Colston’s range: One of the attributes that has always impressed me most about Saints receiver Marques Colston is his range. He has always done a great job of catching those vintage back-shoulder passes from quarterback Drew Brees – as well as high balls, low balls and other awkward passes he has to reach for at times. That ability was on display throughout Sunday night’s game – especially on his first and biggest catch of the night.
On third-and-9 in the first quarter, with the Saints facing their second consecutive three-and-out, Colston made an outstanding 21-yard catch. He timed his jump perfectly, extended his arms to snag the ball, then quickly pulled it in and got both feet down before heading out of bounds.
Colston also made a nice, leaping grab for his second of two touchdown receptions – a 15-yarder tucked perfectly between defenders. And Colston made a couple of lower catches as well, finishing with nine for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Physical coverage: The defenses that have had the best success against the Saints’ passing attack over the years are the ones that can get physical in coverage – jamming at the line of scrimmage and staying tight down the field. Carolina clearly tried to use that approach throughout Sunday’s game.
The Panthers were flagged for three pass interference or defensive holding calls. One other time a flag was thrown but picked up. And there were three other occasions where a flag easily could have been thrown (twice on third-down incompletions to Colston and once on an incomplete fade pass to Jimmy Graham in the end zone. Saints coach Sean Payton even mentioned the no-calls during his postgame news conference.
Ultimately, though, Brees was still able to find enough open receivers on a night where his pass protection was terrific, giving him time to scan the field. For example, Colston appeared to be the third option in Brees’ progression on his first TD pass.
Payback: That first TD to Colston came in front of safety Mike Mitchell – which included some payback from Brees. Three plays earlier, Mitchell broke up a pass intended for receiver Lance Moore in the end zone. Then Mitchell followed up by running 20 yards back up the field toward Brees and wagging his finger as if to say, “No.” After the game, Brees said he didn’t notice Mitchell’s gesture, but then he quickly pointed out that the Saints scored right after that play.
Graham tough: Graham caught two TD passes when defenders couldn’t bring him down. On the first one, linebacker Luke Kuechly tried to slam into Graham, but his arms glanced right off of him. Later in the game, another defensive back also bounced off Graham without slowing him down as he gained an extra 8 yards at the end of a 22-yard gain.
Great protection: Brees wasn’t under much duress Sunday. He was sacked once late in the game when fullback Jed Collins was unable to hang on to his block against blitzing safety Quintin Mikell for long enough. Mikell reached from behind to strip the ball out of Brees’ hand (though Collins recovered the fumble).
Guard Ben Grubbs was flagged for holding, nullifying a potential touchdown pass to Colston in the second quarter. But he was actually holding a defender who beat left tackle Charles Brown with an inside move. Brees was hit one other time by an unblocked defender after he threw against a seven-man blitz. Other than that, Brees had tons of time in the pocket for most of the night – sometimes with tight ends helping to block or chip at the line.
Run struggles: The line wasn’t nearly as efficient when it came to run blocking. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram combined for just 18 yards on 10 carries. Brown, Grubbs and right tackle Zach Strief each got blown back at the line of scrimmage at least once – among other miscues up front.
The Saints got stuffed on a first-and-goal run attempt by Collins in the third quarter when Brown couldn’t divert defensive tackle Kawann Short to the outside. Then the Saints elected to pass on both second-and-1 and third-and-1 (both incomplete).
The Saints did have two big runs, but they had to go wide for both of them – a 38-yarder by Darren Sproles around left tackle in the first quarter and a 6-yard toss to Khiry Robinson around the left end on third-and-2 in the second quarter. Receiver Robert Meachem, tight end Benjamin Watson and Grubbs all had nice blocks on Sproles’ run. Sproles also made Mitchell whiff for an extra 15 yards at the end of the run.
Center Brian De La Puente, guard Jahri Evans and Grubbs also had nice blocks on a 20-yard screen pass on a touchdown drive before halftime.