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Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

9/24/2014

The New Orleans Saints finally got their first win in Week 3. But their offensive performance was very similar to the first two weeks: Some stretches where they looked unstoppable, and some where they couldn't get started.

Fortunately for New Orleans, the good plays far outweighed the bad in a 20-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings -- thanks to a sizzling-hot start and a strong finish. The Saints converted 9 of 13 third downs and rattled off 17 plays of 10 yards or more.

And that doesn't even include the 15-yard "suplex" penalty against Minnesota that, fittingly, may have been the Saints' biggest play of all even though it may have been their worst.

Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:

WrestleMania: Brees got slammed into the turf as hard as I've ever seen by the tag-team duo of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Robert Blanton late in the third quarter. Brees' description of the hit as a "straight Hulk Hogan 1985 WrestleMania suplex" was perfect. He was completely upended and landed shoulders-first -- a scary moment until Brees instantly shot up and went after Blanton with a hard shove of his own.

I can understand why the Vikings argued against the penalty. Both defensive backs had to fight to get Brees down, and it really did seem inadvertent the way Munnerlyn wound up flipping Brees backward over Munnerlyn's own body. But the way both Munnerlyn and Blanton finished the tackle with their hands on Brees' chest as they drove him down made the hit look even more egregious. The official on the field described the penalty as "driving the quarterback into the ground."

Regardless, no one can argue the Saints got lucky on that third-and-13 play, since it was a complete failure on their part. The Vikings sent six blitzers, with Munnerlyn and Blanton both coming from Brees' left side. Tight end Jimmy Graham chipped Blanton on his way out for a pass. Then running back Pierre Thomas had to decide which of the two to block -- and he wound up stopping neither. Worse yet, guard Jahri Evans was getting beat by Vikings tackle Tom Johnson on the other side of the line.

Touchdown throws: Brees was sharp on both of his touchdown throws, which were two of his longest passes of the season. He found tight end Josh Hill wide open for a 34-yarder in the first quarter. That same duo of Munnerlyn and Blanton both decided to follow Graham out of a bunched formation. And Brees made the other safety, Harrison Smith, bite with a hard pump fake across the field.

Brees later fired an 18-yard TD pass to receiver Marques Colston. Brees had all day to throw against a four-man rush, and he fired a tight pass into Colston in front of safeties Smith and Blanton near the 2-yard line. Colston absorbed the hits and fell forward through Blanton for the score.

Running hot and cold: The Saints' run game has never looked better or worse than it did at different points of this game. The Saints gashed Minnesota for gains of 11, 8, 13 and 11 in the first quarter, among others -- with both Khiry Robinson and Thomas hitting holes decisively. I noted great blocks by everyone from all five linemen to receivers Robert Meachem and Colston to tight ends Benjamin Watson and Graham to fullback Austin Johnson.

But then it seemed like everyone took turns having that one breakdown that ruined an otherwise-good play (see: the first two months of last season). Hill had two bad whiffs, which explained why he was dwelling on mistakes after the game, despite his big receiving day. Guard Ben Grubbs got flagged for holding on a nice run play. Center Jonathan Goodwin lost his block while going down with his ankle injury. Evans and eplacement center Tim Lelito each got shoved back once. Colston missed a couple blocks. Johnson missed at least one.

Then, in the end, the Saints finished strong to run out the clock, with Robinson especially running with authority.

Clutch throws: Brees was at his best on third downs. A nice throw to Thomas on third-and-5; a 15-yarder to Graham to bust a six-man blitz on third-and-9; an 18-yard comeback throw to receiver Brandin Cooks on third-and-16; bouncing away from pressure to hit receiver Kenny Stills for 11 yards on third-and-10; and a 23-yarder to Meachem on third-and-11 after the Saints stymied Minnesota's five-man blitz.

A beautifully-designed wide receiver screen to Cooks also busted a blitz for a 19-yard gain on third-and-7 in the fourth-quarter. Meachem and Graham both led the way with terrific blocks.

Dropping the ball: Colston dropped two balls that would have been tough catches, but that he should have reeled in. And Graham dropped a deep comeback pass in the fourth quarter that was right in his breadbasket. That pass should have gained at least 20 yards when the Vikings blitzed with eight pass-rushers.

Under pressure: That missed opportunity can be forgiven since the Vikings missed one of their own late in the second quarter. Brees got hit as he threw when end Everson Griffen came at him untouched up the middle on a stunt, and Brees' underthrown pass easily could've been intercepted.

Brees also got sacked when linebacker Anthony Barr slipped between Goodwin and Evans on a twist. And left tackle Terron Armstead was flagged for holding when Armstead and Robinson got tangled up trying to block Griffen. Brees was pressured into at least two other incomplete passes.