Old Orleans: The Sizzling Saints Look Very Familiar
In thrashing the previously unbeaten Miami Dolphins on Monday night, the New Orleans Saints looked every bit the team that ruled the NFL before Bountygate. The scary part is Sean Payton, Drew Brees and company actually can get better
In New Orleans, time has a way of standing still, Katrina be damned. Walk down Bourbon Street, and it smells the way it smelled to you in college. Have the beignets changed in Café du Monde? Not a bit. The Superdome, even with its post-hurricane facelift, is the same as it ever was.
And Monday night, Sean Payton proved you can go home again. His team looks as explosive and dangerous and as much a Super Bowl contender as his teams did before he left for his one-year suspension stemming from Bountygate. The Saints crushed previously unbeaten Miami 38-17, and as we get some clarity on the 2013 NFL pennant race, this is what we see: The Saints and the Seattle Seahawks, both 4-0, are the teams to beat in the NFC after a quarter of the season.
It could be a race to NFC home-field advantage in the playoffs, because Seattle certainly has the biggest home-field edge in pro football, and New Orleans might be second. Which could make Saints-Seahawks in Seattle two months from tomorrow night the biggest game in the conference this year. We’ll see.
For now, other than the fact this team can play some defense, what really has changed in the Saints’ world? Well, the running game is different, to be sure. The Saints struggled to run all September, and it seems like Payton, while the run game finds it legs, is content with Brees dumping the ball to Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas (just like in 2011) for the time being. The passing game? Well, you wouldn’t know anything was different. After four games this season, Drew Brees has thrown for 1,434 yards, with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. After four games in 2011, Bress had thrown for 1,410 yards, with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Yeah, everything’s the same but the run game, which we’ve got to fix,’’ said guard Jahri Evans in a composed locker room late Monday night. “If you’re talking about being 4-0, and slinging the ball around like Drew does, and our defense taking the ball away, it’s amazingly similar.’’
Sure looked that way last night. Sproles, in space, and power forward/tight end Jimmy Graham are two of the biggest matchup problems in football for a defense, same as in 2011. The unknown Marques Colston is always precisely where Brees needs him to be, and he’ll get the ball another 80 to 90 times this year if his knees hold up. And Payton calls the kind of aggressive, merciless game well into every fourth quarter that opposing coaches dread. There was a great shot by the ESPN cameras Monday night after a turnover of Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman with his head in his hands. It was as if Sherman was saying to himself, “We need every possession we can get against these guys, because they’re going to score on almost all of theirs.”
The last touchdown, Brees to Graham up the right seam for 43 yards, was a perfect example of what a team in harmony can do well. Split slightly right, Graham ran upfield and nudged the cornerback in coverage off him, getting a two-step edge while Brees looked off the deep safety. By the time Graham caught it and held it while getting downed in the end zone, it looked so easy. Brees, unruffled in the pocket, and Graham, effortlessly shrugging off coverage, connected the way they’d done so often since Graham walked into the Saints’ lives in 2010. Philip Rivers has Antonio Gates. Brees has Graham. You see the way the Patriots mugged Tony Gonzalez on the last two plays of the New England win in Atlanta Sunday night? That might be the smartest way to stop Graham. Take two defenders and mug him so much in the five-yard bump zone past the line of scrimmage that Payton will have to start setting some subtle picks for him or Brees will have to look elsewhere. For now, Brees to Graham is as dangerous a combination as there is in football.
Moreover, the Saints just look sharper. They’re already plus-five in turnover ratio. They don’t have many wasted plays, except runs. Brees and Payton are the dynamic duo again, pressing each other, Payton seeming to be in Brees’ grill when he needs to be.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what Sean does,’’ tackle Zach Strief said after the game. “But he’s a leader. He knows when to push, when to back off, when to stop a period in practice and go back over things we need to do better. And Sean being back takes pressure off a lot of people. Initially, it takes pressure off Drew.’’
“Last year,’’ said Evans, “you had this person and that person and another person.’’ He was referring to the removal of Payton, and then Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt (when he came off his suspension) alternating with the coaching reins. ‘Now you’ve got the guy who’s going to be there throughout the year. It’s his presence, and his knowledge of the game, and his connection with Drew. Those two guys are magical together, and it shows.”
And it’s going to make for a fun season, the Saints being in the spotlight, after being in the shadows for an ugly 2012.
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