The ’17 New Orleans Saints look a lot like the ’09 Super Bowl Saints
Their offensive running game is clicking and defense is sticking
The New Orleans Saints are co-owners of the longest active winning streak in the NFL, with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Saints haven’t garnered the same level of respect as the Eagles have. That will most certainly change after what happened in Buffalo, New York, on Sunday. New Orleans won in dominant fashion, scoring 47 points and holding the home team to just 10. However, the score wasn’t the most impressive part of the Saints’ performance.
Much has been made of the fact that late in the game the Saints ran the ball 24 times in a row without passing. It’s certainly unusual, and impressive that they could have sustained success only running the ball against a tough Buffalo defense. The playcalls I found most interesting were in the first quarter though. I was shocked by the game plan that the Saints employed. It was as if they were starting a rookie quarterback, not Drew Brees, a future Hall of Famer. Their opening play was a run-pass option, with just one eligible receiver. The Bills were crowding the box, so Brees connected with Michael Thomas on a one-step slant. The next two plays were called runs with no pass option.
The Bills had eight men in the box again, but it didn’t matter. Running back Alvin Kamara ran for 9 yards, then Mark Ingram gained 14. Both plays were well blocked, but right guard Larry Warford was outstanding on Ingram’s 14-yard dive play. Warford executed a difficult combo block. First, he pushed the defensive tackle to the right, allowing the offensive tackle to get leverage and finish the block, and then the 317-pound Warford sprinted back to the left to block the middle linebacker, who was stepping up to tackle Ingram. Ingram was patient and set up the block well, running for 13 yards before he was even touched.
Plays like that seemed to happen throughout the game for the New Orleans offense. By game’s end, the Saints backs had gained 195 yards before being contacted by a defender. That is the second most for any team this season. The Saints backs tacked on an extra 103 yards after contact, which is more than twice the per-game league average of 47 yards after contact. Both the backs and the offensive line were playing so well that facing eight-man boxes looked more like an opportunity rather than an impediment. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, on Sunday the Saints averaged 14.2 yards per carry against defenses with eight or more players in the box.
The first two called pass plays for the Saints came back to back after Ingram’s 14-yard run. They were surprisingly simple concepts for such an accomplished quarterback. The first one was play-action with only two receivers running routes. One receiver was a decoy, and the other ran a deep cross. The cross was covered, so Brees threw it away. On the very next play, they got Brees out on a play-action bootleg where he threw a short pivot route to a wide-open receiver. Now facing third-and-7, I thought for sure they would allow Brees to drop back and survey the field for an open receiver. Nope. Coach Sean Payton called a quick behind-the-line-of-scrimmage screen pass to Kamara, who broke a couple of tackles and got to the first-down marker. Brees didn’t complete a pass for the rest of that drive, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown run for Ingram.
The next drive and the rest of the game brought much of the same for Brees. He finished the game with 146 yards passing. His per-game average before this game was 277 yards a game. I don’t think I would be impressed by 146 yards from any other quarterback-coach combination. But given the passing prowess of the Brees-Payton combo, having the presence of mind to adopt a less aerial attack is applause-worthy.
The Bills seemed determined to avoid Saints standout defensive end Cameron Jordan. Most of the Bills’ early plays went away from Jordan and toward Alex Okafor, the other defensive end. Except for a missed tackle on the Bills’ opening drive, Okafor and the Saints defense were outstanding. Okafor notched four tackles, two passes broken up and one sack. The only other “exciting” defensive plays came from defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who got a sack and intercepted a pass that Bills tight end Charles Clay had bobbled.
The Saints’ defense was reliable, which longtime Saints fans might not recognize but surely appreciate. There were few missed tackles, assignment errors or big plays given up, just sound, effective defense. Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is developing a reputation as a shutdown corner. He did nothing to hurt that reputation Sunday. But he isn’t the team’s only good defensive back. The entire secondary played well, holding Tyrod Taylor to a QBR of 34.
How good are the Saints?
The Saints had an outstanding game Sunday. But their performance wasn’t a complete aberration. They have been running the ball well and playing stout defense for most of the season. The Saints are third in the league in rushing, averaging 142 yards per game. And as for their defense, they are tied with the Seattle Seahawks for fifth place in the league, giving up just 18 points a game; the league average is 22.
They are alone atop the NFC South, and the Eagles are the only team in the league with a better record than the Saints. But comparing the Saints to their peers isn’t nearly as interesting as comparing them to the 2009 Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Across the majority of major offensive and defensive statistical categories, the 2009 and 2017 teams are quite similar, even when looking at the more advanced stats such as footballoutsiders.com team efficiency rating, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). In 2009, the Saints had a DVOA of 21.3 percent, which was good enough for sixth in the NFL. Currently, the Saints are fifth, with a DVOA of 23.8 percent. Their ranking will probably improve later Tuesday when the Week 10 outcomes are included in the ratings.
So it looks like Saints fans might want to start looking at hotels in Minneapolis in February. Bring a coat.