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Saints Week 16: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

The New Orleans Saints took back their identity in Week 16’s decisive victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints stole Christmas, and in turn, their identity back from the Minnesota Vikings in Christmas Day’s 52-33 victory.

It goes without saying that New Orleans needed this win for a myriad of reasons; instead of a third straight loss, an offensively (pun very much intended) flat start, and a completely out-of-sync offense, we saw the exact opposite. And it couldn’t have come at the hands of a better opponent.

Besides the disappointing fact that Marcus Williams was ultimately ruled inactive, the Saints desperately needed to exorcise whatever demons held a stranglehold on them in Minnesota. The 2018 No-Call was one thing; the consecutive playoff losses to the Vikings were both plainly New Orleans fault. On the heels of two straight losses, and a potential unalterable momentum shift, the Saints had both the chance to clinch the NFC South title for a fourth season, and to decisively re-route the ship of a haunting past. Aptly on Christmas Day, New Orleans delivered just that. Let’s get to it.

The Good: Alvin Kamara

A game where Drew Brees completes 19 passes, throws zero touchdowns, and two interceptions, should never end in a 52-pt score. And yet, somehow, the Saints not only pulled this off, but Brees, deservedly so, was also able to escape an underwhelming performance with no heat. All thanks to Alvin Kamara.

Not one point was scored for New Orleans by anyone not named Taysom Hill or Alvin Kamara on the ground. But the player solely responsible for 36 points, and an NFL record-tying 6 rushing touchdowns, was ultimately the Grinch that Stole Christmas back for the Saints.

There are just no words to judiciously describe Kamara at this point; what is more than ‘absurdly elusive’? Kamara to the running back role is Patrick Mahomes to quarterbacks. They exist as an unattainable cheat code, redefine the position entirely, yet somehow manage to not denigrate it along the way.

A lot of chatter that’s gained recent traction has focused around Kamara – his late-season drop-off, chemistry issues with Taysom Hill, secret injuries being nursed, etc. He heard you, and did not take kindly to this commentary. The performance we saw from Kamara, as a starting running back in Week 16 of the regular season, is not only enormously encouraging, but likely displays an immaculate, intentional plan.

Instead of building on the decent momentum Kamara quickly incurred at the start of the season, Sean Payton let it simmer a bit – much to the ire of fans. Let’s go back to 2019; specifically, the five-game stretch that began in Week 3 with Teddy Bridgewater under center. We won that game against the Seattle Seahawks because of Deonte Harris and Alvin Kamara.

Likely, Payton wasn’t planning on introducing such a Kamara-heavy offense that early, and to rely on it so heavily, in the season; circumstances may have influenced that, and we plainly saw the result: a battered, largely ineffective Kamara for the remainder of the season. The Saints offense is so ridiculously and seamlessly efficient, that we often take it for granted, and don’t even realize how systematic it truly is. It’s short-sighted to not push that perspective past the passing game.

When a player starts gaining momentum, 99 times out of 100, you don’t want to stifle it. With running backs, however, there’s reason to take pause. It’s quite literally in the position name; for lack of a more eloquent term, running backs simply become run down by the end of the season. This also plays into the discussion over signing backs to such monstrous contracts. Well, when you use a player like you do Kamara, you’re able to award such a well-deserved extension with confident longevity.

This season, rather than watch Kamara peak three games in — and get beat up in the meantime — we’re seeing his true potency pay off at the perfect time: right before the playoffs. And what a joy it inevitably will be to watch.

The Bad: The Excellent Offensive Line Performance

Yes, that statement is an oxymoron. The Saints put on one of their most brilliant offensive line performances to date in Friday’s win. They did so with backup James Hurst at left guard.

I hate to encourage or join any piling-on here, but it’s officially time to talk about Andrus Peat. I gave him a lot of credit for the resilience and durability he showed playing through injury in the Chiefs loss. I’ve also heard time and time over how much better the New Orleans offensive line performs better without Andrus Peat in it. I can officially assert after a re-watch that I now firmly sit in that camp.

You can’t talk about Alvin Kamara’s monster game without duly awarding credit to the line that opened up decisive lanes and allowed the Saints to gain 264 yards on the ground. It wasn’t just Kamara; Hill was incredibly efficient in his usage, and Latavius Murray continued to show how painfully undervalued he is. Importantly, a stat left out from Brees’ performance: zero sacks.

