It is common practice by NFL teams to divide the season into four game quarters to evaluate their team’s performance. After four games the New Orleans Saints are as good as they can be at 4-0 behind strong efforts by both their offense and defense; here is how both sides of the ball graded out.
The New Orleans Saints offense currently ranks 3rd in total offense and 2nd in the passing offense, which is nothing new in the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era. Brees is up to his old tricks ranking at the top of the league in most statistical categories. Jimmy Graham has bounced back nicely and is on pace to break the tight end yardage record that was cheaply snatched away from him the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski.
Though the production is nice, the offense still got off to a sluggish start by their lofty standards in the first few weeks. This includes a very lethargic performance against the Tampa Buccaneers where they were only able to muster one offensive touchdown and even gave a touchdown to the Buccaneers in what ended up being a narrow two point victory. Also, as prolific as the offense has been, the offensive line has underperformed in their run blocking as the Saints are ranked 25th in total rushing offense. In addition, the offensive line hasn’t been able to protect Brees, giving up 12 sacks through 4 games, including 10 sacks in the first 3 games, the most in any 3 game stretch in the Brees-Payton era.
However, despite those struggles, the offense made great adjustments to somewhat cover up those flaws through an extensive short passing game with Darren Sproles and, to a lesser extent, Pierre Thomas. And even though the Saints haven’t been able to run the ball consistently, they are running it when it matters—in the fourth quarter. Khiry Robinson has been able to close the past two games against Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins with big runs in the fourth quarter. Don’t be surprised if Robinson supplants Ingram as the bruiser in this offense.
Going forward, the Saints, though they are having success with the short passing game, will look to establish a consistent traditional running game. They will also try to cut down on the turnovers and sacks. If they do those two things, the offense can surely expect an A in the next quarter.
Considering the performance of the defense last season, there is really no other grade that can be given to the defense. Rob Ryan, who was put into a seemingly hopeless situation with the perceived lack of talent and slew of injuries, performed some dark magic and has this unit keeping up with the performance of the offense. Ranking 6th in yards per game, 5th in point per game, and 5th in passing yards per game, this cast of replacements and no names has been great and at times straight dominant. In addition, in 2009 Saints fashion, they have been forcing turnovers.
It is hard to pinpoint who deserves credit, but most of praise has to go to the front four, the youngest group on the defense. In particular, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette have played some inspiring football giving quarterbacks nightmares with their relentless pressure contributing to the 12 sacks recorded by the defense. Also, Kenny Vaccaro has been a nice surprise as he serves as Ryan’s Swiss Army Knife lining up at safety, cornerback, nickelback, and EVEN linebacker. He is second in the team in tackles and his versatility has allowed others to stay in their natural position to make plays. Despite all the success, it isn’t all good for the Saints’ defense.
For as good as they have been against the pass, the Saints have been as leaky against the run ranking 22nd against the run allowing about 120 yards a game. This isn’t too bad of a problem so long as the Saints’ offense is able to provide a good lead rendering the opponent’s run game useless. Also, the leaky run game is possibly a consequence of Ryan’s scheme that he doesn’t mind sacrificing.
Watching this Saints team, Ryan wants his best playmakers on the field at all times. Getting his best playmaker, Vaccaro, on the field has forced Ryan to constantly being in a nickel defense, a defense that is susceptible to being leaky against the run.
Whatever Ryan is thinking, it is working and he has the utmost trust of the coaching staff, players, and certainly the fan base. I still think the defense will have its share of growing pains, but if they can continue to play at a high level, the Saints, along with the Seattle Seahawks, have to be considered the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.