Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' offense after reviewing the tape of their 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 8:

Brees at his best: Drew Brees’ 42-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenny Stills in the fourth quarter has to be one of the most underrated plays of the NFL season to date. It went mostly unnoticed, since the Saints were already well ahead in the game – and since Brees’ brilliance is so often taken for granted. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless.

Brees dropped back to pass on third-and-20, but he was quickly flushed from the pocket when Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus beat guard Jahri Evans inside and end Mario Williams broke free on a stunt move. Brees barely escaped Dareus’ lunge, and then he ran forward and stepped into a deep throw to Stills in the end zone that traveled about 45 yards in the air.

Stills’ effort was great, too. He “boxed out” cornerback Nickell Robey and timed his leap perfectly to win the one-on-one battle.

Plenty more from Brees: That was just one of five touchdown passes for Brees against the Bills – moving him into first place in NFL history with eight five-touchdown games. He also hit Lance Moore with a 15-yarder, Stills with a 69-yarder and tight end Jimmy Graham for touchdowns of 15 and 13 yards.

Brees had great pass protection on all four of those throws. Running back Pierre Thomas did a nice job of picking up the blitz on the pass to Moore on third-and-4 in the first quarter. And fullback Jed Collins picked up a nice block on the 69-yarder to Stills, which looked like a blown assignment by Buffalo’s secondary. Stills got wide open after crossing routes with receiver Nick Toon on the left side.

Graham’s touchdowns both were good, hard throws into a small cushion between a linebacker and safety. Graham finished both of them by breaking a tackle to reach the end zone.

Hit and miss: The Saints weren’t perfect in pass protection against one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts. They allowed four sacks and were flagged for holding three times. There were no real “repeat offenders,” though. Left tackle Charles Brown got beat once on a power inside move by end Jerry Hughes. Guard Ben Grubbs got pushed back once by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, leading to a sack when Brees stepped up in the pocket. Collins and tight end Benjamin Watson got beat by end Mario Williams once. And safety Da’Norris Searcy got a free run at Brees on a blitz between Evans and right tackle Zach Strief.

Brown, Collins and center Brian de la Puente drew the holding flags.

Running strong, mostly: The Saints’ run game was also hit-and-miss. But I really liked the variety. The Saints handed off to Thomas out of passing formations a few times on shotgun draws, and they also tossed to him a couple times to get him out wide. That was very effective at times and helped Thomas gain a season-high 65 yards on 14 carries (an average of 4.6 per carry). Thomas also had two more nice gains on screen passes.

Thomas’ best run, however, was more traditional. He gained 13 yards off right tackle in the third quarter when the Saints perfectly executed their outside zone-blocking scheme. Strief, de la Puente, Brown and Watson all delivered great solo blocks against Buffalo’s four-man front, allowing Evans and Grubbs to run free into the second level of the defense and pick up blocks. The Saints scored a touchdown on the next play.

As I wrote Tuesday morning, however, the Saints continued to struggle with negative runs. One came on an apparent missed assignment on third-and-1 run in the first quarter. Grubbs pulled, and Kyle Williams cruised right between de la Puente and Brown to stuff running back Khiry Robinson. Grubbs also got pushed back by Kyle Williams on a 1-yard loss by Thomas in the first quarter. Kyle Williams and Dareus won a few of those battles up front throughout the day, but the Saints ultimately came out ahead.

Quiet Colston: Saints receiver Marques Colston was quiet for the third straight game. But I’m still not ready to suggest that we’re seeing the beginning of a drop-off at age 30. The Bills clearly made him a priority in coverage, and they made two big-time plays to keep Colston out of the end zone. One came when safety Jairus Byrd met Colston near the goal line and separated him from the ball with a big hit after Colston got a step behind Robey. The other came when Colston again had a half-step on Robey, but Robey got a fingertip on the ball to knock it off course.

CBS announcer Dan Dierdorf and some on Twitter suggested Colston had “alligator arms” on that play. But that’s not how I saw it. Colston had his hands up to make a basket catch over his shoulder, and Robey’s tip sent the ball forward.

Colston’s progress is clearly worth monitoring going forward. I’m sure he must be losing a step in his eighth NFL season. But speed and separation were never the strengths of his game. And I haven’t seen him looking noticeably slower or gimpy on the field. He made a nice low catch and a nice high catch on Sunday, finishing with three receptions for 18 yards. I expect more big games to come – obviously not on a consistent basis, though, in this offense.

Brees’ false starts: I don’t know the rules well enough to describe why Brees got busted twice for false starts with his hard counts. The first time he was under center, and his body jerked a little while he was yelling his cadence. The second time, he was in the shotgun and put his hands up to receive the snap, then pulled them back down. Clearly the officials were determined to rein him in more tightly than most crews.

Hartley’s misses: I’ll throw these special-teams gaffes in with the offense. I haven’t had a chance to talk with kicker Garrett Hartley or holder Luke McCown yet to see if anything went wrong on Hartley’s two missed field goals, but it didn’t look that way on film. The 47-yarder in the first quarter had height and distance but took a snap-turn to the left in midair. The 38-yarder in the second quarter was drilled, but it was a hair too far to the left from the beginning.