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Saints Week 4: The (finally) Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Sean Payton clearly lined the Saints’ practice facility with framed shredded contracts - it’s apparent the message was well-received.

New Orleans Saints v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I remain unconvinced that we didn’t enter the Twilight Zone today; despite a final-hour COVID scare, one that woke the players up at 3:00 am for tests at that, the New Orleans Saints ended their astonishing losing streak in their 35-29 win over the Detroit Lions. The first three opening drives of the game legitimately played out like an SNL skit. I quite literally was in hysterics and severely alarmed my housemates; it was hilariously bad. In the end, it might as well have been an opening monologue skit because the Saints didn’t even seem to blink thereafter.

A core personality trait of New Orleans that will forever be a thorn in my side is their preference to pick when they’re 10 ft deep in quicksand to suddenly repair their nonfunctioning chemistry. It wouldn’t be a Saints game without the ebbs and flows of various levels of anxiety. It was almost comforting when it started so poorly; most Saints fans have become decidedly cynical for emotional protection, myself included. So I figured they were at least putting us out of our misery as early as possible. Instead, Brees finally decided to, “turn it loose.” And while the offense was the belle of the ball, the second-string defense astonishingly (yet barely) held up their end of the bargain. Compared to the last two weeks, the “good” section finally doesn’t feel like a phoned in, uninspired homework assignment.

The Good: The Offense – Specifically, game ball worthy Tre’Quan Smith, the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders, and Drew Brees’ revenge tour

It’s not exactly quiet chatter that has surrounded Brees’ performance thus far this season. I have predominantly felt that his struggles weren’t athletic, but rather mental. Some people may dismiss sports psychology as a serious thing, but there is legitimately a science behind choking. There’s a certain threshold of pressure – oftentimes inherent, such as the Super Bowl, but other times not – that once the scale is tipped over a certain level, athletes straight up choke; they behave uncharacteristically, start making a series of mistakes, and it’s quite puzzling to watch. Chris Webber calling a timeout in the last five minutes of the 1993 NCAA Championship game when the team had no timeouts, and the resultant game-losing technical foul, is a prime example. My teammate once caught a ball with her hands out of nowhere in the middle of a championship soccer game and looked like a deer in headlights. Brees’ struggles, to me, have most strongly seemed mental.

The effect of social media culture is talked a lot in other entertainment avenues like reality television, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe athletes don’t see their pertinent online roasts. It can be a snowball effect; you’re playing poorly, read all how about you’re not only playing poorly, but need to hang up the towel (and maybe should have already done so), quite plainly correlates with continued poor play. In tandem with his clear distrust in his receivers thus far, justifiably so at times, Brees has seemed like he needs a meditation retreat more than anything else.

Brees’ message was clear – he is done with our slander. So much so, he just fully ripped off the bandaid by throwing his first completion of the game to Marquez Callaway. A huge, optimistic, improvement was his chemistry and trust with Emmanuel Sanders, who deserves a shoutout of his own – his confidence and clear heightened complexity in his routes were palpable. He sort of emulated Michael Thomas at times with his quick footwork and immediate readiness for reception. Once the Saints have Thomas back, if this game is the indication of Sanders’ potential moving forward as our WR2 – a role he is decidedly better in – the Saints offense might just fix itself entirely. Might.

Ultimately, the MVP and deserved game ball recipient of the game is Tre’Quan Smith. The man officially had his ‘day’. While Brees has gotten heat the past month, Tre’Quan Smith has kind of been pummeled his entire career with the Saints. I was admittedly in the camp of annoyance with the repeated push back of Smith’s ‘breakout trajectory’ – he was the 2nd year breakout prototype, then the 3rd year, then eventually 4th or bust. Smith honestly may be the one who has stepped up in Michael Thomas’ absence most; the last two games have been the best games of his career. He had two TDs, recovered a critical fumble lost by Josh Hill, and the most Twilight Zone moment – a critical third down catch. If today wasn’t a blip on the radar, I’m frankly thrilled with the receiving trio of Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Tre’Quan Smith, with honorary member, the inhuman Alvin Kamara, forming the Saints’ arsenal this season.

