It's only one game of a 16 game season. The NFL is a funny thing, however, in the sense that every game carries weight. The New Orleans Saints 31-19 loss to the Arizona Cardinals isn't altogether surprising, but this hardly made it less frustrating to watch. The Cardinals shredded the Saints' defense, and the offense just didn't do enough to keep the Saints in the game.
A 12 point loss, on paper, isn't awful. With this being said, it was a 12 point loss in which the Saints were thoroughly dominated. Carson Palmer went 19/32 for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Saints' secondary came away without an interception, although they did recover a fumble at one point. Andre Ellington carried the ball 12 times for 69 yards and a touchdown, putting him an impressive 5.8 yards per carry. The Saints contained Chris Johnson a bit better after Ellington left the game in the fourth, but that is Chris Johnson.
Larry Fitzgerald, seemingly tired of hearing about how he's aging, gouged the Saints' defense. Zone coverage doesn't work on veteran, clever QB/WR combinations such as Palmer and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald consistently found the holes, catching 6 balls for 87 yards.
The stats on the offensive side of the ball are a tad misleading. Yes, Drew Brees threw the ball 48 times, completing 30 of these passes. Yes, Mark Ingram carried only 9 times for a mere 24 yards. However, Ingram was also the Saints' leading receiver, catching 8 passes for 98 yards. In fact, before a negative play towards the end of the game, Ingram was above 100 yards receiving for the first time in his career. Khiry Robinson repeatedly slammed into a brick wall, carrying 8 times for 19 yards. 8 Saints caught a pass, 7 of them caught multiple passes.
All things considered, Brees played well. Not incredible, but he threw an interception that was off the hands of Marques Colston (who continues to struggle holding onto the ball). He threw for 355 yards, but the Saints seemed to have a gameplan in place that was contingent on CJ Spiller being both in and healthy. They used swings in lieu of the running game, looking reminiscent of their 2011 offense. What they lack now, however, that that offense had is a red zone threat.
Brandon Coleman scored his first career NFL touchdown, but otherwise was fairly unimpressive. He looks tentative running routes, and he doesn't seem to be able to fully utilize his frame yet.
All of this isn't even mentioning Delvin Breaux's woeful NFL debut, but that is an entirely different article.
There's just something about the New Orleans Saints and their stark refusal to make open field tackles. Understandable it's one of the more difficult things to do in football, no one is going to argue with that, but it's like they don't even practice. Ellington simply wove his way through the New Orleans defense, slicing them on seemingly every carry.
When evaluating any play, the first thing to look at is who will have an opportunity to make a play. 4 Saints' defenders have the POTENTIAL to make this play, with two Cardinal receivers topside. It is, however, a well designed formation from Arizona for the sweet play. With the two receivers bunched in, Player 1 is forced to make a read regarding where Ellington's initial cut will be. Players 2 & 3 are taken out by the receivers, and Player 4 is simply secondary help. The front 7 and backside corner are taken out of the play by the offensive line and by being away from the play. This is all presuming that every player does their job perfectly, on both sides of the ball.
Once the ball is snapped, an unexpected factor is entered into the fray. The right guard, rather than blocking Stephone Anthony after the snap, goes a level deeper. Anthony has an unabated path to the backfield. Meanwhile, Player 1 is forced to take a guess regarding where Ellington will go. 99% of running backs that aren't Madden avatars will take the inside gap, but Player 1 moves out. Players 2 & 3 are engaged by receivers. Player 4 remains in topside centerfield.
Anthony ultimately overshoots his gap (black circle). Ellington is left with a massive gap, and the Saints' secondary players are too far outside of the play. Furthermore, the Saints are manhandled in the trenches at the line, and Ellington hits his gap with ease.
To make matters worse, the Saints miss two tackles in their secondary, allowing a 14 yard run for Ellington before finally Hau'oli Kikaha, the backside pursuit on the play, brings him down. A lack of basic tackling was a storyline for the Saints, and it is one that they need to remedy sooner rather than later should they hope to keep up with the Panthers and the Falcons in the South.
This play illustrates what a passive zone can do to hurt a defense. The Cardinals are in a 3rd & 6 (3rd and Mid, really). They empty out the backfield, and they run a play where the idea is to isolate Larry Fitzgerald, the receiver in the nearside slot. They run levels on the topside, then they stick Fitzgerald while the tight end and wide receiver nearside clear out. This leaves the middle of the field wide open for Fitzgerald.
The thing about football fields is that they're huge. The Saints play a quarters defense on 3rd & 6, which in itself isn't too bad. However, they lack adequate help underneath. The math is easy. With 4 players rushing, 4 in deep coverage and 2 covering the sidelines, the entire middle of the field under 25 yards is left exposed. Wanting to mitigate big plays is great, but on 3rd & Mid defenses don't have that luxury, and the player highlighted in the middle is forced to cover about 50 yards of space.
The problem here is immediately apparent. 3 receivers are running streaks. Fitzgerald (middle) has the seam. Player 1 is committed to the innermost tight end. Players 2 & 3 are both committed to the outermost receiver. This is why some receivers just make plays, and why slot players can be so dominant in today's NFL. Fitzgerald is running free on this play, as players are assigned to areas that he isn't in. Thus, by extension, no one is assigned to Fitzgerald. The entire defense also backpedals at the snap, which opens up his part of field even further.
Timing plays are so dangerous against the zone, and this is exactly why. Fitzgerald hasn't looked back for the ball, and Palmer is already winding up. The player in the middle has finally passed off the tight end, but this highlights another problem with the zone defense. Players must be reactionary to everything. They need to pass the player off, ensure that the person they're passing off to knows they have a new assignment, and then find someone else in their area. Fitzgerald finds the seam that the tight end creates for him.
Fitzgerald catches the ball with another 2 yards of space, easily shedding the tackle in the middle and picking up 10 yards for the first down.
The Saints need to get the passivity out of their gameplan. Sitting back on 3rd and Mid won't get them the ball. Guessing on gaps won't get them tackles. Their defense was rough Sunday, and that's putting it mildly. They face veteran receivers like Fitzgerald throughout the year, and he's not even close to the best number one that they'll see. The defense will need to get more physical if they're going to compete for any type of "crown" in 2015. If they play like they did on Sunday, then expect a lot more games to end up like this one. Yes, it's only one game. But one becomes two becomes three very, very quickly.