Film study: Reviewing Saints offense

I can understand why the New Orleans Saints offense felt some pride in their effort during Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. It was a rough day for them – battling both a physical Panthers defense that wasn’t giving up any easy yards downfield and some weather elements. Yet they continued to bounce back after an early flurry of sacks and two interceptions, playing their best football in the fourth quarter.

However, it’s even easier to understand why there was so much disappointment and frustration after the Saints’ total of 81 plays and 365 yards resulted in just 13 points and a gut-wrenching last-minute defeat.

And one more thing – Carolina linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are both awesome players.

Here’s a breakdown of all the highs and lows (and there were a lot of each, so settle in for an extra-long read):

The interceptions: Both interceptions came on third-and-long, but they both hurt on a day when field position was paramount. The first came on third-and-6 from New Orleans’ 36-yard line late in the first half when Davis made a terrific leaping grab to snag a pass from Drew Brees. Davis originally lined up like he was going to blitz, then he dropped back in coverage. Brees wasn’t under any pressure when he made the throw, intended for receiver Kenny Stills on a crossing pattern behind Davis. It wasn’t clear if Brees never saw Davis or just thought he could throw the ball over his head. Either way, Davis’ athleticism won out.

The second interception came when the rain was at its heaviest in the third quarter – and it looked like the ball might have slipped out of Brees’ hand since it was a bit underthrown for tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees had time to scan the field and step up in the pocket on the third-and-10 play from New Orleans’ 36-yard line (though he was eventually hit slightly by defensive tackle Kawann Short, which didn’t appear to affect the throw). Kuechly also deserves a ton of credit for his instincts on the play. Graham made a sharp cut behind Kuechly in zone coverage, but Kuechly read Brees’ eyes and made his own sharp cut to step in front of the pass.

The touchdown drive: I would have led with this if the Saints had won. But that’s the fine line between winning and losing …

The biggest offensive play of the game was Brees’ 46-yard pass to Graham on second-and-7 from New Orleans’ own 6-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers blitzed seven men on the play (five at first, two on a delay). But the Saints’ pass protection did an excellent job of picking them all up with just six blockers. Brees was able to step into his throw to Graham, who caught it just outside of cornerback Drayton Florence’s reach about 10 yards down the field. After that, Graham had no one behind him as he gained about 36 yards after the catch.

Later on that drive, Brees also fired an 11-yard pass to Graham against a six-man blitz on a second-and-9 and finished with a 5-yard alley-oop pass to Graham in the end zone under pressure on third-and-goal. Graham had a step on safety Quintin Mikell and leaped for the high pass uncontested.

That 11-play, 97-yard touchdown drive was very balanced and efficient, with great pass protection and run blocking throughout. It also included a 13-yard pass to Pierre Thomas on a second-and-9 and runs of 7 and 6 yards by running back Khiry Robinson.

The sacks: Brees was sacked six times – tied for the most since he joined the Saints in 2006. Five of them came in the first half, and three of them came against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead.

Armstead was burned badly twice by Carolina’s standout pass-rusher Greg Hardy. Once, Hardy started inside as a defensive tackle but burned Armstead by going outside while the Panthers were running a misdirection “game” up front that also allowed defensive tackle Short to break through the line. The second time Armstead got beat, Hardy was lined up on the edge and beat him with an inside-outside move.

Armstead could also be credited for a third sack, though Brees admittedly held on to the ball too long on that one before end Mario Addison eventually cut in front of Armstead while Brees tried to step up in the pocket. Addison shared that sack with Hardy, who came from the inside to help finish off the tackle.

It’s also possible that Armstead missed an assignment on the costliest sack of the game – when the Saints had a second-and-goal in the second quarter. The Panthers blitzed, and nobody blocked Hardy on the left edge of the Saints’ line. Both Armstead and guard Ben Grubbs went after the same guy inside. Running back Pierre Thomas came over to block Hardy (which may have been by design). But that left blitzing safety Mikell free to come and hit Brees unblocked from the other side.

The other two sacks also came on heavy blitzes – once when cornerback Captain Munnerlyn shot around the corner before Thomas was able to pick him up, and once when Munnerlyn forced Brees to step up in the pocket and Hardy finished him off while starting in the middle and running wide around the right side unblocked.

