While the team and coaching staff are probably already looking at Chicago Bears tape, we’re going to take one last look at the regular season finale to analyze the last impressions this team left for us before postseason play.
Here are the most telling plays I found:
1. Brees is still the two minute drill master
Drew Brees had a couple of iffy throws in this game that could’ve been picked, but overall, I was encouraged by how he threw the rock and managed the offense. But as always, I was most impressed by how he handled the two-minute drill before the half.
He went 6/8 for 63 yards, completing his first six consecutive passes, on his way to leading a field goal drive as the second quarter expired.
But there was one particular play on the drive that really encapsulated what’s special about Brees at this point in his career, and it was this one.
He gets to the line and changes the call because he notices something. What he notices is the weak-side safety slowly creeping down towards the line of scrimmage a bit.
This alerts him that the strong-side safety is almost certainly going to rotate to the deep middle of the field, and the seam will probably be open. So, he checks the play to Four Verticals, but with a drag route from the back side.
He holds the safety with his eyes, and the corner is held by the Emmanuel Sanders Go route to the far right — leaving that seam open for the throw — which Brees hits accurately for a 17-yard gain.
This is the kind of stuff that you don’t get with almost any other QB in the league. His smarts outweigh a lot of what he lacks physically at his age.
And if he can eliminate some of these turnover-worthy throws where he’s just trying to make something happen once Michael Thomas gets back, the offense should be rolling on Sunday.
2. C.J. Gardner-Johnson needs to come back quick
The Saints really like to play Cover 2 Man on defense. According to Matt Bowen, they actually run it more than any team in the league.
Cover 2-Man (2-deep, man-under)— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 2, 2020
% of dropbacks
1. NO — 19.2%
2. NYG — 13.9%
3. KC — 13.3%
4. LV — 12.1%
5. AZ — 11.4%
28. SEA — 3.5%
29. LAC — 2.9%
30. WASH — 2.8%
31. HOU — 1.7%
32. PHI — 1.0% #NFL
And they’re typically pretty successful at it, with the second most forced incompletions in the league when running it — via Pro Football Focus (PFF).
But the problem is you need really good cover corners to do this consistently. And while he made a couple nice plays in the Panthers game, Grant Haley cannot see the field on meaningful snaps in the playoffs.
He allowed six out of seven targets his way to be caught for 88 yards on an 85.7% catch rate in 26 coverage snaps.
This play is just an example of how hard it is to stick with good receivers in man coverage. Haley gets burnt on a slot seam by Curtis Samuel without even seeing a hard cut or move, allowing a 33-yard gain on second-and-long.
These types of plays can’t be given up this easily, and it’s a reminder of how good Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is.
Teddy Bridgewater was absolutely awful in this game, missing open targets and waiting too long for open receivers, who would become covered downfield before he pulled the trigger. That’s why you saw the Saints defense get away with not having CJGJ or Marcus Williams.
They need those guys back ASAP to make a run in the postseason.
3. Interior O line still a concern
The Saints offensive line, as a whole on Sunday, was fantastic. Terron Armstead continued his dominant stretch of play, and Andrus Peat had probably his best game of the season.
Four out of the five starters didn’t allow a single pressure. But the one who did allow a couple plays at a position that’s been an issue all year. And it’s still something worth monitoring.
Nick Easton allowed two pressures, one hit and one hurry at the right guard position.
On this play, the Panthers show a double A gap pressure, and Easton just blows his assignment, allowing Jeremy Chinn to get a free shot at Brees.
Simply can’t happen.
He’s got to understand the protection to his outside and know that the inner-most rusher on his side is the biggest threat.
Cesar Ruiz curiously only played seven run play downs against Carolina — no pass downs — after playing well in pass pro over the past few weeks.
While even he makes me a bit nervous at that spot, I think I’d rather him there than Easton in the playoffs. Either way, that right guard position is an iffy one for the Saints as of now.
4. Zack Baun is emerging
Zack Baun played his career high in game snaps on Sunday, with 22. This is partially due to the Panthers going big personnel a bit more often than usual, but it also was an effort of Dennis Allen to get his best players on the field with a few starters in the secondary out by playing more Base defense.
In these snaps, Baun recorded a 76.4 PFF grade and made two defensive stops.
One of those stops was on this play, where Carolina tries to run a play that has killed the Saints D at times this season — Play action rollout off of zone split action, with a tight end leaking into the flat.
Baun reads it perfectly and utilizes his burst to get out in the flats and make a great play.
With the loss of Kwon Alexander, it’s nice to see defensive coordinator Dennis Allens has another option at linebacker who can hold his own against the run and the pass. If more injuries occur (God forbid), Baun should be ready to come in and contribute.
5. Marquez Callaway is a stud
Nick Underhill said it on Twitter Sunday, but we’ve all been thinking it — Marquez Callaway is damn good.
He’s caught 21 of 23 targets this year (91.3 catch rate) for 213 yards. He’s a solid contributor in the run game. And most importantly, he has zero drops this year.
We saw him catch a ton of passes sitting in zone coverage the first time they faced off with the Panthers, but in this game, he did his work vs. single coverage.
All three of his catches (on three targets) for 51 yards were vs. single coverage.
This particular play is impressive because the release is so clean, and he creates separation from a good corner in Donte Jackson. Brees releases it as he’s in the process of trying to stack Jackson, and it’s juuuuust a tad underthrown.
So, what Callaway does is slow down and wall off Jackson to leave some room between he and the sideline, then uses quick hands at the last second before the ball arrives.
He makes an impressive contested catch against a quality corner for a big play.
This dude is a real weapon come playoff time. He’s just another guy who can beat Man coverage, as well as find holes in zones, and is super reliable for Brees when push comes to shove.
When he’s targeted, good things generally happen. And we could be seeing the beginning of a long career for him in NOLA.
What did you think was the most important play from Sunday? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.