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Saints Week 8: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Happy Birthday, Who Dat Nation?

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints have assumed a self-inflicted, entirely unnecessary identity: Come-from-behind underdogs. The Saints rose to 5-2 in a “thrilling” 26-23 overtime win against the Chicago Bears – you’d think we played Halloween night with this ghastly performance. New Orleans has won four straight games after putting themselves needlessly in a deficit; after blowing yet another 10-point fourth quarter lead, they were tepidly victorious.

Saints fans, buckle up and get used to it. This isn’t a 2009 season – it’s about as 2020 as it gets. If we’re lucky, we’ll win ugly into the postseason. Let’s break down this mediocre slugfest.

The Good: Taysom Time (I know)

Hear me out. Are any of you confused as to whether Alvin Kamara is the best running back in the league? Was his astounding performance anything new? Instead of regurgitating the obvious, there was another sign of optimism on New Orleans offense: the correct usage of Taysom Hill.

You can complain all you want, but Sean Payton’s employment of Hill will only remain and increase in volume as the weeks go on. It’s not a debatable trend; the upside of this experiment is games like today. The Saints entered this matchup missing so many wide receivers that the unit was barely fieldable – no Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, nor the burgeoning Marquez Callaway that bailed us out of a disaster in Week 7. Begrudgingly, the Saints genuinely needed a spark from Taysom Hill to breathe life into this game several times.

My biggest qualm with the Taysom experiment this year? Payton taking Brees out mid-surgical drive, on 3rd down in the red zone, in favor of Taysom Hill. What message does that send to Brees and the offense? Today, finally, we saw none of that nonsense. Instead, Hill was frankly pivotal to several offensive drives. Overall, Hill had five carries for 35 yards, two catches for 30 yards, a receiving touchdown, and three first downs (including overtime). This isn’t incredible statistically, per se. But this is the X-factor element of Taysom Hill, and it was a legitimate winning factor in today’s game.

In the opening drive, instead of going 3-and-out, Hill secured a first down with a 6-yd run on 3rd & 5. On the subsequent drive, Hill had a 12-yd run on a 1st & 10 that kept critical downfield momentum. The following drive, New Orleans went 3-and-out with incomplete passes to Tre’Quan Smith and Kamara. The defense actually made a stop thereafter; the Bears went 3-and-out the following drive. Again, the Saints offense – validly battered and barren – went 3-and-out. New Orleans didn’t find any success offensively after the first two opening drives until Brees led his typical lethal two-minute offense – which, emphatically, does not have Hill worked into the execution.

Brees’ two-minute drive offense was the only success the Saints could find in the red zone until the final 9 minutes of the fourth quarter. Surprisingly, the defense did just-okay for about three quarters; if we could’ve generated some consistency and production offensively, the game didn’t need to be this ugly at the end. But, it’s frankly not productive to harp on offensive struggles when the local high school could’ve been the Saints receiving corp, and I’d have been none the wiser. The point is, as elusive and electric Kamara was all game, and as methodical and poised Brees continues to be in spite of the circumstances, these Taysom Hill plays today proved critical.

There were “two bad Taysom plays” per talking heads chatter; neither was worse than Brees nearly throwing an interception on a few plays, Kamara and Smith both dropping multiple passes, Smith incurring an offensive holding call that erased a first down, or you know, Payton allowing for a delay of game penalty on an overtime-winning field goal attempt when we had two timeouts. In comparison? Hill had a 1-yd gain on 2nd & 7, and a 3-yd gain on 2nd & 6 – the latter of which was followed by an incomplete pass to Kamara. If we can’t convert on 3rd & 3, Taysom Hill plays are not the issue. Especially when he pulls in a clutch 20-yd touchdown that put us up a critical two scores at the end of the fourth quarter; New Orleans led 23-13 with 9:57 remaining in the game. Chicago (unsurprisingly) answered with a touchdown, and New Orleans offense failed to secure the win – they went 3-and-out, yet again.

Per ESPN Stats & Info, Drew Brees is 22-of-25 on targets to Hill with seven touchdowns in the past two seasons (including the playoffs). Those targets today made a difference, rather than the usual antithesis – disastrous plays with Hill at the helm. With Emmanuel Sanders tentatively returning Week 9, and Thomas and Callaway hopefully following suit, this is likely the only Hill gadget-game we’ll get this season; Payton will assuredly revert right back to his franchise quarterback of the future façade. But today – and for once, this season – Hill kept us in the ball game more often than not.

The Bad: The Status Quo

While it’s impressive (and equal parts anxious and exciting) for New Orleans to pull off four consecutive thrillers, there’s no longevity in this gameplay. I’m not one to blame injury, but we’re finally starting to see the wearing effects of repeated receiver losses. It was not just commendable, but astonishing to see Brees find a rhythm with Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris and Tre’Quan Smith last week. Then we lost Callaway; previously, we were without Thomas nearly all season, and we’re now two weeks straight sans Emmanuel Sanders. The offense didn’t have a “bad performance” today. It’s exactly what you’d expect with Drew Brees having our punt returner, undrafted rookie Juwan Johnson and repeatedly-discarded Austin Carr elevated from the practice squad, Smith who can never seem to just fully break out, and legitimately, Taysom Hill, as his offensive weapons. It’s just a bad situation – one that’s unsustainable moving forward.

