Monday Night Football was a tough watch.
The Las Vegas Raiders christened their brand new stadium by draining the life out of the New Orleans Saints with their 100-minute long drives, dominating time of possession and consistently moving the chains on their way to a 34-24 victory.
Some seem to be casting the blame upon the Saints defense — which definitely didn’t have its best day — but I chalk this loss up to two primary factors: penalties and ineptitude offensively.
The Saints scored a touchdown with 5:22 left in the second quarter to go up 17-7, and then followed that up by not scoring again until the 4:33 mark in the fourth. You can trace everything back to that.
Their three drives in that period of time resulted in an interception right before the half, a punt after a promising drive was massacred by three 10+ yard penalties and a punt after Drew Brees missed on a couple of throws.
The Raiders had four scoring drives in that time frame, and took up over 20 minutes of clock.
They even gift-wrapped the Saints a fumble, which they of course could do nothing with.
So what went wrong with the offense? I have a few ideas.
Offense was better when scheming up yards, as opposed to letting Brees cook
This is painful to say, and maybe (hopefully) it changes as we get further into the season, but the Saints were simply better last night when handicapping the offense for Brees.
And when I say handicapping, I mean just treating him like Jimmy Garappolo, or one of these average QBs, where the offense is constructing plays that don’t rely on QB precision and/or decision making prowess.
When Sean Payton was cooking up jet sweeps for Deonte Harris, screens for Alvin Kamara, runs for Taysom Hill and relying on play action, the offense was much more effective.
This was yet another game where Brees’s accuracy and decision-making was far from on-point.
He wasn’t quite as bad as he was in Week 1, as he had some decent intermediate throws throughout the game, but he’s simply missing more on the gimme throws and decisions he’s typically money on.
I’ll go in more detail on his decision-making and accuracy later this week, but here’s one example:
Brees is getting pressured here from the edge here, but he has time to step up and see that Taysom Hill is wide open a yard in front of the first down marker on 3rd-and-7. He probably gets the first down here if he’s thrown to, and if not, he’s a yard or shorter from it.
These are plays he usually is hitting without a second thought. And it doesn’t really have anything to his arm strength or anything like that. He’s just off right now.
On straight dropbacks, his passer rating ranked 24th in the league in Week 2. And his stats overall on these plays were boosted up by the somewhat garbage time drive they had in the fourth quarter, where he was dicing up a prevent defense.
The Saints were averaging nearly six yards per rush, and Brees was averaging 11.7 yards per attempt on his nine play action dropbacks. It’s a small sample size, but it’s safe to say the offense was churning more smoothly when things were set up for Brees.
You cannot discount the absence of Michael Thomas. Not having arguably the best receiver in the game is obviously huge, and surely played a factor. But considering Brees was bad with him in the game in Week 1, he still deserves criticism for another poor performance on Monday night.
Kamara back to looking like himself
After a somewhat lackluster Week 1 that people construed to look better because he happened to score two TDs, Alvin Kamara looked fantastic in Week 2.
The jump cuts, the acceleration, the broken arm tackles. It was all there on the run and after the catch.
He averaged over six yards a carry, and caught all nine of his targets for 95 yards, when his average depth of target was BEHIND the line of scrimmage.
Alvin Kamara was the Saints' leading receiver (95 yards) and his average depth of target was behind the line of scrimmage (-0.1) pic.twitter.com/RVWfw0PHoR— PFF (@PFF) September 22, 2020
More importantly, he forced six missed tackles and averaged 4.15 yards after contact per attempt.
This is the running back the Saints paid top dollar for, and this is who they should expect moving forward.
Stars on defense have to step up
There were many guys defensively who struggled Monday night, but the guys I was most disappointed in were Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan and Malcolm Jenkins.
These guys, along with Demario Davis, are supposed to be the cornerstones of this defense. The guys we rely on. And they didn’t show up.
I’ll start with Lattimore, who is just being flat out targeted so far this season.
He’s already tied for the league lead in pass interference penalties, with three. So while the yards given up might not look horrendous, he’s still effectively giving up huge chunk gains with these penalties.