San Francisco 49ers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Bad: Ryan Ramczyk’s injury

I don’t know how to say this without sounding rude, but the loss of Andrus Peat objectively did not negatively affect the team in spades. Honestly, it is improved with Cesar Ruiz on the line. What absolutely could not happen was the loss of Ryan Ramczyk. Two of the most underrated, and sometimes unpopular, trades by Sean Payton were sending Jimmy Graham to Seattle for a first-round pick and Max Unger. While that draft year ironically bestowed us with Andrus Peat (and Stephone Anthony with Seattle’s pick), the acquisition of Max Unger was one of the best long-term moves critical to the Saints’ continued success. The other was Brandin Cooks to New England for the pick that gave us Ryan Ramczyk. The PFF Run Blocker of the Year for 2019 has been a cornerstone in the protection of Brees in the pocket and, subsequently, his ability to flourish.

The loss of Peat was adequately and efficiently resolved with Cesar Ruiz. Ryan Ramczyk is not even remotely accounted for by the substitute Ethan Greenridge. Unsurprisingly, his loss quite obviously coincided with New Orleans’ sudden loss of electricity on offense. Brees is at his best with adequate time in the pocket – both in part to his height being an unsolvable factor, and the ability to do what he does best and throw to the 7th option receiver. A rushed Brees in the pocket is not a good day at the office for the Saints’ offense.

The prognosis on Ramczyk is that he sustained a concussion; the good news (I’ve had a concussion, so I feel I can say these things) is that once a concussion, if not tragically severe, is healed, it’s usually fully healed – unlike, say, a lingering hamstring. The bad news is the unknown severity of the concussion. While it has a more decisive finality once healed, on the flip side, there’s absolutely no taping up a concussion like an ankle. So if it’s severe, he has no choice to join Michael Thomas in his quest break Brees’ healing time recordlast year. This may have long-term implications, but – oddly, like last year – the Saints’ bye week 7 is at an opportune time. If Ramczyk has to go on IR, at least he has an extra cushion week for the ominous second season schedule stretch.

New Orleans Saints v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Ugly: Fourth quarter acid reflux

Oddly, and probably masochistically so, the Saints’ return to the dramatic collapse of their dominant defense when the clock strikes the 4th quarter, and watching the subsequent final three minutes of a completely demolished massive lead through the banister in my staircase, was the biggest sense of comfort and familiarity I’ve felt in 2020. Much like the Falcons are admirably committed to inventing new levels of meme, the Saints are adrenaline junkie enthusiasts. Rather than simply continue to play exactly the same way they’ve played for three quarters straight, the Saints instead perpetually view the 4th quarter as a folklore tale.

Honestly, the preceding three quarters of gameplay were more surprising than the inevitable devolvement of the defense; compounded by the alarming absence of key defensive players, I don’t even have a strong desire to harp on the 4th quarter collapse. I was hard-pressed to feel the Saints had a shot in containing Matt Stafford’s offense with the abrupt shredding of our secondary unit. At times, Patrick Robinson blatantly outplayed portions of what we’ve seen from Marshon Lattimore and, albeit a lesser extent, Janoris Jenkins. So to instead see them make critical stops, force turnovers, pressure the quarterback, and remain in the game just enough for the offense to take it home was quite frankly a return to normalcy. The most apparent improvement was the pass rush and pressuring the quarterback – one of the only ways to really contain Stafford. Welcome back to the team, Cameron Jordan.

The defense, for the first time this season, didn’t lose the game for the Saints, and went back to their usual irritating ability to only allow points right below the threshold a locked-in Brees’ led offense can compensate for. It felt like old times more than anything else. The gameplay was emphatically elevated from a complete team standpoint, and I am cautiously confident in New Orleans’ ability to reroute the ship permanently.

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