Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

I took a few extra days before getting to this week’s film study because we had so much postseason reviewing and offseason previewing to do. So apologies if anyone was already trying to move on from the New Orleans Saints' season-ending 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

This definitely ranks as the most unusual offensive review I’ve ever done. On a day when it felt like the Saints got shut down, they still ran off 70 plays and racked up 409 yards (which is why this recap is so lengthy). Many of the Saints’ drives got off to impressive starts before being scuttled by a variety of breakdowns.

I’m still not very critical of the play calling. The run game was working brilliantly in the first half (aside from Mark Ingram's devastating fumble), and the wind was wreaking havoc with Drew Brees' early passes. I give the Saints credit for staying as patient as they did offensively.

But the weather conditions and Seattle’s outstanding defense conspired to keep them from scoring throughout the game.

Ingram’s fumble: If it’s possible to say this game came down to one play, this was it. The Saints had patiently waited out the first quarter when they were operating against the wind. Then on the first play of the second quarter, Ingram fumbled after a 4-yard gain up the middle.

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett deserves all the credit for the play. He fought through a double-team by guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief, which is probably why Ingram didn’t see him coming. And Bennett hit Ingram square on the ball and forearm with his helmet.

Bennett had an outstanding game against the Saints all day. He also forced a sack by beating Evans up the middle in the third quarter (with an assist by end Cliff Avril).

Graham silenced: This was one of the biggest talking points after the game as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham finished with just one catch for eight yards, so I paid close attention to how he was defended.

I was surprised to see that he wasn’t being harassed as much as I would have thought. The TV announcers kept saying Graham was being hit on every route, but that wasn’t true at all.

There were a few times where Graham was jammed in press coverage by a cornerback or safety -- and one example where cornerback Richard Sherman had his hands on Graham all the way into the end zone about 12 yards past the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, Graham was allowed free releases off the line.

The bigger issue was that there was constantly safety help shadowing Graham from behind.

Seattle free safety Earl Thomas made two outstanding pass breakups against Graham while flying in from behind with perfect timing -- one in the second quarter and one in the fourth. It was obvious that Thomas was spying Graham quite a bit. On a play late in the fourth quarter when Brees targeted Graham in the end zone, Thomas came flying in and collided with fellow safety Kam Chancellor, briefly injuring both players.

Graham appeared to have decent inside position on Chancellor on that touchdown attempt, but Brees’ pass fluttered too far over Graham’s head. There was another play in the fourth quarter where Brees, under duress, nearly threw an interception on an off-target throw intended for Graham; the Saints were lucky that Chancellor dropped it.

For the rest of the day, though, it really seemed like Brees just opted to throw to other targets and matchups that he liked better (probably because of the way he was reading the safeties).

Screens silenced: This was another glaring issue for the Saints. I counted eight screen attempts by the Saints, and almost all of them failed -- either because of a dropped pass or terrific awareness and athleticism by Seattle’s defense. The only one that gained positive yardage was a 9-yard pass to Darren Sproles on third-and-13. The Saints also got a huge break on a screen pass on first-and-20 in the fourth quarter because Seattle end Chris Clemons snuffed it out so aggressively that he was called for defensive holding on Ingram.

Ingram and running back Travaris Cadet each dropped screen passes. Once, Brees threw over Sproles’ head because of pressure by Avril. Once, linebacker Bobby Wagner blew up guard Ben Grubbs to hit Sproles for a 3-yard loss. And two other times, Grubbs and Strief weren’t able to get out into the open field quickly enough to block Chancellor.

Colston’s bad pass: The incomplete pass that was most discussed after the game was Colston’s ill-fated lateral attempt on the final play. As has been well-dissected, Colston probably should have just stepped out of bounds with eight seconds left. Instead, he turned and tried to execute a trick play the Saints had installed a week earlier -- firing the ball across the field toward Cadet.

Colston was too off-balance as he spun around and actually threw the ball about five yards forward. Even if he had perfectly executed the throw, Cadet would have had to make at least two defenders miss. However, the Saints were in desperation mode at the time. Several sequences earlier in the game were even more costly (see below).

Stalled drives: A few other drive killers worth noting:

  • When the Saints finally started throwing the ball down the field in the second quarter, Brees was uncharacteristically off-target on three straight incompletions. The first got “caught up in the jet stream” and sailed about 10 yards over receiver Lance Moore's head. The second was slightly high for tight end Josh Hill and the third slightly behind Colston.

  • The Saints had some great momentum going in the third quarter when they had second-and-4 from the Seahawks' 45-yard line. But then Seattle’s defense showed up in a big way. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Wagner made a great effort to shoot past center Brian De La Puente and trip up Sproles for a 1-yard gain. And Brees couldn’t find anyone open on fourth-and-3 when he rolled right, eventually throwing incomplete to Moore under pressure from Avril.

  • The Saints also had decent momentum going early in the fourth quarter when Strief was flagged for holding on second-and-4 (nullifying a 30-yard completion to receiver Kenny Stills). The next two passes on second-and-long and third-and-long were the near-interception to Graham under pressure and Thomas’ impressive pass breakup against Graham, forcing a punt.

  • The Saints were lucky to reach Seattle’s 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining after receiver Robert Meachem caught a tipped 52-yard pass. But on the next play, they backed up because of a delay-of-game penalty. One play later, they had to waste a timeout with the play clock expiring again. Coach Sean Payton said noise was an issue on one of them, but he took the blame for not getting the plays in fast enough. After two incomplete passes, the Saints missed a long field goal attempt on fourth-and-15.

Great runs: As mentioned above, the Saints’ run game started great, picking up right where it left off against Philadelphia. In the first half alone, Ingram had gains of 17, 11 and 12 yards. And Khiry Robinson had runs of 13 and 17 plus a catch-and-run of 13 after a big-time stiff-arm against linebacker Bruce Irvin. Both runners showed vision, elusiveness and power, routinely breaking tackles. Robinson’s 17-yard run came after he rolled over McDaniel without touching the ground and spun forward for 12 more yards.

Fullback Jed Collins, Grubbs and Evans probably stood out most often for their run-blocking, but all five linemen and tight end Benjamin Watson were strong in that department. It continued in the second half -- including Robinson’s 1-yard touchdown run and Ingram’s 2-point conversion run in the fourth quarter.

As for whether Robinson should have been credited with a fumble in the third quarter, it was too close to call. He was slightly off balance because of a hit by Bennett, and his forearm appeared to touch the ground before he fumbled. The call on the field probably wouldn’t have been overturned either way.

Great throws: Brees had some rough moments, but he did get into a nice rhythm at times, completing 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards with one touchdown (to Colston in the fourth quarter) and zero interceptions. His two best throws were his back-to-back throws of 23 yards to Hill and 25 yards to Colston that he dropped into zone coverage late in the third quarter to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown. At one point in the fourth quarter, Brees did a sensational job of escaping heavy pressure and dumping off a 15-yard gain to Colston. I wrote during our in-game chat that if the Saints wound up coming back to win, that play might be the one on all the highlight shows.

The Saints’ pass protection was mostly solid, though Seattle blitzed only three times -- once on the touchdown throw. Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead had a nice game as his development continued.