Another chapter was added in the bitter Saints-Falcons rivalry when the battered New Orleans Saints lost in Atlanta, 20-17 on Thursday night. Despite their second loss in the last three games, the Saints (9-4) still sit atop the NFC South at the conclusion of this weekend's games. Barring a collapse, it appears the Saints will qualify for their first playoff appearance since 2013, and are in relatively good position for their first division title since the 2011 season.
Regardless of how you felt about the way the Saints lost the game against Atlanta, the fact is that it was still a loss. And one that further revealed some of the team's most pressing issues as they head into the most important portion of their 2017 season. Today we will look at some of these issues, and how they could potentially derail the New Orleans season.
To say that this Saints unit has not been "special" is an understatement. They have had some shining moments, to be sure. Justin Hardee's block of a Tampa Bay punt and return for a touchdown, and backup quarterback Taysom Hill's tackle of Carolina punter Michael Palardy after a bobbled snap have been two standout plays of the season. New Orleans has one of the NFL's best punters in Thomas Morstead, averaging 47.4 yards per punt, tops in the NFC. Morstead has just 2 touchbacks on his 46 punts, while managing to put the ball inside the opponent's 20-yard line 21 times. Kicker Wil Lutz has been a bit inconsistent at times, missing 3 extra points and 5 field goal attempts, but has a powerful leg and a knack for coming through in clutch situations.
The Saints kick coverage and return units have been abyssmal at times. New Orleans has averaged a paltry 6.1 yards per punt return, and just 20 yards per kickoff return. The coverage units meanwhile, have surrendered 11 yards per punt return and 26 yards per kickoff return. The Saints have allowed eight returns of at least 30 yards or better, including one punt return score. A special teams error cost New Orleans dearly against the Falcons, when an illegal formation nullified a successful Lutz field goal at the end of the half in a game that the Saints "lost" by 3 points. Three Saints losses in 2016 were the direct result of special teams miscues, so New Orleans knows more than anyone that poor play here can end their season.
THIRD DOWN OFFENSE
The New Orleans Saints have converted 38.4% of their 3rd down opportunities on offense this season. The team converted 48.6% of 3rd down chances in 2016, ranking first in the league. The Saints 3rd down percentage has been even worse in the team's four losses, converting just 14 of 46 (30%) 3rd down chances. The Saints will almost certainly need their offense to better it's 3rd down output in order to be successful in this stretch run.
FIRST DRIVE DEFENSE
Despite greatly improved play from the New Orleans defense in 2017, the unit has still shown a disturbing trend all season. The Saints have allowed their opponents to score on it's first drive in 9 of 13 games. (4 touchdowns, 5 field goals) That statistic would look even worse if not for Ken Crawley's end zone interception on Miami's opening drive in the victory over the Dolphins. Consider also that Detroit's opening drive against New Orleans started very deep in their own territory, and ended with the Saints recovering a fumble for a touchdown after just 2 plays, but on their next full drive the Lions drove for a touchdown. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and staff have done a fantastic job with in-game adjustments against their opponents for the majority of the season, but the team needs to do a better job of coming out of the locker room stronger, putting more pressure on the opposition early.
Every team suffers injuries during the course of the season. The Saints had already lost defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the year before training camp had even started, then starting cornerback Delvin Breaux to a leg injury early in camp. Veteran right tackle Zach Strief was lost early in the year for the season, star left tackle Terron Armstead missed the first portion of the year, and promising rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone was lost for the year before the bye week. Through it all, the Saints prospered, putting together an eight game winning streak.
The last month has been more difficult on New Orleans, from an injury standpoint. Defensive end Alex Okafor, who was having a solid season, was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. One of the players expected to replace him, rookie Trey Hendrickson, went down with an ankle injury against Atlanta that will keep him out a number of weeks. That leaves Hau'oli Kikaha as the "next man up" to step into the defensive end position opposite Cam Jordan, a spot where the Saints defense has struggled for the last few years. Linebacker A.J. Klein has been struggling with a groin injury, not a good sign for an already thin linebacking corps, but the biggest injury concerns could be in the Saints secondary. The most improved unit on the team has seen all four of it's starters hurt in recent weeks. Star rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a favorite for defensive rookie of the year, missed the majority of 3 games with an ankle injury. Fellow starting corner Ken Crawley has been playing with an abdominal injury, forcing him to miss one start and may slow him the rest of the season. Without their two best cover men, the New Orleans defense struggled mightily in games against Washington and the Rams. Safeties Marcus Williams and Kenny Vaccaro have been in and out of the lineup with numerous injuries as well, limiting the aggressive play calling of coordinator Dennis Allen. The anticipated rematch against Atlanta, along with a Tampa Bay team with multiple dangerous receivers await the Saints on the schedule, as well as potential playoff match ups where New Orleans will need a good performance from it's secondary to be successful.
WHERE'S THE HELP?
Michael Thomas, Mark Ingram, and Alvin Kamara are the dominant forces in this Saints offense, responsible for 67% of the team's production, and are as good as any trio in the league. Ted Ginn Jr. has had a career year, with 46 catches for 678 yards and 3 touchdowns, and far more consistent than many expected after coming on as a free agent this offseason. Outside of these weapons, none of the other Saints offensive players have been able to give the team any kind of consistent threat.
Wide receivers Brandon Coleman and Tommylee Lewis have had some nice moments this season, but the Saints have gotten next to no production from the tight end position, especially since Coby Fleener has been lost for the season. Possibly the most disappointing player on the New Orleans roster this season has been wide receiver Willie Snead, who has just 6 catches for 65 yards and no scores the entire year. Snead had been a productive and reliable target for quarterback Drew Brees in each of the last two seasons, but has been invisible for this offense this year.
Thomas, Ingram, and Kamara have proven more than capable of providing enough offense to win games, evidenced by the Saints ranking near the top of the league in both rushing and passing statistics. When Kamara exited the Atlanta game after the first series due to a concussion, the New Orleans offense looked very limited, then even further so in the latter stages of the game when both Thomas and Ingram had to exit the field numerous times. The Saints will need step-up performances from their complimentary weapons in order to be a deep playoff threat.
The New Orleans Saints have had a better season than many of the so-called "experts" had predicted. They now face more adversity than they have since the season's first two weeks, having their largest flaws exposed in the process. Any, or all of these issues are big enough to cause a promising season to end prior to the ultimate goal. Are the Saints good enough to overcome these shortcomings?
What concerns you most about the Saints in this season's stretch run
This poll is closed
3rd down offense
Defense's opening drive
No reliable weapons outside of The Big Three