He also gave up four catches on four targets for 55 yards Monday night. So basically, when the ball has gone Lattimore’s way so far this season, it’s been bad for the Saints defense.
This play, in particular, was frustrating:
He’s all over Bryan Edwards on a 3rd-and-10 before the half, which is a huge play.
He lunges in front of him for the pick, even though all he has to do is make the tackles short of the sticks. He then loses track of the ball and Edwards, who runs for a first down.
This doesn’t even include the third-and-long where he got cooked in man coverage by Hunter Renfrow. He’s simply got to be better. The Saints supposedly no. 1 corner can’t be getting targeted and exploited like that on a consistent basis.
Malcolm Jenkins had one very nice pass breakup on Darren Waller late in the game, but other than that, he got absolutely cooked, including this play where he attempted to man Waller up:
Waller stems outside, gets Jenkins to shift left, then gives cuts inside.
Jenkins gave up five catches on six targets for 60 yards in coverage, and he missed two tackles.
I still like Jenkins long-term, and think he’s an upgrade to Vonn Bell. He played like that in Week 1, but not in Week 2.
Cam Jordan, I’m not quite as disappointed in, because he’s still been fantastic in run defense. But his pass-rushing has to be better for this defense to be where it wants to be.
Having no sacks through two weeks is one thing — you can just get unlucky with sack totals, even if you’re getting pressure on the QB. But he only has five QB pressures on the season.
That’s not going to cut it from a guy who’s as elite as he is. I expect that to improve sooner rather than later.
My favorite sub-plot from this game was the beautiful emergence of Tre’Quan Smith.
We all expected Emmanuel Sanders to explode in this game, with Thomas out. He did the opposite of that.
Excluding a garbage time pass late in the fourth quarter, he had zero catches on two targets and a drop. He added zero value to the team.
Tre’Quan, however, was fantastic.
He caught five of seven targets for 86 yards, equating to over 17 yards a catch and 2.53 yards per route run.
He had one drop early in the game, where Brees waited a smidge too long to release the ball, resulting in him getting drilled. But other than that, he had a near-flawless night.
He looked smooth in and out of route breaks, and was reliable in the absence of MT.
Look at this first down grab on 3rd-and-5, on a slant route vs. man-to-man coverage. These routes on third downs are usually designated for Can’t Guard Mike.
There’s a nice route stem, hesitation and good catch that was a smidge behind, on his back shoulder.
Big play in the second quarter.
The biggest and most encouraging thing about his game, however, was his production after the catch.
Among 36 receivers with at least seven targets in Week 2, his 7.0 YAC per reception ranked 4th.
This was so, so encouraging to see from him, to say the least. If Thomas is going to be out for any more games, and if the Sanders/Brees connection doesn’t improve, his continued production is desperately needed by this offense.
Penalties, penalties, penalties.
I don’t really need to go super into depth about this one. Penalties were an issue in Week 1, and they were an even bigger one on Monday night.
The Saints committed 10 penalties for 129 yards, and many of them were just back-breakers in huge moments.
Janoris Jenkins, who otherwise had a good game, committed the worst penalty of the game late in the fourth quarter.
He grabs the arm of Henry Ruggs III on a third down where, if they get a stop, the Saints offense gets the ball back with a shot to tie the game up.
I get doing all you can to prevent a touchdown, but in this case, you just have to trust your positioning and force the offense to make that play downfield. You can’t grab a guy’s arm and give it to them, especially when Derek Carr had struggled to make plays deep downfield all game.
The Saints are averaging eight penalties a game through two weeks, and the only team who’s averaging more is the Arizona Cardinals.
A whopping six of those are defensive pass interference calls, which leads the league.
With that, they lead by league by far in penalty yards, with 248. The next highest is Arizona, with 199.
This is just not winning football, and you’d expect more from a well-coached team with as much continuity as they have.
With Brees and the offense playing as poorly as they have, they cannot afford this room for error.
If they’re going to have a shot this Sunday against the Packers, the penalties must be cleaned up.