You wouldn’t realize it now, but up until last year New Orleans’ Drew Brees had gone 15 consecutive years making at least 15 starts a season – 236 starts in those seasons, an average of 15.7 per. Nearly an ironman. Then, on September 15 last year, Drew damaged a ligament in his throwing thumb, and the Saints were suddenly without their franchise quarterback for who knew how long.
It’s getting to be like this in New Orleans. Whether it’s heart-breaking playoff losses, mind-bogglingly bad officiating, or untimely injuries, the perils of the New Orleans Saints are beginning to take on overtones of a soap opera. This year, star wide receiver Michael Thomas was injured in the first game of the season and missed seven games. Now that he is back, the Saints will be without Brees again. Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung will keep him on the shelf for a while. (By the way, I know the 41-year old, smallish quarterback doesn’t look particularly tough, but he led New Orleans on two scoring drives after sustaining all that damage before he took himself out of the game).
So what happens now?
Well, last year when Brees was injured, their backup – Teddy Bridgewater – stepped in and led the Saints to five wins in his five starts. This year (with Bridgewater moved on to be the starter in Carolina) former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will get the same opportunity that Teddy got last year – the chance to re-invent himself and regain some credibility.
Will the results be the same? Well, that is the million dollar question. Even though the Saints are leading their division, the race is quite tight. Any slippage in Brees’ absence could easily cost New Orleans a playoff opportunity.
As with Bridgewater last year, Jameis has his doubters. In the closing act of his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Winston completed only 60.7% of his passes, and even though he led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109, his 33 touchdown passes were offset by his league-leading 30 interceptions. A lot of people don’t see that style blending well with the Saints’ system.
But, of course, last year Winston was in Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit system. Last year, Jameis averaged 10.4 air yards per every pass attempted – the second highest average in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford at 10.6. Last week I pointed out that not every quarterback can thrive in that system.
A better understanding of who Winston is might be clearer from his first four seasons with the Bucs. In spite of the fact that Winston played for pretty bad teams (they were 21-33 in his starts over those years) Jameis still managed to complete 61.6% of his throws at an average of 12.4 yards per completion. He threw 88 touchdown passes over those seasons (4.6%) while having just 58 passes intercepted (3.0%). And remember, Winston was throwing from behind a lot. Last year – playing for a better 7-9 team, Winston checked in with a 5.3 touchdown percentage (0.7 better than his previous career percentage) at a cost of a 4.8 interception percentage (1.8% higher than his earlier career).
Coming in in the second half last Sunday, Jameis did what Brees was doing. Brees’ 8 completions covered a total of 9 air yards (an average of 1.1 air yards per pass) but led to 67 yards after the catch (an average of 8.4). Winston completed 6 second half passes that totaled 14 air yards (just 2.3 yards up the field) that were followed by 49 yards after the catch (8.2 per).
It’s a small sample size, but there is no reason to believe that Winston can’t fit into the Saint system. And if you can’t expect him to play with the anticipation and the precision that Brees might, there are parts of Jameis’ game that are stronger than Brees’ game. Expect Sean Peyton to find ways to leverage Winston’s greater mobility and stronger arm.
Another reason for optimism is the stretch of the schedule that this has happened in. New Orleans’ next four opponents are Atlanta, Denver, Atlanta again and Philadelphia. There are no gimmies in the NFL, and any of these teams could administer a defeat to the Saints. But all three of these teams are below .500. If you had to go four or so games without your starting quarterback, these would be the four you would probably choose.
There’s no reason, yet, for Saint fans to toss their cookies. You’ve all seen worse situations than this.
More Good Saint Defense
Given the condition of the San Francisco team in general (and the offense in particular) – and the 49ers are one NFL team that won’t shed any tears over New Orleans’ injuries – you have to be careful not to make too much of this. But for the second consecutive week the heretofore nettlesome New Orleans defense turned in another excellent performance. After decimating Tampa Bay the week before, San Francisco was held to just 281 total yards – only 49 on the ground. The Saints carried the game, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary).
Over the last two games they have 5 quarterback sacks and 5 interceptions (after intercepting just 4 passes through the first 8 games). The combined passer rating against them in those two games is just 53.8. Meanwhile, the Bucs and 49ers combined to run for just 57 yards against them over the two games on 30 attempts – 1.9 yards a carry.
If this New Orleans defense is, in fact, coming together, it will ease a bigger worry than the absence of Drew Brees.
Three Side Notes
One – The 49ers made a fairly close contest of this in the first half as they stuck diligently to their game plan. They ran the ball (21 times in the first half) even when they weren’t seeing a lot of yards from it (only 41). But they controlled the clock (for an impressive 22 minutes even) and had Nick Mullens balance with the controlled passing game. Nick was 13 for 18 for 134 yards and a touchdown in that half – a 111.8 rating.
Even though they came out of the half trailing just 17-10, they entirely ditched that approach in the second half. They ran the ball just 4 times (for 8 yards) and had Mullens throwing the ball 20 times in the half (he completed just 11 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.9 rating).
New Orleans controlled the second half clock for 19:06.
