Film Study: Reviewing Saints' defense

With so many highs and lows from the New Orleans Saints defense in their 30-27 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 6, I broke this week’s defensive film study into two parts. Click here for a play-by-play review of the Patriots’ game-winning drive.

Here are some observations from the first 58 minutes of the game:

Almost game-winners: How many times did you hear the Saints lament after the loss that “you can’t give Tom Brady three chances at a game-winning drive?” Well, the main reason Brady got three chances is because the Saints shut him down so quickly the first two times.

First, the Patriots took over at their own 20-yard line with 3:29 remaining, and Brady only completed one of four pass attempts. (He actually completed zero, but the refs and the Saints both missed the fact that tight end Michael Hoomanawanui’s four-yard reception bounced off the turf.) Karma must have noticed, because running back Brandon Bolden dropped a pass on the next play that would have easily gone for a first down. … On third-and-6, cornerback Jabari Greer made a nice pass breakup when Brady fired quickly under blitz pressure. And on fourth-and-6, receiver Aaron Dobson dropped a pass while being hit by Greer and trying to extend his body an extra yard or two for the first down.

The Patriots then got the ball back on their own 20-yard line with 2:24 remaining, and Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted a deep ball by Brady on the first play. Brady had plenty of time to throw and step up in the pocket against a four-man rush by the Saints. But he underthrew it, and Lewis turned and waited for an easy pick while receiver Julian Edelman couldn’t locate the ball in the air.

Blitz heavy: The Saints blitzed more Sunday than they had all season (18 times, by my unofficial count, including plays that were nullified by penalties). ESPN Stats & Information credited the Saints for 16 blitzes that counted, one more than they had in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons.

The blitzes were effective for the most part. They led to three of the Saints’ five sacks and a few other key incompletions (including one on the final game-winning drive). And until that last drive, Brady didn’t have a great day. During the first 58 minutes, Brady completed just 20 passes for 199 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception (though he was definitely hurt by dropped balls from several receivers).

Lucky break: Brady was off the mark himself a few times -- including an overthrown deep ball in the third quarter when receiver Danny Amendola broke wide open behind safety Kenny Vaccaro. That play (which came on third-and-13) easily could have resulted in an 83-yard touchdown pass and a 24-10 Patriots lead.

Bad breaks: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty in the third quarter was a tough break for the Saints. He crouched as he lowered his shoulder into receiver Kenbrell Thompkins to break up a pass on second-and-6. But it appeared that his shoulder hit Thompkins’ facemask, causing Thompkins’ helmet to whip to the side. Although it wasn’t a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit, it wasn’t a surprise to see the flag since Thompkins was a “defenseless receiver” in the open field. Jenkins’ hit wasn’t dirty, but it’s a risk anytime a defender goes near the head area.

Also, Lewis’ pass interference penalty in the end zone on third-and-2 in the second quarter wasn’t egregious. But he did get a little too handsy -- and he didn’t need to, since Brady’s pass appeared to be out of Dobson’s reach. That gave the Patriots new life and an eventual touchdown.

Big plays: The Saints had five sacks (1.5 by safety Jenkins on blitzes, the other 0.5 by linebacker Ramon Humber, and one each by linebacker Curtis Lofton and ends Cameron Jordan and Tom Johnson). … Also, outside linebacker Junior Galette had two run stuffs inside the Saints’ 10-yard line that were just as good as sacks. He stuffed running back LeGarrette Blount for a loss in the first quarter and disrupted a Bolden run in the fourth quarter -- both times forcing New England to settle for a field goal.

Linebacker David Hawthorne made a similar play for a 4-yard loss by Blount in the second quarter. … Linebacker Will Herring made a huge play in punt coverage in the first quarter, blowing up Edelman while he was attempting a toss across the field to Aqib Talib. The Patriots recovered the fumble, but Herring at least sent them backward and prevented a big gain. … Greer recovered for a touchdown-saving pass breakup against Thompkins in the end zone in the third quarter.

Big runs: The Saints had more breakdowns than usual against the run -- perhaps a product of them spending so much time on the field Sunday. Stevan Ridley broke off gains of 18 and 19 yards, and Bolden broke off a 12-yard gain (a combination of the Saints’ big men getting pushed aside up front and linebackers taking poor angles on a couple plays). Vaccaro also whiffed on a tackle attempt during Ridley’s 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Worth noting: The Saints started out in a 3-3 front that they haven’t used much this season, with Humber as a third linebacker and no nose tackle on the field. They spent much of the game in that formation. … The Patriots spent most of the game in a no-huddle offense (something they hadn’t shown much this year, and something the Saints’ defense hadn’t encountered much). It certainly seemed to work in the Patriots’ favor early in the game, when they rattled off three long drives (one field goal and two touchdowns in the first 23 minutes). But the Saints' defense held tough after that, keeping New England out of the end zone over the next eight possessions.