Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

METAIRIE, La. -- It wasn’t easy, but I managed to stay awake through the entire replay of the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

All jokes aside, I understood what the Saints were trying to do -- patiently relying on the run game and check-down passes to control the clock and avoid turnovers. And we’ve seen it work before in victories at Carolina two weeks ago, at Chicago last year and against San Francisco last season.

But this was the downside of such a plan. The Saints’ offense wasn’t any good at running the ball Sunday. It couldn’t finish off long drives with touchdowns. And therefore it put no pressure on the Bengals' defense and put the home crowd to sleep.

Coach Sean Payton admitted he thought his team was too flat when he watched the tape. And quarterback Drew Brees said the energy was there to start, but teams usually feed off big plays that never materialized on either side of the ball.

The Saints (4-6) obviously need to find a better balance between staying patient but still cranking up the volume when possible.

Here are some other thoughts after reviewing the tape:

Running nowhere: This is why the concept of “establishing the run” is easier said than done. The Saints ran the ball four times on the first five plays. And they ran the ball 17 times on first downs. But it usually just put them into a second-and-long situation.

The Saints ran the ball 26 times for 75 yards (23 for 67 yards by Mark Ingram), averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.

It was usually a case of one missed block on each run stuff. Center Jonathan Goodwin probably had the roughest performance, but each lineman was guilty at least once -- not to mention fullback Erik Lorig and the tight ends/receivers. Ingram himself appeared to miss an opportunity for a touchdown if he had broken outside once, but it’s too hard to tell what he could see and where the play was designed to go.

I didn’t notice the Bengals’ front doing anything unusual, but credit them for getting a consistently strong push and the linebackers making solid open-field stops.

Goal-line stand: The Saints came so close to a touchdown that might have changed the game on a 17-play drive in the first half, but they stalled after having a first-and-goal from the 3. Brees threw a nice back-shoulder pass to receiver Marques Colston on first down, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had Colston’s arm hooked after they jostled for position. Maybe it was worthy of a flag, but officials often let that kind of arm contact go.

Then Ingram got 2 yards on second down, bouncing outside when the middle was clogged. That’s the play where it appeared he could’ve scored by going further outside of a block by Colston, but it’s impossible to say if anyone missed an assignment or a read.

Likewise, on third-and-1, Ingram’s hole between Lorig and tight end Josh Hill looked promising for a second but closed too quickly.

Then the Saints went with a quick snap on fourth-and-1 and a play-action pass to Lorig that never had a chance with defenders all over him.

Missing deep, missing Graham: The Saints took very few deep shots -- partly by design against the Bengals’ zone-heavy scheme. But when Brees did throw deep, he missed. He overshot wide-open receiver Brandin Cooks in the first quarter after he recognized him late in the progression. Then Brees barely overshot Hill’s fingertips on the same drive. Brees also overshot Colston in the fourth quarter, possibly because he was hit as he threw by pressure against right tackle Bryce Harris.

I tried to watch closely to figure out why tight end Jimmy Graham’s production was so low (three catches for 29 yards on three targets, plus an incomplete pass that resulted in a late-hit penalty). It seemed like the Saints were settling for a lot of underneath throws by design. And on the few plays when it appeared Brees was looking deeper for Graham, the Bengals usually had two guys in the area, which led to more check-downs.

Graham was never an option on any of the four goal-line plays. He was an attractive target in single coverage later inside the 10-yard line, but Brees went with a 9-yard TD pass to uncovered receiver Kenny Stills instead.

Decent protection: Pressure wasn’t a huge issue for Brees, who was never sacked and never turned the ball over. Harris struggled on at least three snaps (including a holding penalty) after filling in for injured starter Zach Strief. Guard Ben Grubbs was also flagged for holding. And there were four or five other hurries, including one against Grubbs, one against Goodwin and one on a seven-man blitz that led to a batted pass.

Some good stuff: Brees did make several nice throws -- especially on several third-and-long plays -- on a day when he completed 33 of 41 passes for 255 yards and the TD. Brees and Colston connected on a fantastic 16-yard completion near the left sideline in the second quarter, when a replay review proved Colston kept both feet in bounds. ... Colston made one of the best offensive plays of the day by playing defense and breaking up an interception after Brees’ fourth-quarter overthrow. ... Ingram did manage to mix in a couple nice runs, fighting for yards after contact on gains of 13 and 8 during the TD drive.