The New Orleans Saints are perfecting the art of winning ugly this season; if there’s anything we learned in Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Carolina Panthers, it’s that they never panic. New Orleans knows how to win when it matters. The Saints have stumbled along the way to a 4-2 record, but, sloppily or not, they know how to remain methodical and execute. In the face of adversity, the Saints are at their best. When the chips are down, Drew Brees is at his best – in control, decisive, and flawless in execution.
These traits were perhaps best displayed in Week 7’s nail-biting win. Brees played lights out with nameless receivers, the front seven executed a critical sack when it mattered most, and despite the inexplicable meltdowns in secondary coverage, New Orleans found a way to win.
The Saints have battled adversity for the last three seasons; along the way, they gained key character traits of resilience, resolve, and willingness to learn. It simply took a while for them to return to their carefully cultivated identity this season.
I can’t get over the Saints sending Drew Brees into retirement by reliving the good old days — a bunch of no-name WRs, locker room issues with a highly paid player, and a secondary that makes embarrassing plays weekly. This just feels right.— Tom Mantzouranis (@themantz) October 26, 2020
On Fighting Through Adversity
The Saints entered Week 7’s matchup against Carolina without nearly their entire receiving corp. The late placement of Emmanuel Sanders on the Reserve/COVID-19 list forced Sean Payton and the coaching staff to stay up all night Thursday into the early morning to readjust the offensive game plan.
“We went through all the personnel relative to first and second down. We had just practiced third down with [Emmanuel],” Payton said in the postgame conference. Then, they lost starting left tackle, Terron Armstead, early in the first half due to injury.
“One thing that we know is that the games are going to be played,” Payton remarked on the notion of adversity. “There are a couple of other teams dealing with some pretty extreme adversity. Honestly, no one else outside of your building really cares. I am proud of how our guys focused and found a way to get the win.”
Through the last three weeks, the Saints have overcome two-score deficits, been without several key starters on both sides of the ball, and endured sleepless nights from COVID-19 scares. “Adversity to start a season is nothing new to us,” DT Sheldon Rankins echoed in his sentiments.
“We’ve faced it before. We know what it takes to get on a roll and start winning some games. We know that each and every game is going to be different. We’ve got to win that specific game a certain way, whether it be coming up with a stop, like we were able to do (Sunday), or whether it be a shootout and Drew (Brees) has to go orchestrate a two-minute drill and be able to win a game for us.”
Drew Brees: Each week, it's finding different ways to win. ... I can't say enough about guys' resolve and resiliency to do that.— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) October 25, 2020
Brees praised his teammates for their perseverance in finding a way to win through the noise of adversity; that doesn’t mean it comes easy to a guy like Brees. He’s methodical and precise in his game preparation, and isn’t immune from last-minute wrenches thrown in the plan, despite his performance indicating otherwise.
“I’ll be honest. It’s difficult,” Brees admitted on the late-week adjustments on the offense. “You sit there and look at the call sheet, and look at the personnel groups and how you are going to piece it all together, and at the end of the day putting them in the right positions to succeed. It all goes through my thought process too. I need to know where guys are. There are little things that I can do throughout the game to help them and instill confidence in them. I just can’t say enough about those guys coming in and stepping up and having the games that they did.”
Last drive,— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 25, 2020
1:37 left and the ball on the NO 25 yd line:
Brees to Kamara for 3 yds
Brees to Harris for 18 yds
Brees to Harris for 7 yds
Kamara runs for 4 yds
Brees to Cook for 22 yds
Brees to Kamara for 17 yds
Brees spike stops the clock at 5 secs
Brees to Harris 4-yd TD pic.twitter.com/jJucT4CD8L
Indeed, the Offense Stepped up on All Fronts
Perhaps the biggest sign of encouragement was the all-around performance on offense; they set the tone with a strong opening drive, controlled the time of possession with 35:40, and executed a critical touchdown prior to halftime that proved to be a huge turning point in the game. Most of all, they’re finally formulating a foreboding identity.
“The opening drive was really important,” Payton remarked, but felt the possession control was the crucial difference-maker.
“We felt like first and second down was going to be important against this defense and that if we could stay on schedule, our success rate on third down would be that much better. We got into a couple of third and longs, particularly in the second half. Yet, we won a handful of statistics. We didn’t win the turnover statistic, but a lot of the others, we did.”
New Orleans say early season struggles with offensive chemistry and finding a rhythm to sustain game-winning drives; Drew Brees is the first to say the first few weeks have been “challenging in various ways.”
“I can’t say enough about the young guys have had to step up. We’ve been without Michael Thomas for five games. Emmanuel [Sanders] was out for this game. Young guys have had to step up and take a role where they are expected to step in to really be able to contribute. I can’t say enough about guys like Marquez Callaway and the job that he did today. Obviously, Tre’Quan Smith who is a mainstay, but we have asked him to do so much stuff. The guys up front with having some injuries at times.
Each week it is finding a different way to win. I can’t say enough about the guys’ resolve and resiliency to be able to do that. These last two games especially have come down to the wire and the last drive to find ways to win the game.”
One drive in particular that proved crucial was the late touchdown right before the half; unsurprisingly, it came off one of Brees’ surgical two-minute drives – of which he calls the plays.
“Two-minute drives, I’d put us against any defense,” Alvin Kamara asserted. “We’re locked-in on two-minute. We’ve got calls that we want to get to. I think that we practice it more than anything. Going in there, we are confident, we know the looks that we want to get to. We just had to execute. We went ahead and drove it down and got a score. That was big before the half.”
