Brees was clutch: As I wrote in this week’s QB Watch, I appreciated quarterback Drew Brees’ performance even more when I watched it again on tape. He delivered some of his best throws while he knew he was about to absorb a big hit (including completions of 24, 19 and 13 yards to Marques Colston and a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham in the fourth quarter).
And Brees was on fire during the Saints’ final two touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters. He converted five consecutive third downs (all third-and-5 or longer), including both touchdowns. He was seeing the field so well, he even took off and ran for a rare 7-yard score.
Brees did throw one interception in the third quarter -- a ball that sailed over receiver Lance Moore's head in the end zone and got snagged by rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu. It was an “aggressive mistake,” though, so it wasn’t egregious. Normally Brees succeeds when he lets his guys win those jump-ball battles, but Moore turned around too early to make a play on it.
Protection problems: Although Brees handled those hits well, he was still taking too many of them. He was sacked four times, bringing his season total to 10 (the most in any three-game stretch since he joined the Saints in 2006). I addressed this in greater detail on Tuesday.
I’m not overly concerned about the Saints’ ability to improve in this area. Three of Sunday’s sacks came against undrafted rookie guard Tim Lelito, who was making his first career start in place of All-Pro Jahri Evans. Otherwise, no one individual blocker was repeatedly abused. The other sack on Sunday came against tight end Benjamin Watson. Tackles Zach Strief and Charles Brown and center Brian De La Puente each allowed a couple pressures. But overall, the veteran linemen held up pretty well, considering Brees dropped back to throw 56 times and the Cardinals brought a lot of pressure.
Run-game woes: This remains the bigger concern for the Saints’ offensive line. Clearly they haven’t gotten in a consistent rhythm with their new outside zone-blocking scheme. They had a total of six runs (not counting QB kneel-downs) go for negative yards or zero yards -- including attempts when the line blocked left, right or straight ahead. Lelito struggled quite a bit in this area, as well, so the Saints will be eager to get Evans back to 100 percent health as soon as possible.
After watching the tape, though, I understood why there was so much optimism about the run game in the postgame locker room. The Saints’ blockers were completely in sync on their final drive, when they ran five times for 49 yards. Sure, the Cardinals' defense was whipped by that point, but it was a good example for the Saints of how well the blocking scheme can work when they’re on point. Fullback Jed Collins and extra lineman Bryce Harris had some great lead blocks, among others.
Robinson shines: Undrafted rookie tailback Khiry Robinson deserves a lot of credit for that drive, as well. He ran the ball four times for 38 yards, including a 21-yarder and an 11-yarder. The blocking was great on those runs, but Robinson helped himself with a stiff-arm of Mathieu to break a tackle on the 21-yarder. And Robinson was equally impressive when he gained 2 yards on a cutback to make something out of nothing. I still don’t expect him to supplant veteran Mark Ingram in the lineup when Ingram comes back from a toe injury. But if Robinson continues to take advantage of opportunities like this, the Saints will find ways to get him involved.
Well designed: It’s easy to see why the Saints rely so heavily on their passing game instead of trying to force-feed the run game -- especially when defenses like the Cardinals dare to load up with heavy fronts. The Saints repeatedly exploited Arizona’s passing defense with well-designed plays and decisions by Brees on Sunday.
The Saints’ first touchdown was a thing of beauty. They lined up Graham, receiver Robert Meachem and tailback Darren Sproles to the right side. Then Sproles faked like he was going to run forward before cutting back to the inside. That fake was just enough to make cornerback Jerraud Powers hesitate, and Meachem cruised behind Powers for a 27-yard touchdown catch.
Brees probably could have hit Graham for a TD as well. But Brees still found Graham nine times for 134 yards and two touchdowns. One of them was a jump ball in a one-on-one mismatch against safety Yeremiah Bell.
“That was a guaranteed seven points when that defense broke the huddle,” said FOX’s color analyst (and former Saints player) Heath Evans, who knew what Brees was looking for as he lined up under center.
Evans was beside himself throughout the broadcast at how many times the Cardinals left Graham in single coverage.
“I just feel bad,” Evans said after a 29-yard catch by Graham against Mathieu in the third quarter. “This is Jimmy Graham. You just can’t man up.”