Strief: Saints hope to make a statement against Packers on NFL’s biggest stage

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Every season starts with expectations and certainly, like the last few years, this season’s expectations are sky high. What is most important to understand is those expectations are for season long success. So, when after week 2, everyone starts acting like those expectations are no longer attainable, everyone should pause. Last week in Las Vegas was largely disappointing to all Saints fans, but most disappointing to the Saints themselves.

We’ve seen this play out in each of the last two years.  Remember when the Saints lost to the Bucs on opening weekend in 2018?  I do.  I also remember the narrative of how bad that defense was and how it was another lost season because the defense couldn’t even stop Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Yet, it was that defense that propelled the Saints in the second half of the season.  That team went 13-3.

Then in 2019, the season was lost after the Saints dropped the rematch to the Rams in Los Angeles, and the Saints lost Drew Brees.  They proceeded to rip off 5 straight wins in his absence, on their way to another 13-win season.

Well, here we are again, two games in, and the world has officially crumbled for the Saints.  Drew Brees, too old to compete anymore.  Yards per attempt used to justify his demise.  Ever heard that stat referenced before? Yea, me neither.  Of course, it doesn’t matter, because the defense can’t cover tight ends and they need to blow that group up.  After all, Cam Jordan doesn’t have a single sack through two weeks!! Maybe we can trade him and start over. Don’t get me started on Marcus Davenport.

Obviously, I’ve grown pretty sensitive to these narratives.  Is it because of my connection to the team and to many of those players mentioned? Maybe.  I would bet though, that most of those players know that I’m not really one to hold my tongue.  Many times, as a player, I was comfortable accepting blame, or pointing my finger at it.  There is a big difference, however, between finding fault and making claims that this team will be judged after one performance.

The most widespread, and laziest, of all these blanket claims made this week is the weakened arm strength of Drew Brees.  I watched the tape carefully, breaking down each completion and incompletion.  I was confident I would find a good example of a throw where age showed itself.  Certainly, after hearing the claim as many times as I did this week there would be ample examples.  Where are they?  What throw wasn’t made in this game that would have been made 2, 3, 5 years ago?  I saw 4 drops and would make the argument for a 5th.  I saw Brees trying to direct his receivers out of harms way.  I saw receivers read a coverage incorrectly.  I saw a route broken too flat.  I even saw a bad decision being made while under pressure.  An inability to spin the football… where was it?

For three or four years now, we have watched Drew Brees adapt to both his aging body and to the dynamic weapons suddenly afforded to him.  We have seen him become far less risk adverse as the defense has consistently improved over past years.

It was fun to watch Brees drive the ball into double coverage to Jimmy Graham and seeing circus like highlight reel catches.  Of course, it wasn’t as fun to watch the Saints (often from the field), turn the ball over 28 or 24 times in a season.

The Saints know who they are. Brees especially knows who he is.  Like every long tenured player at any position, skills diminish, and skills are honed over time.  That transition has long occurred for Brees.  I would make the argument that two years ago, there was less velocity on the football from Brees than there is today.

The Saints are throwing into the same routes today as they were last year, but a “yards per attempt” stat is pretty dependent on completion percentage.  When Brees completes 80% of his passes, as he has often in the last couple years, 6 something becomes 8 or 9 something.  It’s not the routes being any shorter, its being less efficient.

While Brees would be quick to point out some missed throws, Jared Cook would be quick to point out his corner route being too flat.  Josh Hill would raise his hand for reading zone in man coverage.  Two big gains for the Saints negated.   None of this is to excuse a lack of efficiency, or production.  There was plenty of blame to go around last week.  Players, coaches, offense, defense all implicated in the loss.  The more important question is where do we go from here?  We’ll find out in a few hours.

The Saints host the Green Bay Packers tonight and they will have an immediate opportunity to make a statement.  Green Bay comes into New Orleans flying sky high.  The 2-0 Packers boast the number one offense in football.  Aaron Rodgers, who has faced criticism in the past couple seasons, has emerged from that cloud early this season in orchestrating two outstanding offensive outings.  The Packers average 42.5 pts per game through two weeks and the power of their offensive attack coming from different places in each week.

Week one in Minnesota saw Green Bay explode through the air to the tune of 364 yards and 4 TDs.  They followed up that performance with 259 yards on the ground vs. the Lions, a number the Packers hadn’t reached since 2003.  The Packers will test the Saints defensively in both ways.

A week after struggling to slow down the passing attack in Las Vegas, the Saints see a more accomplished group.  Maybe a saving grace is the Packers expectation of losing Devante Adams, their Pro Bowl receiver, for the game.  After a huge opening weekend that saw Adams rack up 14 catches for 156 yds and 2 TDs, Adams came down to earth with 3 catches in a game he exited with a hamstring injury in the 3rd quarter.  The Packers will look to Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdez-Scantling to pick up the slack.

The wild card in the passing game is the man who has carried the ground game through two weeks.  Aaron Jones has been fantastic through two weeks, leading the NFL with 234 yds and 3 TD’s through the air.  It’s his receiving prowess that may assist the Packers most in the loss of Devante Adams.  Jones is one of the top route-running pass catchers from the running back position in the NFL.  Look for Green Bay to flex him out wide in passing downs to add another playmaker to the passing game.

On the other side of the ball the Packers have shown some weaknesses.  The Vikings, who’s 34 points were highly misleading as most came late after that game was in hand, have struggled in both weeks to open their season.  The Lions have also been average in their two games, but despite the competition, the Packers are still surrendering 5.2 yards per carry, a number the Saints should look to exploit. They also rank 24th in the NFL having given up 8 receptions over 20 yards.  A perfect opportunity for a Saints offense that has lacked explosion to change the narrative.

The biggest challenge the Saints will face offensively will be handling the Smiths.  Preston and Za’Darius Smith have been outstanding since signing in free agency last offseason.  They are joined on the edge by Rashan Gary, who has 1.5 sacks through two weeks.  Za’Darius Smith is a game wrecker, though.  He plays all over the front, lining up on the edge, or standing up over the center.  He’s expertly utilized by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to create matchup issues for offensive lines.  Look for him to make more appearances in the interior of the Saints offensive line against the trio of Peat, McCoy and Easton/Ruiz.  The Saints tackles have been outstanding through two games allowing just two pressures between them.  The Saints ability to handle an excellent rush will tell much of the story offensively.

The final component of this game that will be interesting to watch will be the mental aspect.  The Saints have not lost back to back football games since weeks one and two of 2017.  They have never lost on Sunday Night Football in the Sean Payton, Drew Brees era.  More importantly than either of those things, the Saints returned to New Orleans frustrated with a sub-par performance.  Embarrassed to have it occur on Monday Night Football, and aware of how strong Green Bay has looked.

The Saints are not suddenly lacking in talent.  They are still the winningest team in the NFL over the last two seasons, and that doesn’t happen without pride and resilience.  They certainly proved that last season, when they lost their leader in Drew Brees, before responding with one of the most dominant 5 game stretches, defensively in franchise history.

We will know, rather than having to opine, if this team has the same mental toughness, grit and resiliency that team had.  We are going to find out on the biggest stage the NFL has to give.  Once again, the nation will have its chance to weigh in on the only game playing in its time slot.  I believe the Saints will welcome the opportunity.