Brees, for all his prowess, has noticeably been absent of an ego his entire 20-year long career. What did he do immediately following what was probably a “game-winning drive?” Ran right over to his undrafted receiving corp for a teaching moment.
“Like I said, he [Drew Brees] teaches us pretty much all the time,” Marquez Callaway said in his postgame conference. “So, what we see when we’re out there, he sees something probably different, he comes in, and that lets us know that we have to do that. Let us know that, ‘hey, maybe we can slide over a little bit more or maybe you can run out the break’, just things like that. So he tells what he sees, so next time we go out there, it will be even more efficient.”
When C Erik McCoy was asked about Drew’s two-minute drives, his response was simple: “We’re going to score.”
“It’s a thing of beauty, whether it’s before the half, whether it’s the end of the game, we’re expecting to score.”
When asked about the touchdown play to Deonte Harris with seconds left on the clock, and no timeouts, “It’s a touchdown. Just plain and simple. You know [Drew’s] going to find the open window. Not anybody is going to get close to him. And he’s going to throw a touchdown.”
Teddy Bridgewater said the Panthers had the perfect play called "probably would've scored a touchdown if we'd have got it off." But Marcus Davenport got home to knock them out of field goal range ... and you know the rest. #Saints— SaintsNOW (@SaintsNOW) October 25, 2020
Incredible shot from @DavidGrunfeld ⤵ pic.twitter.com/g4Mwn8fhjt
On the Game-Winning Sack and Big Plays in Critical Moments
As Drew Brees aptly put it, “When you say it’s a game of inches or feet, it truly is.” The Saints had difficulty pressuring Teddy Bridgewater, and were unable to produce a sack all game – until Davenport wrapped Bridgewater up for an 8-yard loss in his first sack of the season. This set up an NFL-record 65-yard field goal in the final two minutes that fell just short of the crossbar. “That sack was significant for us,” Payton remarked after the game.
“Based on the field goal attempt that I saw, that even if we sacked him with two yards less, there was a good chance that [Carolina’s] kick was going to go in. Obviously, it was a big play defensively. They got in field goal range and all of a sudden that sack put them right on the edge.”
"Shit, it was a long field goal. He has a hell of a leg" Kamara on Joey Slye— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) October 25, 2020
Marcus Davenport was just happy to get his first sack of the season out the way. “It’s always one of those things that you feel like you’ve got to get out of the way. It was really great to be able to help out the team, especially in that time [of the game].”
Demario Davis may have missed the actual play focusing on his own coverage, but credits Davenport’s “dedication and work ethic” to work his way back from injury and “back out there and pick up right where you left off.”
”Yeah, that’s that’s a that’s a big play, you know, in the sack zone, which is right outside the red zone,” Davis continued. “So getting a sack you know, as they’re getting ready to approach the red zone. Getting a sack down there, you knock them right outside of field goal range was huge as a game changer. Carolina chose to try to kick it from where they were. It was a good kick. Just a little bit short. It put us in the position to win the game.
Payton asked if he’s concerned about the secondary “a lot or not really”— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) October 26, 2020
Payton: “It’s closer to the a lot than the not really”
On Not Viewing the Defense Through Rose-Colored Glasses
Payton was quick to praise the offensive performance and critical late-game sack, but stopped short of absolving the painful secondary woes. “We’ve still got some work to do,” Payton remarked postgame.
“I think that we played the run extremely well, not so much in the passing game.”
When asked whether the secondary is a point of concern for the Saints, Payton was blunt. “I think it has to be. It’s something we’ll continue to work on, but yeah, we’ve got to eliminate the explosives.”
The 74-yard touchdown by Bridgewater to D.J. Moore was a glaring implosion in coverage; Payton certainly didn’t let it slide. “It wasn’t as much communication this. time as technique and landmarks,” Payton said on the long score in his Monday conference call.
“Obviously, something we’ve got to get cleaned up. Dennis [Allen] and I just finished talking about a handful of them. This wasn’t as much communication as it was just recognizing the formation, the alignments, and then how to play the coverage on that specific play. It’s an area of concern. It’s an area that we’ve got to get better at and I think we will, but it’s still something, it’s one of those things, you come off a win and you look at the good news is we won, here are some of the things now that that are going to cost us in another game down the road if we don’t fix.”
The team’s level of concern on the secondary play thus far? “It’s closer to the a lot than not that concerned,” Payton asserted.
“I think it has to be. And that’s something we’ll continue to work on. But yes, we have to eliminate the explosives, Payton agreed. “Teams are good enough throwing the football where they’re going make plays underneath. But in a handful of these games this year, these chunk plays are the ones that, like I said earlier, are going to hurt you in another game, and be the difference rather than you being able to overcome it.”
Perhaps the biggest bomb came when Payton was asked about some of the coverage busts and why they keep happening – specifically, with guys who’ve been around for a while and haven’t erred as much in years’ past.
“That’s the $6 million question right now. And we have to get it figured out. It wasn’t as big of a challenge a year ago. And yet, it’s something that, that’s creeped up right now. And coming off of training camp, I wouldn’t have thought that would be such an issue, but it is right now and we’re addressing it.”
Expect the Saints to make some serious changes and spare no egos in this broken secondary unit moving forward. Payton certainly won’t be reticent with his comments nor subtle in consequences – if his star receiver isn’t immune to benching for pure disciplinary purposes, his “$6 million dollar question” better be on notice. I’ll leave you to ponder that scathing subtweet and its intended recipient.
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