 yards on 36 carries, a 5.1 yards-per-carry average. The number that really impressed me here was 36. So far this season, the Saints have run the ball about 26.4 times a game in average. On Sunday, New Orleans ran it 10 times more than their season-average and that's always a plus for the pass-happy Sean Payton. Sometimes, if you just stick with it long enough, it'll pay off eventually. The Saints' running game showed that in Indy.
3) How About that 2015 Draft!!!
Most Saints fans and observers would probably call the 2006 draft the most successful in Franchise history. Maybe some old timers will disagree and come after me, but these were the impact players the Saints drafted in 2006: Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston. Even Rob Ninkovich who didn't pan out in New Orleans is now a perennial starter for the Patriots.
Well, since 2006 the Saints' drafts have largely been terrible: that is until 2015. Oh no doubt, the jury is still out, but seven games into their rookie year, Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha, Tyeler Davison, and Marcus Murphy are all contributing. Before getting hurt, Andrus Peat and Damian Swann also played significant snaps for New Orleans while cornerback P.J. Williams who is on IR, hasn't even shown what he could do yet.
Yesterday, the "drafted youth impact" was on full display: Anthony had a crucial interception in the first quarter that helped the Saints take a 14-0 lead, Kikaha forced yet another fumble this season (his fourth forced) that also led to a score. The Saints have whiffed a lot in the draft recently; I think they nailed it in 2015.
4) What the H*** Kind of Juicy Fruit Was That?
If you're not familiar with Saints head coach Sean Payton's sidelines rituals, one of them is that he chews on a brand new piece of Juicy Fruit gum for every new offensive possession. Yesterday, I could swear someone spiked his Juicy Fruit pieces. Twice in the first quarter, Payton challenged an "incomplete pass" ruling against his team that looked clear as day. Twice he lost the obviously ill-fated challenges.
However, after losing the first challenge, the Saints faced a 4th and 9 at the Colts' 26-yard line. With a chance to take a 3-0 lead, Payton called a fake field goal play, with Luke McCown throwing the ball to tight end Ben Watson for a first down a yard away from the goal line. The Saints would score on the ensuing play.
Payton, for the first time in 2015, coached with the semi-reckless abandon and intestinal fortitude that has made him a winner that he is in the NFL coaching circles. In the second half, New Orleans seemed to lose some of its offensive aggressiveness and it almost cost them. Here's to seeing a bit more of the cocky, "juicy-fruited" Sean Payton in the coming weeks.
5) Young Teams do Dumb Things
How is your heart medicine stock? Make sure you replenish it. The Saints are young, and they're also in search on a true identity. It used to be that the Saints' defense could just get by, while the offense would always bail them out. So far this year, and despite their bad overall rankings, the Saints' defense has more often than not, been the unit that saves the day. But young teams have bed habits: they relax when they're ahead, they get cocky. They're not always ready to handle halftime adjustments, when the opponent has raised its level of play.
New Orleans was leading 27-0 in the third quarter and the rout was on. Then Andrew Luke decided to heave the ball up towards T.Y. Hilton. Delvin Breaux suddenly forgot how to turn his hips and run with the receiver. Was he peeking into the backfield too long? Either way, Breaux fell down and Hilton got into the endzone for an 87-yard touchdown. Just a couple of possessions later, the Colts did it again. And again, Breaux twisted while looking to locate the ball and fell. Another easy touchdown for Hilton and all of a sudden the Colts had all the momentum.
Someday this team will learn how to finish; how to consistently make the crucial first down catch, the crucial block or the game-clinching tackle. But until it does, we will all be treated to games both infuriating and exciting. Are you not entertained???