More on Armstead: Armstead had three other noteworthy miscues. He got beat by Hardy on another outside-in move in the third quarter on a second-and-19 play, which almost turned into a disaster. Brees made the risky decision to throw the ball away while being hit by Hardy – and he was lucky to avoid a fumble or an intentional grounding call. … Armstead also got flagged for two false start penalties in the second half.

But despite all those miscues, I can also see why there was some optimism surrounding Armstead’s performance. He wasn’t repeatedly getting torched throughout the game – and the Saints weren’t really helping him with too many double teams throughout the day (though Brees did get rid of the ball quickly to avoid pressure quite a bit). Armstead especially held up well in the second half. All told, I had Armstead with three blatant breakdowns and one eventual beat. That’s not egregious considering the Saints dropped back to throw 51 times in the game.

Good pickups: Since we broke down all the breakdowns, it’s worth crediting the Saints for their terrific blitz pickups on that 56-yard pass to Graham, as well as a 22-yard pass to tight end Benjamin Watson in the first quarter and a 35-yard pass to receiver Marques Colston in the second quarter.

Good runs: One more thing that worked often for the Saints on Sunday – runs by Mark Ingram, who had his second straight impressive performance. Ingram carried the ball 13 times for 83 yards – including a 34-yarder when he did an outstanding job of bouncing outside of heavy traffic and following fullback Jed Collins around the right end. Guard Jahri Evans had a terrific block on the play, and extra tackle Bryce Harris did a nice job sealing the edge.

Screens go nowhere: The Panthers repeatedly shut down one of New Orleans’ go-to plays – the screen pass – thanks in large part to the great athleticism and instincts of Davis and Kuechly. The Saints ran five screen passes that gained negative-1, 6, 0, 0 and negative-5 yards on the day. Davis blew up two of them, and Kuechly blew up two of them. The last two seemed especially predictable, and coach Sean Payton was seen on the sideline mouthing the words, “That’s on me” after the 5-yard loss.

The Saints also lost five yards on the previous play when they attempted an end-around to receiver Robert Meachem that didn’t fool end Charles Johnson one bit.

Getting physical: The Panthers were very physical in pass coverage, jamming Graham and Colston at the line of scrimmage and getting as handsy as the officials would allow. That’s always key to stopping the Saints’ passing offense. Kuechly really pushed the envelope while grabbing Graham on an incomplete third-and-goal pass in the second quarter. But it worked since no flag was thrown. I marked down at least five other plays where Carolina’s physical coverage led to an incomplete pass – plus at least one occasion where Brees took the sack because he couldn’t find an open receiver.

Weather related? Brees had three off-target throws in the game that may have been attributed to weather conditions. One was the interception described above. Another was an off-target short throw to Colston just after the rain stopped that also may have slipped a little. And during the second quarter, Brees missed a deep throw to receiver Kenny Stills when he didn’t lead him enough. It’s possible the wind was a factor.

Tough call: One of the costliest moments of the game was a questionable 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty against offensive tackle Zach Strief when the Saints were cruising down the field early in the third quarter. The penalty came at the end of a 6-yard run on first down that took New Orleans to Carolina’s 26-yard line. Strief shoved safety Quintin Mikell to the ground at the tail end of the play just as it was being whistled dead. It was a very shaky call. It looked bad to the naked eye at full speed. But the replay showed that Mikell might have over-dramatized his fall a little bit to make it look worse than it was. Mikell had just shoved aside Saints center Brian de la Puente in a similar fashion, so Strief may have been overzealous in his decision to shove Mikell – but it wasn’t a hard or malicious shove. … The officials did give one back to the Saints later with a questionable formation penalty against the Panthers during a Saints punt in the fourth quarter, though.

Gambles break even: The Saints’ two big gambles in the game had mixed results. First was a perfectly-executed surprise onside kick in the first half. Punter Thomas Morstead did a great job with his delicate kick that rolled straight forward. Linebacker Ramon Humber did a great job of wrapping it up after it traveled 10 yards. And linebacker Kevin Reddick was an unsung hero on the play, delivering a great block against linebacker Jason Williams to shield Humber.

However, the fake field goal attempt in the third quarter never had a chance. The Saints made the odd decision to shift into an offensive formation on the fourth-and-12 play, giving Carolina plenty of time to react and get lined up defensively. Backup quarterback Luke McCown threw deep for Graham, but the pass was off target and Graham was well covered.