Two – After the big win the previous week over Tampa Bay, the Saints were seen celebrating in the locker room as though they had just won the Super Bowl. Sometimes stuff like that wakes up the karma gods and bad things (like losing your starting quarterback) have been known to happen. I think football players in general should be more humble and sporting than they are (yes, the self-worship bothers me). It seems the karma gods agree. Sometimes.
Three – the penalty on the hit was widely criticized – as it should be. It was, in all respects, a perfectly clean hit. I may have been the only one not surprised to see the flag fly. Defensive players need to understand that even if the hit is legal, if you hurt the quarterback, you will get penalized. The official really can’t help himself. The entire world is watching the quarterback lying on the turf and he begins to feel self-conscious – as though he owes it to the team that’s just lost their quarterback some measure of compensation. The higher profile the quarterback, the more likely this penalty becomes.
So here now is the defensive checklist when dealing with a quarterback in or near the pocket:
You can’t hit him anywhere near his head. You can’t hit him anywhere near his knees. You can’t drive him to the ground when you hit him. You can’t land on him with your full body weight.
And, on top of all that, you can’t hurt him. Other than that, you can do whatever you want to the quarterback.
As It Turns Out It Isn’t Actually Over Till It’s Over
The football world’s head turned over and over in response to the Kyler Murray game-winning, Hail-Mary touchdown toss to DeAndre Hopkins that trumped the Buffalo Bills 32-30 (gamebook) (summary). And rightfully so. The accuracy of the pass (while Kyler was running for his life) and Hopkins’ in-traffic catch should both have carried a “do not try this at home” warning. These plays pay off so rarely that when the last second shot into the end zone does work, it will cause a ripple through the league – and much more so when the game Is of this significance.
But hidden underneath the big moment at the end are some troubling trends that concern me about the Bills.
The biggest number of the day, in my opinion, was 217. Those were the rush yards given up by the Bills. It was the second time this season that Buffalo has given up more than 200 rushing yards. Murray was responsible for 61 of them, but his yardage was the tip of the iceberg. Kenyan Drake ripped through them for 100 yards on just 16 carries, and Chase Edmonds added 56 more on 8 carries.
But this is the worst part. Of the 156 yards gained by Arizona’s two running backs, 110 came after contact. The NFL average is just 1.91 yards gained after contact per rushing play. Arizona’s running backs averaged 4.58. Forty-five of Edmonds 56 yards (80%) came after contact.
The Buffalo defense just does not seem to be coming together. This is the fifth time this season – including their last two games – that they have surrendered 30 points. They are now eighteenth in scoring defense and twentieth in total defense – including twenty-eighth against the run, as they are allowing 135 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry (the third-worst average in the league).
Unless their defense finally comes to the party, Buffalo will have no hope of hanging onto their division lead, and will go quickly and quietly from the playoffs.
The other notable observation regards quarterback Josh Allen. Allen was blitzed in this game, perhaps, more than he’s ever been blitzed. Arizona, which began the game as football’s fifth-most blitz happy team – came after Allen on a full 54% of his drop-backs. With his line doing a middling job of picking up the blitzes, Allen’s accuracy and decision making were negatively impacted. Josh – who had done a great job of protecting the football thus far – tossed two interceptions and limped home with a 77.3 rating. It will be interesting to see if he gets heavier doses of the blitz going forward.
Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?
As I watch the seasons unfold, I try hard not to over-react to any one game or any one player. Yet I do have to admit that the Miami Dolphins have gotten my attention. They have won four in a row, and their victims have included the Rams and the Cardinals.
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been getting the Lion’s share of the attention. Tua has been doing a reasonably good job. The team is 3-0 in his starts, and he has yet to throw an NFL interception (through 77 passes).
But the Dolphins, with – I believe – the hardest part of their schedule behind them, are much more than Tua. They have a bend-but-don’t break defense that allows the fifth fewest points in the league (in spite of the fact that they rank only nineteenth in yards allowed). More than that, it is a big-play, opportunistic defense that currently ranks third in takeaways.
And don’t forget about their special teams. Whether they are blocking punts or returning them for touchdowns, it seems the Miami special teams are making game-changing plays every week.
And, they won’t face another winning team until December 13.
If Buffalo fades – as I think they might – what would it take for the Dolphins to earn the second seed? If they don’t succumb to the inconsistencies of youth and start to lose games that they should win, then their chance to wrest the second seed will probably come down to that December 13 home game against Kansas City.
Could the too-young Dolphins actually squeak past the defending champions? Truthfully, if you watch their games, Kansas City seems to have come back to the pack – even if only slightly. And their run defense has fallen to twenty-ninth in the league.
Of course, this was about how they looked at this point of last season, too.
For the moment, I am going to entertain the prospect of the Dolphins winning that very significant Week 14 home game, and I am going to pencil them in as my two-seed, sliding KC to third. The Chiefs will also be playing the Raiders, the Bucs and the Saints before the season is quite over, so they will have ample opportunity to stub their toes coming down the stretch.
Still, if they go out there and slap the Raiders around (as I kind of suspect they will) then don’t be surprised if I quickly reverse field on this.
At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.