Late in the fourth quarter, Raiders field general Derek Carr marched the Raiders down the field like every Saints fan in the back (or in some cases, the front) of their mind knew he would. It took 13 plays and five minutes of game time for the Raiders to reach the end zone.
It took ten seconds of real time for Carr to motion that he was going to go for two points, rather than tie the game with an extra point attempt. In the broadcast booth, Chris Meyers was dumbfounded. “Oh you gotta be kidding me....”. As a broadcaster, I’m sure Meyers was delighted at the chance to call what will likely be a game winning play for somebody, but as a football intellectual he gave pause.
Why would the Raiders go for two when tying the game is undeniably the safer route? (Extra points are no longer a formality, but the NFL average for fourth down conversion rates in 2015 hovered around 50 percent, while extra points still don’t dip below 90 percent)
The answer is rather simple. The Saints had not forced a punt since the Raiders second drive of the second half. The Raiders scored on every possession after their second punt of the half. Oakland had to shoot their shot and it paid off.
This isn’t even the first time the Saints were tied to the tracks as an oncoming hype train came into town with no signs of stopping. Before Robert Griffin’s knees only existed in theory, he was the savior for football in Washington and unleashed a devastating offensive flurry in his very first NFL game in the Superdome. The Saints have a knack for giving opposing fans something to go nuts about.
The most crucial moment of the game was absolutely the 2-point conversion for the win, but an equally crucial moment in the red zone earlier in the game could have swung the pendulum too far in the Saints direction for the Raiders to recover.
With nine minutes left in the third quarter, the Saints were on the doorstep of the end zone threatening to score again. Two pass interference calls and a big run by Ingram helped the Saints get down the field in a hurry.
On 3rd Down, the Saints ran a college-looking option play for Brees to gain four yards, two short on the end zone.
This play is objectively stupid.
Running a read option run with your newly extended 37-year-old ‘literally-cannot-win-without-him’ quarterback near the goal line is not smart. Brees cannot barrel anyone over, he won’t beat an NFL defender anywhere, even if he catches the defense off guard. It’s more likely than not that he could get blasted by a linebacker or a headhunting safety, it’s a miracle the damage was minor.
As a result, the Saints kicked a field goal (That was blocked and still went in, but that’s almost irrelevant) and went up 27-19 in the fourth, one touchdown and a 2-point conversion away from the tie, which the Raiders of course got. A touchdown would have made it 31-19 with about eight minutes left to go in the game, all but serving as a death blow to the Raiders.
The Saints, for all their faults, are not typically a team that is known for leaving a lot of points on the field. With the defense injured, mistake prone and just flat out bad as it is now, the offense can no longer afford to leave anything left to chance. For 31 other teams, they kick a field goal in the situation presented above and feel good about their defense being able to create a stop with a lead.
31 other teams don’t have the worst defense in the entire NFL. All the Saints had to do this year was not be an all-time horrible defense, and they can’t even do that.
Part of that is due to the undeniably rough hand dealt to the Saints. Going into camp, the Saints defense sent out to stop that Raiders drive would have featured Delvin Breaux, Hau’oli Kikaha, Keenan Lewis, Sheldon Rankins, Dannell Ellerbe, Damian Swann, and Stephone Anthony in a leading role (Who knows if this stems from his injury sustained in the offseason or a lack of plan by the coaching staff, each of which are frightening beyond belief.)
It’s rough, no question. To be decimated this badly by injuries in week one is unheard of and a rotten stroke of luck for a team that gets seemingly no bounces anywhere.
The fact remains that the Saints defense, barring a miracle or a spectacular display of ineptitude by the opposing offense will not stop anybody. With two rookie undrafted rookie free agents likely starting on defense for the foreseeable future, there is simply not much that can be done.
Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris may have the toughest assignment in all of football; two cornerbacks (A very difficult position to play. It feels like that shouldn’t have to be said but it often does) playing in their first NFL games (A rookie, mistake-prone cornerback is probably the most vilified thing you can possibly be besides a professional orphan puncher or an actual, literal Nazi) with no other legitimate options present, the Saints have to take their lumps. Crawley and Harris may be decent players, but they will be picked on mercilessly.
The front seven poses its own set of problems. A true edge threat opposite Cam Jordan has not emerged, even when Paul Kruger suddenly became available and in the Saints clubhouse. Rankins was meant to be the presence inside that would deny quarterbacks the ability to step up in the pocket and give Jordan some much needed reinforcements (Jordan is not without fault though, he was dominated on Sunday). The linebacking corps, while much improved from years past, is missing arguably it’s best piece in Ellerbe and Anthony is only playing a handful of snaps a game for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the perfect storm, and the Saints haven’t caught a single break in what feels like forever. But there is hope.
Saints fans are all too familiar with the sight of checking in on the NFL team stats page and find that though the offense is a seemingly unstoppable buzzsaw gliding through teams, the defense boasts some equally impressive numbers (Not impressive in that they are good, impressive in the same way someone might say “Wow, I didn’t know human life could be exist at that weight” in regards to the worlds fattest human). A defense that bad makes it difficult to win games, but the old playground adage of “Scoreboard” still rings true. Whoever scores the most points wins. The fact that the Saints have a mind-warpingly bad defense shouldn’t take too much away from the fact that the Saints are an explosive, dynamic team that can score on anyone.
And that is why it’s time for the Saints to start acting like it.
Go back to the goal line stand the Raiders had where Payton tried to make Brees into Cam Newton. Oakland hadn’t stopped the Saints on that drive prior to two broken plays, and were having a rough day defending them as a whole. Payton has to have faith there in his offense getting two yards. Kicking field goals allows the other team to get back into the game, it’s a tale as old as time (or football rhetoric at least).
I would posit that the Saints going into games with the intention of going for it on fourth down more often will pay dividends. I would also suggest that the Saints can’t afford not to.
Last year, New Orleans was 10-for-16 on 4th Down conversion attempts, good for 3rd in the entire NFL. They converted 1-for-1 against the Raiders. The Saints have so many weapons that it would be foolish not to feed all of them.
Though the Saints offensive line still poses problems, Mark Ingram still looks plenty explosive and can make something out of nothing or very little. Professional chain-mover Willie Snead has stepped into the spotlight and can not longer be ignored. At the end of week one, he was second in the entire NFL in receiving yards, one spot ahead of his teammate Brandin Cooks.
This offense is dynamic: Long, clock killing scoring drives? The Saints can do that. Explosive home run plays? The Saints just had their longest play from scrimmage in team history with a 98-yard TD from Cooks. Contributions from all throughout the depth chart? Travaris Cadet scored a touchdown. Phenom rookie? Michael Thomas is going to be an eater of planets soon enough.
What I am suggesting is that the Saints go for it on fourth down to maximize the amount of potential scoring drives. Obviously they shouldn’t every time, but in a tied ballgame at midfield or on the doorstep of the end zone, they can’t keep kicking field goals. The Saints can’t stop anybody, and it’s not going to stop till they get their starters back and continue to draft well, neither of which may happen in 2016.
It’s time for the Saints to play to their strengths, even if it means ignoring conventional football wisdom. Do I expect them to adopt this strategy? Probably not, but it is clear that this is an unconventional team with a lopsided roster decimated by injuries that will need to continue to take risks on fourth down and milk every point they can out of their possessions.
The Raiders bet it all and came away big winners. Some call them lucky, other will call them smart and opportunistic. But nobody is speaking ill of those Risky Raiders. It’s time for the Saints to adapt.