Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

This week’s offensive film study is a day later than usual because of all the breaking news from Tuesday and Wednesday. But better late than never …

What a strange game for the New Orleans Saints' offense. If someone showed you a cut-up of all their highlights from last Sunday’s 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, you’d think they had another 30-plus points. The Saints had five plays of 20 yards or more, 20 plays of 10 yards or more and 30 plays of 7 yards or more – finishing with a total of 432 yards.

Alas, as has been well-documented, they caved under the pressure of dynamic Rams pass-rusher Robert Quinn. And all day long, promising drives were doomed by turnovers, sacks, penalties, incomplete passes or missed field goals.

Here are my observations after reviewing the tape:

Throwing it away: The two most costly plays of the game were quarterback Drew Brees’ interceptions on the first two drives. The first was more forgivable than the second, since Brees was hit by Quinn as he threw. But he probably shouldn’t have thrown either one of them. He must have anticipated the pressure coming on the first throw since Quinn beat left tackle Charles Brown immediately off the snap with an inside move. Brees still got the ball nearly 30 yards downfield in the direction of tight end Jimmy Graham. But it was underthrown just enough for safety T.J. McDonald to step in front of it.

I have no idea what Brees saw on the second interception, which came after the Saints cruised down the field with four of those double-digit-yardage plays on their next drive. Brees wasn’t under any pressure on second-and-goal from the Rams’ 10-yard line. He rolled to his right, pump-faked, then tossed a jump-pass toward Graham in the right side of the end zone. But Graham was surrounded by three defenders on the play, including cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who stepped in front of the pass for an interception. Perhaps Brees didn’t see Johnson (who was originally covering receiver Lance Moore on the play). But even without Johnson there, Graham didn’t look very open. Brees said he regretted trying to force the ball in that situation.

Incredible effort: The Saints certainly deserve their share of the blame for Quinn’s sack and forced fumble in the third quarter. But, man, what a remarkable effort by Quinn on the play. By this point of the game, the Saints had resorted to chipping and double-teaming Quinn at the line of scrimmage. And this play started with Graham giving Quinn a hard shove at the line. Graham actually shoved Quinn past left tackle Brown and into left guard Ben Grubbs, who knocked Quinn to the ground. But Quinn quickly got up and lunged for Brees, stripping the ball right out of his hands. To make matters worse, Brees was actually reaching the ball toward Quinn at that moment to avoid pressure coming from end Chris Long on the other side against right tackle Zach Strief.

Under pressure: Yikes. I marked down at least 14 plays where pressure forced a negative result from the Saints’ passing game – and those were just the ones I considered noteworthy. Almost all of them came courtesy of Quinn.

I mentioned the two big ones above. There was also a sack by Quinn against Brown on a key third-and-1 play in the second quarter. There was an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Brown against Quinn that nullified a touchdown pass to Moore in the second quarter. There was a 5-yard pass to Sproles nullified by a holding penalty on Brown against Quinn in the second quarter. There was a holding penalty on Strief against Quinn on Strief’s first snap as Brown’s replacement in the third quarter (and a false start against Strief soon after). There was a throwaway under pressure from an unblocked Quinn around the corner on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. And there were at least three other incomplete passes and one more short dump-off under pressure from Quinn (three against Strief and once against extra lineman Bryce Harris).

There were also two plays in which Brees was under pressure from someone other than Quinn, as well – a 6-yard sack in the fourth quarter when ends William Hayes and Long both broke free on a double-stunt, and an incomplete pass in the second quarter when Hayes got free to hit Brees while stunting on a five-man blitz. Defensive tackle Matt Conrath was credited for a zero-yard sack in the first quarter, but that was a result of Brees attempting to run when he thought he saw an open lane up the middle.

Ingram impresses: Running back Mark Ingram touched the ball just three times, but he was awesome on all three touches (two catches for 39 yards and one carry for 5 yards). His 23-yard catch-and-run at the end of the third quarter might have been the best play of his career. He caught a check-down pass in the flat, then used a nifty cutback to make two guys miss. Then he dragged defensive end Hayes for 5 yards before eventually breaking free from his grip to gain a few more yards at the end of the run. Ingram’s 16-yard catch-and-run earlier in the third quarter was similar. He broke two tackles and showed some burst once he turned upfield.

Other highlights: Like I said, the Saints made several nice plays throughout this game that didn’t amount to much. Pierre Thomas’ 28-yard gain on a screen pass in the second quarter was nice (with Brown executing a nice crack-back block near the line and Grubbs churning up the field ahead of Thomas for 20-plus yards). Receiver Marques Colston made a terrific catch near the sideline for a 12-yard gain in the third quarter, dragging his back foot along the turf to get both feet in bounds. That play was originally ruled incomplete, but credit whichever coach got in Sean Payton’s headset and told him to throw the red challenge flag in time. Brees fired a strike for Colston in heavy traffic for a 5-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter. Thomas had a nice 2-yard run behind Grubbs and Strief on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. And the Saints finished 4-of-4 on fourth down.

Running in place: Overall, though, the run game was hit or miss. The Saints’ running backs gained a total of 50 yards on 17 carries (a 2.9-yard average). Thomas lost 2 yards on a third-quarter run when tight end Benjamin Watson got pushed back at the line. Thomas also lost 5 yards on a screen pass in the third quarter when guard Jahri Evans and center Brian de la Puente both went after the same defender, leaving linebacker Alec Ogletree unblocked.