After an almost improbable 5 game winning streak with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm that led to a very classic Drew Brees domination of Arizona, the Saints took their 8-1 record into the bye.
New Orleans then proceeded to come out of the bye and allowed one of the worst defenses in the league to suffocate Brees and the rest of the offense. It’s hard to find many worse Saints offensive performances in the Brees-Payton era than this past Sunday. It was that bad.
Although they lost a bit of leverage in the fight for the first round playoff bye, the Saints are still in the drivers seat for the division title so not all is lost. This game seems more like an aberration rather than the beginning of a trend. It’s true the Saints offense has been a middling group this year but that’s with 5 games of Teddy Bridgewater. With Brees’ Hall of Fame clout, we’ll have to give this team the benefit of the doubt.
Sean Payton’s game plan was interesting. The Saints tried to use Atlanta’s man coverage against themselves by running a multitude of low crossing routes on the same play in an attempt to free up Michael Thomas from his defender. It makes sense. They are trying to have the guy running with Thomas get caught up in all sorts of traffic.
The problem is that Thomas’ route is not going to cross the first down marker, so if the Atlanta cornerback weaves his way through the traffic he still has a shot to make a play on Thomas before he gets past the sticks.
That happened on this play:
The Saints ran this concept or similar ones quite a few times to no advantage.
We rarely saw a lot of the nice concepts that worked so beautifully against the Falcons last year for big plays. This trips concept had some elements of what they did in 2018 but lacked any finish to the play design.
The deep over route is designed to be thrown against man coverage. Get a matchup you like and then throw it away from the safety. Against Cover 3, which is what the Falcons end up playing, the Saints know that the backside linebacker will overtake that route. It’s how almost all defenses play it out. When that linebacker drops deep he opens up space short of him but the Saints slot receiver doesn’t attack that space. Whether that is by route design or a bad read by the receiver himself, it ends in a negative play.
It almost felt like Sean and Drew outsmarted themselves. The only concept that really worked throughout the whole game was Michael Thomas on a slant (usually from double slants).
The offensive line follies didn’t help either. Left guard Andrus Peat going out and being replaced by Will Clapp was not good. Left tackle Terron Armstead’s flu game was not quite Michael Jordan’s flu game.
This relatively simple stunt by the Falcons did wonders against the presumably drained Armstead and the inexperienced Clapp.
Armstead doesn’t switch off the defensive end until it’s too late and/or Clapp never forces the switch off by bumping his tackle off. Whoever’s fault it is, it leads to a very avoidable pressure on Brees who was sacked too many times.
Brees was not free of blame though, as he didn’t pull the trigger on a few throws that we’ve come to expect from the Saints pivot.
One of them was this out breaking route to Michael Thomas:
When Brees comes out of the play action, he’s checking to see how many deep safeties there are. With 1 guy in the middle of the field and deep, he knows that he’ll have 1 on 1 coverage on the outside. As he finishes his drop, he’s looking at Michael Thomas (top of the screen) and is about to aim his body at him but aborts and looks to the other side. Thomas is open. He’s gained outside leverage on an out breaking route with more than enough separation and there is not a zone defender underneath the route. Brees has thrown to much tighter coverage in Thomas’ direction in the past. Just odd.
Another play where Brees doesn’t pull the trigger on is this one over the middle to Krishawn Hogan.
It’s 3rd and very long here which is sort of an excuse but we’ve seen Brees make similar throws on the same down and distance. It’s also a receiver that he’s never thrown to so that’s also sort of an excuse.
Still, these plays need to be made. Brees starts his read to the left. The go route is not open with the cornerback playing so far off. He then looks to Jared Cook on the deep crossing route, but again, the Atlanta defenders are so far off. The interesting thing that happens is that Deion Jones gets excited by Michael Thomas’ shallow route and jumps that. At this point in the progression, Brees should be getting to Hogan’s route which is now open because of Jones. There’s a deep safety, sure, but Brees knows to just put the ball on the receiver instead of throwing him in stride. He just doesn’t throw it. Again, it’s odd because we’ve seen Brees do this so many times before.
There were still some fine plays made by the quarterback like this throw to Jared Cook:
And a good play design by the Saints off their weakside option progression:
However, as the game wore on these nice throws and nice concepts dried up. It’s a really unfortunate end to one of the Saints best winning streaks of all time. The whole thing was just weird. Brees might be getting up in age but this still shouldn’t happen. That Falcons defense still sucks so expect New Orleans to take advantage of them in the return leg on Thanksgiving. You can even expect the Saints passing attack to bounce back against Tampa Bay’s shoddy pass defense this weekend. This oddity of a game does not mean the world is crumbling for the Super Bowl favorites, but it should put all parties involved on notice.