METAIRIE, La. – Part of the reason why I picked the New Orleans Saints to win a tough road game at the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night is because I think they’ve been better than ever this year at sticking with the kind of smart, patient approach it takes to win games like these.
The best example was a victory at Chicago in Week 5 against a Bears defense that thrives on forcing turnovers. Saints coach Sean Payton defied his aggressive nature in that game, using a methodical approach filled with check-down passes and short runs.
But the Saints (9-2) have shown similar patience and resiliency in recent victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons – where they confidently stuck with their game plans even when they were trailing or winning by a slim margin.
The Saints lead the NFL in time of possession this year, at 33:04 per game. That’s the most of any season in the Payton-Drew Brees era. They’re also tied for fifth in the league in fewest turnovers, with 13.
“I think patience is part of it,” Payton said after the Saints won the turnover battle 1-0 in a 17-13 victory at Atlanta last Thursday night. “There’s an old saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing to be effective.’ At times, that’s just being smart.”
The Saints’ approach isn’t a drastic change from years past. They’re still taking plenty of shots downfield with the NFL’s No. 2-ranked passing offense (317.3 yards per game).
But as running back Darren Sproles said, the Saints haven't been “pressing” or taking unnecessary risks, even when they’ve been down in games. And that is certainly a noticeable change from last year when the Saints and Brees seemed to be constantly pressing while playing from behind most of the year.
Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said he believes Payton noticed things like that while he was studying the Saints closely from afar during last year’s season-long suspension.
Strief also said he believes that Payton has been flexible in his approach because of how much confidence the coach has in the Saints’ defense.
“As long as the defense is playing so good, I think there can be some patience,” Strief said. “And there can be some – I don’t want to say conservative, but I think smart football. To say, ‘Let’s play a complementary game.’
“Coach Payton, he’s very good at analyzing and kind of diagnosing what his team is good at, at that time, who’s got the hot hand, who to lean on, who to give a break. He’s been really good this year in being flexible in, ‘This is how this game is going, this is how we’re gonna play it, this is how we’re gonna win it.'”
The Saints haven’t had the balance between passing the ball and running the ball that they were striving for heading into the season. But they have steadily improved in the run game while sticking with it. Over the past month or so, Payton has been relying on veteran running back Pierre Thomas as much as ever before -- as that kind of “hot hand” that Strief was talking about.
And the Saints have done a great job all season of using Thomas and Sproles as short-range receivers as well as runners to create that offensive balance.
“I think we’ve done a very good job this year with our balance and the fact that we’ve stuck with that through the course of game,” Brees said. “I’d say it’s been very balanced. Our ability to take care of the football throughout the season has been very good. Certainly it could be better, but I’d say our overall efficiency on offense and our ability to play complementary football with our defense has been as good this year as ever.
“It has definitely been a conscious effort. It was something we talked about. You could look back at our Super Bowl year in 2009 and say that was one of our best seasons, or 2011, that was one of our best seasons offensively. What made us so effective? We were throwing the ball well, but, man, we were running the ball well, and the complement of the two was really good.”
The Saints will likely have to rely on the run game, the short passing game and weapons like Thomas, Sproles, tight end Jimmy Graham and physical receiver Marques Colston as much as ever on Monday night at Seattle – where they’ll be facing a stingy defense, an overwhelming Seattle crowd and possibly nasty weather conditions.
The conditions and the style of opponent brings to mind some of the Saints' past struggles at Chicago from 2006-08 or against San Francisco, both on the road and at home in 2011-12. Turnovers helped almost all of those games unravel.
But this time, the Saints might just have the patience to pull it off.