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Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

12/5/2013

Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' defense after reviewing the tape of their 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13:

Blown assignments: Basically, the Saints' struggles on Monday night boiled down to a horrible combination. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was sensational, throwing perfect strikes even when he was on the run or being blitzed (more on that below). The Saints' defense, meanwhile, was completely out of sorts at times.

It felt like the Saints blew more assignments in coverage and containment than we saw in the first 11 games combined. A lot of that had to do with the unique threat Seattle's offense poses. And Wilson took advantage of the fact that the Saints were focusing so heavily on stopping dangerous running back Marshawn Lynch.

Here are some of the lowlights:

  • The first real sign that it was going to be a long night for the Saints' defense came when Seattle tight end Zach Miller broke wide open for a 60-yard catch on third-and-1 late in the first quarter. The Saints sent five rushers out of their five-linebacker formation, leaving only two defenders in coverage on Miller's side of the field -- cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker David Hawthorne. But both of them chased after running back Robert Turbin on a short passing route, leaving Miller uncovered (about 6 yards behind New Orleans' defense). My best guess is that Lewis should have followed him, but I don't know that for certain. … Wilson got the throw off just before being hit by outside linebacker Junior Galette.

  • In the second quarter, the Saints were again torched by a 52-yard pass from Wilson to receiver Doug Baldwin. This one wasn't as much of a blown assignment as it was a burned strategy. The Saints sent an all-out eight-man blitz, but no one got to Wilson immediately. And he had time to throw a gorgeous deep ball to Baldwin, who beat safety Malcolm Jenkins down the center of the field.

  • Later in the second quarter, Baldwin broke wide open for a 4-yard touchdown pass against another blown coverage while the Saints sent six pass-rushers. Baldwin and receiver Jermaine Kearse ran crisscrossing routes. But Lewis opted to follow Kearse, while cornerback Corey White opted to stay on his half of the field instead of following Baldwin. Again, it's unclear who blew the assignment -- but someone obviously did.

  • The Saints were just as flummoxed by several read-option plays. Wilson gained 10 yards on one keeper and 3 yards on another keeper on third-and-3. Both times, Galette crashed down too hard on Lynch, giving Wilson a wide open lane to run. Then later in the first half, Lynch gained 14 yards on a read-option run when Galette hesitated and spied on Wilson.

  • Even when the Saints tried to use a spy on Wilson in the second quarter, it didn't work. Late in the second quarter, Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks hovered back at the line of scrimmage instead of rushing the passer. But he couldn't catch Wilson when Wilson took off running to his right for a 15-yard gain.

Something new: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan rolled out another unique new package Monday night -- one with seven defensive backs -- to mixed results. It worked the first time the Saints used it, when Seattle had a third-and-12 inside the red zone. The Saints had only one player lined up at the line of scrimmage (Galette), while end Cameron Jordan was essentially lined up as a middle linebacker and Parys Haralson at outside linebacker. Wilson dumped off a short pass to Lynch -- who was immediately swarmed. And safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was the fifth player in on the tackle, forced a fumble with his helmet. The Seahawks recovered but had to settle for a field goal.

The package was less effective as the game went on, though. The Seahawks gained 17 yards on a wide receiver screen to Golden Tate on third-and-13 against that alignment. Lynch's 14-yard run also came against that defense, as did a 12-yard run by Turbin. In each case, the Seahawks were able to get their blockers out on the smaller defenders.

Wilson superb: This was one of the best performances I've seen from a quarterback since I began doing these film breakdowns last year. Saints quarterback Drew Brees has had a few similar days, and I believe Peyton Manning had a special day last year against the Saints if memory serves. But, man, Wilson was impressive.

It wasn't just the run plays, which were tough to stop. As a pure passer, Wilson was throwing darts, even while throwing on the run several times. As Saints defenders warned, he's terrific at scrambling to buy time and find a man open down the field.

Wilson's 52-yard pass to Baldwin was gorgeous -- even though he had to rush it against the heavy blitz and couldn't step fully into it. His 21-yard rollout pass to fullback Michael Robinson on the opening drive was a perfect strike. So was his deep comeback pass to Kearse for 19 yards on a third-and-9 play, a 14-yard rollout pass to Baldwin and a 33-yard deep ball to receiver Ricardo Lockette against Lewis that beat another blitz.

Wilson's first TD pass, a 2-yard TD to Miller, also came against a blitz. And he nearly pulled off his best play of the day in the second quarter when he scrambled away from a six-man rush and fired on the run into the end zone for Kearse. But Kearse couldn't hang on to make the diving catch.

Bad bounces: Maybe this game wouldn't have spiraled so far out of control if a few balls had bounced the Saints' way. First was the forced fumble by Vaccaro that was recovered by Seattle. Then on the first play of Seattle's second drive, White got both hands on an overthrown deep ball by Wilson, but he couldn't hang on for the interception.

Later in the second quarter, a replay showed that Wilson was sacked by defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley before he got off a shovel pass to Lynch (which lost 5 yards anyway). But the officials didn't see it, and the Saints didn't challenge. Perhaps those extra yards would have stopped Seattle from churning out a two-minute touchdown drive.

In the third quarter, Hicks pressured Wilson into an incomplete pass on third-and-2. But Hicks was flagged 10 yards for roughing the passer when his swinging arm came down on Wilson's helmet.

Then last but not least, the Seahawks scored a touchdown two plays later via a tipped ball on an 8-yard pass. Tight end Kellen Davis dropped the pass, popping it up into the air right over the head of Jenkins and into the arms of fullback Derrick Coleman.

Something good: The Saints did do a solid job against Lynch, which was their top priority heading into the day. He gained just 45 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for a total of 12 yards.

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton made a handful of nice stops on Lynch. Galette and Jenkins avoided blocks to help shut him down for a 2-yard loss on the opening drive, which helped force Seattle to settle for a field goal. Hawthorne and linebacker Ramon Humber each had a nice stop against Lynch, as well. And Jordan made a great tackle against Turbin for a 1-yard loss.