The New Orleans Saints couldn’t afford to lose what was touted as an easy win, against a team in the midst of a quarterback controversy. And yet, New Orleans saw its nine-game winning streak come to an end in their 24-21 loss to the Jalen Hurts-led Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. While the Saints have clinched a playoff berth, this was the opportunity to lock down the NFC South title for a fourth consecutive season; New Orleans fell flat in their conquest.
How costly was today's loss for the #Saints— Fletcher Mackel (@FletcherWDSU) December 14, 2020
NOLA went from having a 58% chance of getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a bye...to a 26% chance.
Only No. 1 gets a bye in new NFL playoff format.
Here's @SteveKornacki on @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/xQPcbMNyj0
There’s no way to sugarcoat this loss. The Saints were out-coached by a team that was uncharacteristically aggressive, and attempted to match Philadelphia’s swagger with ineffective, uninspired playcalling. The game was entirely devoid of a sense of energy, despite a 17-point deficit at half, and New Orleans ultimately failed in all three phases of the game. Let’s, unfortunately, get to it.
As complicated as we try to make it at times, football remains a simple game. The Saints were uncharacteristically whipped in the trenches along both lines. After nine consecutive wins, they were due a clunker and had one.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 14, 2020
The Good: Learning This Year’s Lesson in Week 14
For a few weeks, the Saints appeared nearly unbeatable. All eyes were on the top-ranked NFL defense with an unrelenting pass rush, the offense never missed a beat with the loss of their HOF quarterback for a consecutive season, and they were ultimately in the driver’s seat of their playoff destiny with the No. 1 seed.
The feeling of despair after a loss to a team that, all things considered, New Orleans should have beat, is eerily familiar. The Saints have incurred a troublesome trait of riding a hot streak after a poor start, to then have it all crash in the final weeks of the season.
In 2017, we won 8 straight after opening the season 0-2. We then gave up three of the final 6 games to finish the season 11-5. In 2018, we won 10 straight after opening 0-1 before falling to the Cowboys in Week 13. Just last year, after the Week 2 Rams loss that took Drew Brees as collateral damage, New Orleans won 6 straight before an uncharacteristic loss to Atlanta in Week 10, and later to the 49ers in a game we couldn’t afford to lose. All those years were also met with early playoff heartbreak, with 2018 as the outlier we shan’t discuss.
It has almost become a necessary reality check, particularly for the defensive unit. The loss of the No. 1 seed, especially when it was ours to lose, is a tough pill to swallow. That said, there’s a lot of important takeaways that aren’t as ominous as this loss might purport.
The worst part about the 4th and 2 decision, IMO, (and I'm actually a big fan of #Saints going for it on 4th often in that field position) is that you purposely picked something without your two best players (AK/MT).— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) December 14, 2020
Why rely on the Josh Hills/TLLs/3Smiths/etc. of the world? https://t.co/IAFOqs7N1x
Try as you might, this game was not lost at the slippery hands of Taysom Hill. While the fumble is easy to point to with precedent, it’s ultimately irrelevant on fourth down. Michael Thomas may have been open, but with the “next Steve Young” under center, why are we calling a pass play in the first place? Moreover, we should have never been in a position to rest the game on a fourth down play; it’s short-sighted to blame a conversion failure at the hands of our backup quarterback. His propensity to fumble is absolutely relevant to heir apparent conversations. What it’s not relevant to is a Week 14 loss to a team with three wins, as a backup, with a top-ranked team in all phases.
Bottom line: our defense should be carrying Hill, not the other way around, just as they did with Teddy Bridgewater in 2019. Jalen Hurts looked incredibly elusive in his first NFL start, but statistically, Taysom outplayed Hurts in all facets past the fumble (and interception, to be fair). Hill had 15 passing first downs to Hurts’ 7, was 5-of-12 on third down versus 4-of-13, threw for more yardage, had a way higher completion percentage at 73.7%, and more yards per pass. Frankly, the fact that Hill accomplished this with five sacks is astonishing.
Our team collapse shouldn’t fall on a quarterback in his fourth NFL start. This game was lost in all three phases of the game. It might be odd to look at this as a positive, but typically, our defense has been solely to blame for a big late-game play that is nothing short of harrowing every time. Instead, this loss was at the hands of a gashed interior line, an MIA pass rush, poor coverage, penalties, and Wil Lutz leaving 6 points off the board with two misses.
Telling stat: Saints had zero sacks and just 3 QB hits against the Eagles' injury-riddled OL.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 14, 2020
Defensively, rather than falling victim to a carved up secondary, we relinquished our streak of not allowing a 100-yd rusher, and were unable to rattle nor contain a mobile quarterback. These aren’t cornerstone characteristics of this Saints defense; this loss should be viewed as a single-game implosion rather than permeating issues that plague the entire unit. Our pass rush has significantly compensated for the secondary since the Panthers game, and this was the first game they’ve been entirely invisible. Barring the 82-yard gaffe by Miles Sanders, this wasn’t a repeat of the Minnesota Miracle in the slightest. The issues are palpable; they’re not only fixable, but they’re not the usual reversion we see in late-season collapses.
Next week will be the ultimate test to see whether the first half of the season was a fluke, and we can’t hold up to teams of Super Bowl caliber. It’s not time to hit the panic button just yet, however, after this loss. A really good team played an awful football game with a backup quarterback. Learn the lesson, and move on with three games to re-route the ship.
The Bad: Both Lines
A concern rooted in New Orleans 2019 Wild Card loss to the Minnesota Vikings is the liability of the interior offensive line. Drew Brees was sacked three times, hit seven times, threw an interception, and lost a fumble. The interior line lost the battle, Brees was unable to develop a rhythm, and the passing game never found footing.
