It still wound up being a pretty equal mix of some impressive drives and some paralyzing lulls. But the biggest difference was that this time, the Saints weren’t facing a team like the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings, who lulled along with them. This time, the Saints were playing an offense that was capable of leaving them in the dust.
You know – the kind of killer-instinct offense that we’re normally used to seeing from the Saints themselves.
Quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out that the Saints actually got off to a decent start, with their first two drives crossing midfield before his tipped-pass interception late in the second quarter sent Sunday’s game off the rails.
“It’s a game of momentum, and when you’re on the road, it’s even more so,” explained Brees, who pointed out what a fine line it was between 10-7 and 17-0.
But in a sense, Brees had it backwards.
The storyline of the Saints’ first two losses at Atlanta and at Cleveland, both of which came down to the final seconds, was that they were just one or two plays away from a different outcome.
As we saw Sunday night, the Saints’ offensive high-wire act this season also left them one or two plays from this kind of implosion.
They’ve been way too stop-and-start all season, even though the overall numbers and efficiency have ranked among the NFL’s best.
And sure enough, things got a little exciting and interesting in the second half Sunday night, too, once the Saints had to hurry up and start firing away. They flashed that quick-strike ability that still hasn’t gone away with two touchdowns that brought the score within 14 points. And Brees’ final numbers bordered on fantastic (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).
But clearly something is missing.
The most glaring absence so far has been the deep ball – which wasn’t a big problem until Sunday night, when Dallas also shut down the run game and corralled tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half.
I don’t see any concerns about Brees’ arm strength, which some people have asked about. When he did fire deep, he still had some authority and accuracy. But clearly, Brees is either not seeing what he needs to see down the field, or he’s not getting comfortable enough in the pocket to take those shots.
Once the Saints started forcing the ball downfield Sunday, it led to as many bad results as good ones: Brees’ interception into a too-tight window, fumbles by Graham and running back Travaris Cadet and at least two dropped passes each by Graham and receiver Marques Colston while the defense was repeatedly hitting them hard in the open field.
A 62-yard run by running back Khiry Robinson in the fourth quarter wound up making this game look even closer than it really was. Other than that run, the Saints gained 36 yards on 11 carries by running backs.
The Saints actually had the most efficient offense in the NFL through three weeks, according to a formula developed by ESPN Stats & Information. They earned that grade through a number of long drives that chipped away with the run game, underneath passes and third-down conversions.
Those numbers, however, masked just how thin the Saints’ margin for error was.
“So for us offensively, what do we need to do?” Brees said. “Well, we need to be ultra-efficient, score more points and take care of the football.”
It can be done – especially with seven home games remaining on the schedule. But as Brees said best of all Sunday night, “We’ve got to play better.”