A concern largely rooted in the Wild Card loss to the Vikings, that gained further traction with Brees’ injury in Week 10, was the liability of the Saints interior line. Unable to find footing nor a rhythm, Brees was sacked three times, hit seven times, threw an interception, and lost a fumble in that 2019 loss. Understandably, this gave cause for alarm heading into this game with a depleted o-line and a battered 41-yr old Drew Brees.

Instead, we saw Brees operate in a satisfyingly clean pocket and gain chemistry with his new group of Week 16 receivers, a dominating run game, and likely one of the best offensive performances by New Orleans all season. We even got a diversified offense with a surprising amount of play action and heavier reliance on the tandem running back committee that paid off in spades.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Peat’s absence coincided with this electric, complimentary identity on offense; even harder to ignore is the fact that he’s our Carson Wentz.

Peat routinely gets beat, literally collapses under pressure, doesn’t award any stability for flanking rookie guard Cesar Ruiz, has given up a team-high four sacks, and is nursing about his 8th injury of the season. He’s also on a hefty contract with over $30 million guaranteed.

Just as Jalen Hurts created an issue for Philadelphia in Week 14 with the upset, the relief performances we’ve seen by James Hurst, and the overall enhanced offensive line as a whole in the absence of Peat, have officially started to create an issue for New Orleans.

It’s an odd reality to root for a backup guard to be the Week 17 starter protecting our beat-up, aging HOF quarterback, but indeed here we are.

The Ugly: The Loss of Kwon Alexander, the Case of the Tight Ends

Have you heard much about Irv Smith Jr. this year? You’d think Travis Kelce would have put up the numbers last week that Smith did against New Orleans; instead, we saw Smith as the beneficiary of blown red zone coverages that resulted in two of the three receiving touchdowns for Minnesota.

The inability to adequately cover tight ends plagued the Saints earlier this year; seemingly, it evaporated mid-season. Part of that is absolutely due to the safety play we’ve seen mainly by Malcolm Jenkins, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. But, it’s hard to not look at the snap count for Kwon Alexander since his arrival, palpably see his impact, and think that he put a band-aid over a lot of our defensive struggles. His season-ending injury, both in that light and as a standalone, is devastating.

Was Kwon Alexander responsible for either of those blown coverage Smith touchdowns? Not at all; the first involved Alex Anzalone and Demario Davis, and the second Malcolm Jenkins and Anzalone. It’s entirely possible Anzalone was the innocent party each play. Nonetheless, it’s alarming that Anzalone was involved in both tight end touchdown plays. Even more so when you consider he’s the immediate replacement for Kwon Alexander.

When you make a trade midseason, you usually do so out of glaring need. Plainly, our defense needed the presence and coverage abilities of Alexander. He made instantaneous impact in the role previously held by Anzalone. Prior to the Alexander trade, Anzalone was averaging over 77% of the defensive snaps. In Week 10, that percentage starkly dropped to 1%, and continued to fall thereafter; on average, Anzalone played 11% of the defensive snaps with the arrival of Alexander.

Ironically at the loss of a previous 49ers player, the Saints linebacker corp now eerily holds the same tone it did heading into the San Francisco 49ers matchup last season. Bolstered (read: air quotes) in an act of last-minute desperation by the signing of Mante Te’o, the depleted corp was a blatant liability in last season’s loss.

That game was a battle of a top-ranking New Orleans rush defense versus a highly-touted run-first offense. However, the Saints brought a knife to the gunfight with a glaring weakness at the LB position – one with absolutely no depth. As we painfully saw, George Kittle pretty much had a field day while Kyle Shanahan exploited a unit lacking elite speed and lockdown pass coverage.

We now find ourselves in familiar territory with just one regular season game left. The coverage on Smith was concerning, but the long-term implications of losing Alexander go past this victory. If we didn’t have 8 games of tape on Anzalone this season, in the defense’s current scheme, it would be one thing. But, we’ve seen the performance, and the evaluation is highly underwhelming.

Demario Davis painfully lost a counterpart in Kwon Alexander, and doesn’t have the ability to address this middle field need alone. Malcolm Jenkins will need to perfect his lockdown coverage – quickly, at that – in order to help compensate. Not much else you can do.

Despite the ending sour notes, it was incredibly encouraging to watch such a decisive win. The way New Orleans played against the Vikings was all they had to do against the Eagles; this game, truly, was the intended trap game for the Saints. Instead, they stumbled early, recovered swiftly, and decisively seized the NFC South for a fourth straight season.

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