We’ll get to the defense as usual – another ugly column, surprise – but there were moments the defense kept New Orleans in the game; they made a couple critical stops, and the Saints couldn’t capitalize on offense whatsoever. Those sacks came late, but they may have been the difference-maker today. The pass-rush was noticeable, and the trajectory is optimistic; Nick Foles was sacked five times. While that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, it’s worrisome how much our team success hinges on this one component on a weekly basis. It’s not exactly fair to ask nor expect this type of pressure by the front seven to consistently produce multiple sacks. Especially considering the timing – Cam Jordan’s fourth quarter sack with 0:28 remaining came on a drive where the Bears converted two fourth downs; they fell short of erasing Jordan’s sack entirely on 3rd & 18 by just three yards. Hendrickson’s sack forced a critical overtime punt that allowed New Orleans to win the ball game with a field goal – after being unable to convert in the overtime opening drive.

The saying is, just win and move on. But it’s hard to swallow that four weeks in a row with a team that has no business winning this ugly this often. There were far too many familiar issues plaguing the team: an uninspired, flat passing game, inability to sustain momentum, and an all-around fourth quarter collapse that let the game slip away. If not for these timely sacks throughout, the outlook is even worse. Just as expecting Brees to lead an MVP-campaign season with nameless receivers and practice squad members at 41 years-old to reach the postseason is ridiculous, so is requiring five sacks to win an overtime thriller. These problems are usually well-alleviated by a bye week; the Saints are two weeks past that. They have no time to take a breather, have a crucial NFC South matchup upcoming vs. Tampa Bay, and ultimately need to make changes to the status quo to have Super Bowl aspirations be more than a collective fever dream.

The Ugly: ...

I am running out of thesaurus options to describe the Saints secondary that don’t require an R-rating for this series. I am also running out of the necessary mental sanity to write intelligibly. Instead, I’ll list out the myriad of coverage busts that included Chicago’s longest completion of the season:

TD Drive - 2nd quarter

  • 2nd & 5: Darnell Mooney 50-yd reception (Janoris Jenkins)
  • 2nd & 9: Allen Robison 24-yd TD (Lattimore)

TD Drive - 4th quarter

  • 1st & 10: Allen Robison 28-yd reception (Lattimore)
  • 1st & 10: Jimmy Graham 11-yd reception (Marcus Williams)
  • 3rd & goal: Darnell Mooney 3-yd TD (Jenkins)

After Cam Jordan sacked Foles in the fourth quarter, setting up a 3rd & 18, Foles promptly threw a 15-yd reception that put them squarely back in field-goal range. In overtime, Chicago nearly went 3-and-out; on 3rd & 15, Foles hit Allen Robinson for 17 yards. Lattimore couldn’t lock Robinson down, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson ensured that wouldn’t even matter with a defensive holding penalty on the play. And this was a healthy, starting-roster defense.

When your battered practice squad offense is not only holding a candle to your respective play, but frankly carrying you through multiple games, there’s simply no more feasible excuses. It’s not as if the leadership isn’t there. We saw it lead them through a legitimate locker room crisis with Brees in June, have seen Demario Davis lead this team through Brees’ absence in 2019, and most recently, they all-but-solved a meltdown after a Michael Thomas brawl. Why does this veteran leadership not translate into gameplay whatsoever?

There were signs of life. There were critical stops that put the team in a position to win. The inability to follow through, sustain a full four-quarter performance, capitalize on lost yardage on multiple sacks, and to allow a Foles-led Bears to hit their longest completion of the season all still remain grave concerns. Don’t let Lattimore’s singular season interception fool you – this defense cannot close out a game. And 90% of the signs of life on defense came through the pass rush. Even Malcolm Jenkins stepped up to the plate today with a sack and (finally) lockdown coverage on TE Jimmy Graham. New Orleans will be eaten alive by Tom Brady, Chris Godwin (see: Allen Robinson – not ruling him out), Mike Evans, Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown next week. I may rib on Brady, but Nick Foles he is absolutely not. And the Bucs are on a roll – a confident one at that.

Nick Foles legitimately had a season-best performance; the Bears offense is No. 25 in yards per game (223.9 yds) and No. 30 in average yards per pass at 6.1 yards. Today, Foles threw for a season-high 272 yards, averaged a season-high 6.6 yards per throw, and threw the Bears season-high completion at 50 yards. I suppose the upside is that the implosions today were blown man coverages rather than complete zone meltdowns? Either way, that’s just transferring the coverage issues from scheme-wise to poor individual play. When you consider that we’ve been unable to produce sacks and force turnovers all season, it’s hard to be optimistic about five sacks and an interception when it was nearly all for naught.

It feels like this “gritty resilience” narrative is a bandaid slapped over a busted dam that’s bound to eventually give way; this identity of winning ugly isn’t entirely something to commemorate. That said, Happy Birthday to the Saints? Would we have it any other way? New Orleans avoided their first tie since 1972, and won their sixth straight game against Chicago since 2011. Ultimately, Breesy remains the forecast for the stranglehold the Saints have on the Windy City. Now, go make like Sean Payton and bewilderingly celebrate the 5-2 New Orleans Saints:

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