Stuffed late: I’m not in the camp that’s criticizing Saints coach Sean Payton for going conservative late in the game. If the Saints had tried passing the ball instead and threw incomplete, they would have been second-guessed for letting the clock stop. The only thing I might have done differently is tried a high-percentage screen pass or swing pass – especially since the Saints are so good at running them. But hindsight is always 20-20.
The Saints’ bigger regret is probably their execution – especially on a second-and-6 run from the Patriots 20-yard line with 2:36 remaining. Running back Pierre Thomas lost one yard on the play when New England lineman Marcus Forston burst into the backfield between guard Jahri Evans and center Brian de la Puente. … That run wasn’t going to gain much regardless, but the Saints might have been able to move the chains more easily on third-and-4.
Instead, the Saints had a third-and-7, and they did air it out, with quarterback Drew Brees throwing to receiver Marques Colston down the left sideline. The throw was good, but cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s coverage was outstanding.
When the Saints got the ball back with 2:16 remaining, they went with two well-swarmed runs that gained 2 and 1 yards on first and second down, followed by a Brees bootleg that didn’t have much of a chance on third down.
Not just Talib: Speaking of Dennard, he deserves just as much love as top Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (who was well credited for shutting down tight end Jimmy Graham for much of the game). Dennard had equal success for most of the game against Colston, with tight, physical bump-and-run coverage that helped limit Colston to one catch for 11 yards. (Dennard did let a deep touchdown get over his head to receiver Kenny Stills in the fourth quarter, though).
Cornerback Kyle Arrington also made some great plays – intercepting an overthrown pass in the fourth quarter and getting his arm around Graham for an outstanding pass break-up down the left sideline later in the fourth quarter.
Frustrated Brees: The Patriots’ pass coverage was clearly the No. 1 reason why they beat the Saints on Sunday. That was as evident in the play-by-play review as it was live on the field. Even when they weren’t breaking up passes, they were forcing Brees to hold on to the ball in the pocket for way too long. Brees had time to throw for most of the day, but he simply couldn’t find open receivers. And his frustration was evident.
Brees’ worst throw was his interception, when he overthrew Graham on a third-and-12 pass that he never should have thrown. Brees had ample time in the pocket, but he eventually settled for the throw as almost an afterthought when no one was open deep. Graham was four yards short of the chains anyway.
Brees also threw a risky pass toward Graham near three defenders in the second quarter that easily could have been intercepted. And he missed a chance at a touchdown attempt to wide-open receiver Nick Toon early in the third quarter. It wasn’t clear if Brees just overthrew the ball or if Toon ran a shallower route than expected.
Brees did do a nice job of settling in for much of the second half, though, finding a lot of secondary options and not forcing the ball toward Graham or Colston. And his touchdown pass to Stills on a third-and-20 play against double coverage was absolutely gorgeous. But Brees clearly wasn’t in his usual comfort zone, completing just 17 of 36 passes for 236 yards.
Stills’ superb catch: The only thing more outstanding than Brees’ throw on that touchdown was Stills’ catch – the first of his career. Dennard had decent position on Stills, who had to turn to make the catch. But Stills timed his jump better (and maybe got the slightest push-off from behind to help him elevate). Stills caught the ball up high then hung on while taking a big hit from safety Steve Gregory.
Robinson’s superb runs: Rookie running back Khiry Robinson was even more impressive during the play-by-play tape review. He made some outstanding cutbacks and showed great balance to break a tackle on his 20-yard run in the fourth quarter. He did appear to fumble once, though it wasn’t called on the field. I wrote more on his highs (and low) in this post.
Solid up front: The Saints’ offensive line had a generally strong performance. They only allowed one sack, but it was costly. Left tackle Charles Brown got burned by end Chandler Jones in the fourth quarter, setting up the third-and-12 play where Brees threw the interception.
Brown and center Brian de la Puente also got flagged for holding penalties during the game when they got beat. Generally, though, Brees had tons of time to throw while the Patriots didn’t blitz often. And right tackle Bryce Harris held up very well in place of injured starter Zach Strief (giving up one noteworthy pressure to end Rob Ninkovich).
Then in the second half, the Saints took advantage of the Patriots’ coverage with some big gains in the run game. Robinson broke off runs of 20 and 16 yards. Thomas had a 13-yarder. And the Saints averaged five yards per carry while running for a total of 131. Fullback Jed Collins and guards Evans and Ben Grubbs were particularly strong blockers. Guys were finally winning their one-on-one battles consistently, and the run blocking seemed to be more in sync (except for that late-fourth-quarter run I mentioned up top).
The line was also brilliant on another well choreographed screen pass by Pierre Thomas that gained 29 yards in the first quarter.
Well designed: The Saints did take advantage of the Patriots’ heavy focus on Graham a few times. Running back Travaris Cadet was open underneath Graham for an easy 3-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. And tight end Benjamin Watson had two deep catches of 32 and 25 yards – once when Graham stayed home to block and left Talib with no one to cover.