by Bert Bartlett
There was no known poll for it, but prescriptions for anti-depressants in the Nola region had to spike by late September, when the Saints were 0 and 3. Before it even really started, it seemed, the season had gotten away from them. Another subpar yawner loomed, what would have been their third in a row.
Winning 4 of 5 since has done wonders for the local psyche. Heading into the second half of the campaign, the Saints are suddenly competitively relevant. In the hunt, and below the elected radar of the pro football media, the best perch to be for them to remain so.
This act has been played on stage before; start deep in the hole, scratch up to even, only to slip again and be done, if only because of the extraneous energy required for the marathon of 16 games in a parity laden league. But not far below the surface, there are signs this outfit will not follow that script, mostly, this team still in process of discovering itself, and youth.
Over on Facebook, the retired Marques Colston posted, simply, that rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas (#13, out of Ohio St.) is “the real deal”. Colston’s resume here has earned him the right to state that opinion, and we’ve seen nothing to disagree. Thomas’ mix of size, strength, speed, good hands – and desire – likely have him on a Pro Bowl roster for the 2017 season and beyond. His touchdown catch of the ball rolling around on a 49’er defender’s back while both were falling down the other day was special.
The diminutive Brandin Cooks has broadened his game considerably his first few seasons, and is now a threat short and intermediate, as well as the usual long. Willie Snead was a gem of a find for his route running and consistency and it’s obvious Drew Brees trusts and leans on him lots to maintain a possession. Incidentally, Brees just became the QB with the most 300 yard and 3 TD pass games – in league history. That speaks well of him. And in the occasional mix, the tall and rangy Brandon Coleman (#16, a poor man’s Jimmy Graham), is still green with a wandering mind but makes some high grabs downfield and gives defenses myriad match-ups to worry about.
Toss in the flexible tight ends that are Fleener and Hill, and this receiving corps is rapidly shaping up to be as good and replete as any in the league, along with New England’s, and the best in franchise history. There are no senior citizens in this group either.
OK, But Just How Grounded…
Sunday’s put-away of the Niners was an overdue revelation for the running attack. Two are better than one, as in Ingram and Hightower, in whatever ration that is working. Ingram is a tough, strong runner but if given the entire load, some complacency (the offensive line too) and fumble-itis sets in.
‘Tower is a bit more versatile out the backfield, and brings more looks and fresh energy. Whoever has a hot hand, intra-game, use him. Them. Shoot, the third guy, Cadet, give him some touches too. The nice addition of John Kuhn, an actual fullback, from the Packers, provides more capability and choices. Coach Payton has to be very democratic and can’t accommodate any player egos or be concerned with whose contract is up when to comes to who is carrying the football. The running backs work for an Equal Opportunity Employer and need to earn their carries.
In a rarity, the Saints ran more times (only 3, but still) than passed in Santa Clara. And in no coincidence, when challenged, controlled the game on the line of scrimmage and ran away with it.
Well, Yet Again, There Is Still The Matter of Defense…
The injury bug bit the unit hard by the start of the season. Thankfully, ascending cornerback Delvin Breaux is now back, as is the top draft choice, interior lineman Sheldon Rankins out of Louisville, who has impressed since he barreled through the doors in the spring.
While the rolodex rolled to fill the roster with healthy players, a few journeymen emerged as keepers in the defensive backfield, where the Saints have been perennially thin. B.W. Webb (# 28) is on his fourth team in four years, most recently Dallas, and appears to be a decent player with some coverage skills. And though listed at 5’10’”, Sterling Moore (#24) plays taller and the ball in flight well. He positioned himself in front of a Panther like he was the intended receiver when picking off Cam Newton in the end zone. Moore is also on his fourth stop, last in Tampa. He is 26.
Kenny Vaccaro is looking at a 4 game suspension for Adderall. But high priced safety Jarius Byrd is finally making himself evident and making some plays. The defensive backfield is the ultimate by committee and no one player can make or break it.
The unit continues to rank at or near the bottom in many statistical categories but frankly, who cares. Everybody get gobs of yards in this league. What does matter is keeping opponents’ third down conversions around 50%, and forcing field goals instead of touchdowns when offenses are in scoring position. And of course a turnover here and there. This defense is however slowly but increasingly doing this and dare we say, has a tinge of similarity to the ’09 opportunistic bunch that got rings. We’ll call it the Rubber Bands.
It has allowed about 20 offensive points in each the past 3 games. If the Saints hold opponents to about 20 points, they can beat anyone anywhere anytime. Summarily, the defense can’t get any worse and has plenty of upside at this point.
The Saints are catching Denver this Sunday at an auspicious time, and especially since here rather than out at Mile High Stadium, where most opponents inhale oxygen masks and do not win.
The match-up that will sway the outcome it is how well or not Brees is protected. Bum’s (RIP) son Wade Phillips will be drawing up plenty of pressure for his vaunted defense, though it looked tired and beat up in losing to Oakland last week, dealing with injuries. Coach Payton inevitably has alternative protection plans, whether they are double tight end sets to chip Von Miller et al on the edges, or keeping Kuhn in the pocket to put his shoulders down and block the seepage.
Though not a dual threat, their quarterback Trevor Siemian is able and throws a deceptively good deep ball. And was certainly a find for them in the seventh round of last year’s draft, who to sit in Peyton Manning’s empty chair. The Saints would do well to find a way to bring pressure on him, too. E. Sanders and D. Thomas are productive receivers.
When a bunch of young players start getting better at the same time, besides confidence, Moe Men and Tum become prominent, and sky the limit becomes talk of the town. The current most gleaming example of this is the star in Dallas, though the cast of characters on the conference leading 7 – 1 Cowboys almost seems too new.
The NFC is a log jammed with .500 type teams like the Saints, but the Black & Gold is trending up more than most. Brees is playing about as fine wine well as Tom Brady. If upticks continue, 10 wins are within reach, which may not be enough to catch Atlanta to take the South, but enough to make the post season tournament.
Coaches’ tired clichés about plenty of football left to play rings extra true with these Saints. How it all plays out in the second half of the season will be interesting and entertaining, so preferable to the next year intimations of late September. If the home team is still alive deep in the playoffs, what’s happening in New Orleans won’t be everybody’s January Surprise.