Today, Taysom Hill was sacked five times, hit 12(!) times, threw an interception, and lost a fumble. The interior line lost the battle, Hill was unable to develop a rhythm, and the passing game never found footing. There’s blame to be assigned to Hill’s play today, such as his issues navigating a collapsed pocket, underthrowing Sanders, and chucking a bomb on a screen pass to Kamara that was intercepted. But how are we able to pinpoint the interior line in the Vikings loss with Brees, yet are unable to transfer this same collapse to Sunday’s loss?
Taysom Hill is not going to win against the Chiefs. He absolutely won’t do so with Andrus Peat blocking his blindside, and neither will Drew Brees. Peat was beat so many times in the first half that it was nearly laughable, and incurred a false start penalty - as did Ramczyk, quite uncharacteristically. Both Peat and Terron Armstead struggled to protect Taysom and the negative effects were palpable. Not only does this make it near impossible for a backup in his fourth start to really succeed, but it spells trouble for when Drew Brees returns.
Hill completed more passes, threw for more yardage, and more touchdowns on Sunday than Brees in last year’s Wild Card loss. It’s not a direct comparison, per se, but it shows how stifling the interior line collapse is, no matter who’s under center. It’s especially concerning with a 41-yr old quarterback who’s broken 11 ribs this season; he will not be 100% healed when he returns. If we want him to stay upright, the interior line needs to figure it out, and fast.
Feels kinda weird not having to update this list of opposing players the Saints kept under 100 yards anymore.— Rod Walker (@RodWalkerNola) December 14, 2020
They were certainly not helped by their opposing line who hauled in a whopping zero sacks, against an offensive line on its 11th rotation this season, and a rookie quarterback. Moreover, they were completely inept at stopping the run; the 55-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher was broken not once, but twice by Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders. When your top-ranking unit gives up over 200 yards on the ground, with zero containment on the edges, it’s hard to then point to secondary failures as the reason for today’s loss, defensively speaking.
I highly suspect Drew Brees will now do everything in his power to duel Mahomes. This could be a preview of Super Bowl LV; it’s worth seeing whether we have the chops to take on Kansas City in the ultimate championship. If the offensive line cannot hold up under pressure, it’s quite frightening to imagine Brees making it past the first half. The interior line is a much more ominous point of concern; for the defensive line, this - hopefully - is nothing more than a one-off.
The Ugly: The Ugliest Half of the Season
There’s just no excuses for heading into halftime with a 17-0 deficit as the previous No. 1 NFC seed against a 3-8-1 team. We learned today that New Orleans is not immune to a flat, uncharacteristic game. The Saints opened the game with a three-and-out drive; Philadelphia, while unable to put up points, answered with a 13-play, 39-yd drive with a successful 4th down conversion.
The next series, Wil Lutz missed a field goal. The Eagles quickly answered with a 2:33 minute touchdown drive that went 65 yards. At this point, a sense of urgency is necessary to halt an opponent’s surging momentum. Instead, we saw pretty bizarre playcalling, failed to match Philadelphia’s aggressiveness by punting on 4th and 1, and declined to establish any tempo with 8 rushing attempts. The under-usage of Latavius Murray will continue to be bewildering; it feels like whenever he gets on a hot streak, he subsequently is erased from the playbook.
If you count Taysom Hill’s five rushing attempts, which I’m somewhat inclined not to do, the Saints had a total of 20 rush attempts for 96 yards today with Alvin Kamara seemingly fully healthy and capable. This season through Week 13 (with Denver as a statistical outlier we won’t count), the Saints have averaged 30.4 carries a game for 137.8 yards. Only twice prior to today did New Orleans rush for 20 or less times; those were the Week 2 and Week 3 losses to Las Vegas with 19, and Green Bay with 20. Sunday’s game now fits in the 20 or less rush attempts column that have all ended in losses. The pattern is there, so why did we not try to win this in the trenches whatsoever?
Pulling a Tampa Bay and trying to win this matchup with no run game, instead attempting to do so in the air, just seems nonsensical with Taysom Hill under center. This wasn’t complimentary football, and our defense did nothing to help matters by the half. What this led to was an apparently highly-anticipated Hill playing from a deficit.
This thing isn't over, but that Miles Sanders touchdown feels like a dagger. #Saints back down 10 (24-14) with 6:22 left.— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) December 14, 2020
Does Taysom Hill have any comeback magic in him? We shall see.
Do we want to see his tenacity in the face of adversity? Absolutely, for evaluating him as a successor. We are ultimately, however, in the middle of a football season with high playoff aspirations; the Saints coaching staff, and coaching staff only, should be overly focused on evaluating Hill for the post-Brees era. This is the result of wanting more, and that result was a lackluster, one-dimensional offense that completely abandoned the run game, and saw Hill throw for 23 pass attempts in the second half. That’s the entirety of pass attempts Tom Brady made this Sunday; only six quarterbacks threw for more attempts than Hill in Week 14. This is ultimately way too much resting on our backup quarterback’s shoulders, future seasons aside.
Today’s game can serve as a blueprint for exactly how not to win a football game for the Saints moving forward. Instead of heading into the Week 15 Chiefs game with some breathing room, New Orleans is now in must-win mode; a loss would not only spell trouble for hopes of a first-round bye, but would make Sunday’s defeat that much more painful to swallow.
The Saints fell victim to eating the cheese much too early this season, but there’s more than enough time to rally behind a Brees-led comeback - the team needs to do its part in the meantime, no matter the caliber of the opponent.
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