I came out of Game 3 against the Carolina Panthers with some optimism for the team—along with a resigned sense that 2015 is looking more and more like a rebuilding year for the New Orleans Saints.
I guess that shouldn’t be a shocker — considering the high-profile trades, draft picks, and the number of rookies the Saints are starting on this team, the idea that they would go far this year was perhaps a pipe dream in the first place.
What may end up being more interesting is the groundwork they’re laying for the future.
Game 3 Recap
After watch the game tape my first impression is that this was really a decent outing for the offense—especially since backup quarterback Luke McCown ran the offense for the first time (in a game that mattered) since he put on a Saints uniform.
Particularly in the first half, the offense moved down the field almost at will.
McCown got the ball to many different weapons in the first quarter: Spiller, Ingram, Coleman, Snead, Robinson, Cooks, Johnson, Hill, and Watson all touched the ball in the first two series alone.
After re-watching those two drives I realized that (a.) I’m still not giving Ingram enough credit—he had some key, hard-fought rushes in that second drive in particular and (b.) this could be a very interesting offense once running back C.J. Spiller, acquired this year from Buffalo, gets more touches and is a bigger part of the gameplan.
It’s also interesting to think that the Saints will be able to field Spiller, Ingram and Cooks at the same time—and give defensive play-callers a few headaches.
On the defensive side of the ball, credit the Saints for getting pressure on quarterback Cam Newton in their first series and stopping running back Jonathan Stewart, forcing a punt. They did neither of those things the next series, allowing Carolina to reply with a TD that looked routine.
So, at 10-7, the Saints got a third look at the ball with 5 minutes left in the half; that drive went nowhere, as consecutive penalties pushed the Saints into a 2-and-25 situation that they couldn’t quite dig out of, despite a 21-yard, 3rd-down pass to Watson.
After a punt to Carolina’s 19 yard line at 2:06 in the half, cornerback Brandon Browner immediately gave up a 52-yard bomb to Carolina tight end Greg Olson, and Carolina dribbled down to the 2 yard line, but ran out of time and settled for field goal to tie the game at 10-10.
Saints linebacker H. Kikaha got his first sack of the game in Carolina's first series of the second half, a coverage sack that resulted in Carolina punting away its fourth possession. After a penalty on the Carolina punt (which Marcus Murphy had muffed and run out of bounds), the second attempt was a charm—Murphy took the ball back 74 yards with a quick, efficient punt return for a TD that showed him doing exactly what he was signed to do, justifying his roster spot in those few key seconds of play.
Significantly, McCown, who is the Saints regular kick holder, mishandled the snap for the extra point, leaving the Saints up 16-10. It’s also worth nothing that the Saints defense didn’t get much of a breather with points scored so quickly on the punt return, which would show up in the next series, mostly (again) in poor play by Browner, who drew a key flag to keep the Carolina drive alive and then gave up a 55-yard scorcher to Carolina receiver Ted Ginn. While the Saints kept the running game bottled up nicely, the combo of Newton and Olson proved too much and Carolina went up 17-16 on an 11-yard TD strike.
Midway through the third quarter, the Saints got a drive going despite some offensive penalties and a very close 4-and-1 conversion, but were stopped abruptly at midfield when Watson fumbled after making a catch, turning the ball over to safety Roman Harper, a former Saint. (This drive could have turned out much differently if Coleman had caught a 40-yard pass thrown by McCown, but he took an awkward step as the ball arrived and seemed to mis-time his jump, allowing the ball to glance off his hands.)
Carolina turned around and, thanks mostly to a few decent runs by Stewart and a scramble by Newton, they got into field goal position to take the score to 20-16.
As the third quarter ran out, the Saints got a roughing the passer call to keep their drive alive, but stalled out when consecutive plays using three different running backs—Ingram, Spiller and Robinson—couldn’t add up to 10 yards.
Starting around 13:50, Carolina took the ball down the field as the Saints defense opened up some holes for short passes, while also allowing the penalty yardage mounted up. Carolina's running game picked up, ending with a Newton bootleg keeper that scored a touchdown on the quick four-minute drive.
With 9:10 left, McCown started driving back down the field with nice passes to Cooks and Snead, getting the team to midfield. A long pass after that to Colton set the Saints up at Carolina's 30 yard line. A nicely executed swing route down the left sideline by Spiller on third down got the Saints all the way down to the 2, and Robinson took a pitchout to the left for the two-yard touchdown; the Saints, however, missed the 2-point conversion. 27-22 Carolina.
From here, things looked very promising for a comeback win; the Saints sent Carolina three-and-out and received the punt at their 29 yard line with four minutes to go. McCown then led them on a leisurely three-minute drive for 40+ yards (would have been quicker if Sneed and Colston hadn’t dropped three different throws), thanks to key plays by Cooks and Ingram.
Then, on 3-and-4, McCown throws his only interception of the day; a slightly under thrown ball the end zone with about a minute left to play; turning the ball over and effectively ending the game. (McCown, looking endzone all the way, missed first-down possibilities with both Ingram and Colston.)
The Saints have a different combination of offensive weapons than they have in recent years, but there's no denying their talent on offense. It could be very exciting to see a healthy C.J. Spiller get involved in more snaps and on some creative plays, and both Brandin Cooks and Willie Sneed stepped up and worked well with the backup quarterback.
Ingram felt like he had an off game on the first viewing, but watching tape showed me that he was a key part of the offense; he ultimately accounted for a combined 98 yards and pushed his average rush to 3.6 yards per carry.
Against a depleted Dallas defense in Week 4, the Saints offense could put up big numbers in the running and short-passing game, something they may be limited to if Brees is still affected by a shoulder injury sustained in Week 2.
The Saints defense shut down the Carolina running backs for most of the games, with safety Kenny Vacarro present on many tackles; Newton helped boost the running totals, with Carolina putting up a total of 119 yards against the Saints; the Saints totaled 70 yards rushing and 310 yards passing. Even thought Newton ran in for a touchdown and had some drive-saving rushes from the pocket, considering how much damage he’s capable of, the Saints by-and-large kept him bottled up.
Brandon Browner, a veteran cornerback acquired this year from New England, was the apparent weak link in the secondary; with the possibility that Game 4 will see the return of veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis and all-star (and, so far, often-injured) safety Jarius Byrd, the Saints could feel a defensive boost going forward.
With an 0-3 start, and with two division rivals at 3-0, it’s fairly safe to say that the Saints are already in a rebuilding year. (A major run of wins might put them in Wild Card contention, but they've certainly dug a hole.)
But, interestingly enough, Game 3 showed some promise in terms of "rebuilding" potential; the Saints made strides toward finding a more potent offense, even when led by their backup quarterback, and players returning from injury might help shore up their defense as well.
With an eye to the future, there are some bright spots for the Saints as they go into Sunday night’s Week 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys. At home and on Sunday Night Football, it’s the perfect venue for the Saints to show continued improvement… and, perhaps, to get their first win.