NFL Nation: Purple People Eaters

Brees needs to keep carrying Saints

October, 21, 2012
10/21/12
7:24
PM ET
Drew BreesAP Photo/Brian BlancoDrew Brees threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns to rally the Saints.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Somewhere, Joe Vitt was watching the New Orleans Saints defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-28, on Sunday.

Vitt has been an assistant coach in the NFL since 1979. He’s a sharp guy and has been Sean Payton’s right-hand man since 2006.

When Vitt meets the Saints at Louis Armstrong International Airport on Sunday night and becomes their interim head coach again (he held the position in the preseason before serving a six-game suspension), he should greet the team with a simple message.

The Saints need to get back to the same formula they followed the past three seasons when they won a ton of games and made the playoffs three straight times. They need to grab onto Drew Brees’ coattails (and the quarterback has to be better than ever) because there are no miracles coming out of a defense that entered the day ranked No. 32 in the NFL and will probably stay there when the next rankings come out.

That’s the formula the Saints (2-4) used Sunday after quickly falling behind the Buccaneers (2-4).

“We played Saints ball, like we should,’’ running back Pierre Thomas said.

With 5:55 left in the first quarter, the Buccaneers already had a 14-0 lead. That’s when Brees took over the game. The Saints got the ball four more times in the first half. They scored touchdowns on all four drives.

Brees finished the first half with 313 yards, which had him on pace to break Norm Van Brocklin’s 1951 record for passing yards in a game (554).

“We stayed very calm and together,’’ Brees said. “We were just methodical.’’

Methodical is what the New Orleans offense was the last three years. It hadn’t really been that way this season, with some exceptions coming in the victory against San Diego prior to the bye week.

Against the Bucs, Brees looked like the Brees of old. Even without injured tight end Jimmy Graham, Brees completed passes to seven different players and threw touchdowns to four different teammates.

“When you think about who it is, it doesn’t surprise me,’’ said receiver Lance Moore, who led the Saints with nine catches for 121 yards.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone. Brees has carried this team in the past, and if the Saints are going to climb out of the hole they dug with an 0-4 start, he’s going to have to keep doing even more than ever.

Forget all the talk about how the running game is important and how the defense is catching onto coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. The truth is, if the Saints are going to have any shot at getting back to the playoffs, they need to let Brees throw the heck out of the ball, and they need to score a ton of points.

Spagnuolo’s defense isn’t going to make any dramatic improvements until the offseason -- when the Saints have a chance to add some personnel that’s better suited to his scheme. For now, they’re stuck with a few good individual players and a bunch of others who don’t fit what Spagnuolo’s defense is about.

That’s why Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman was able to throw for 420 yards and three touchdowns and why the Bucs finished with 513 yards of total offense. That’s why Vincent Jackson had 216 receiving yards.

Speaking of Jackson, he was involved in the one bright moment for the New Orleans defense. Jackson caught a ball that appeared to be tipped by cornerback Patrick Robinson, who fell down, with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter. That left Jackson without a New Orleans defender near him. He gained 95 yards on the play. It was the 96th yard that was crucial.

Free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was the deep man in Cover Two on the other side of the field, somehow ran down Jackson, who clearly ran out of steam as he got closer to the end zone.

The Saints then followed with what they repeatedly referred to as a “goal-line stand’’ in the locker room.

“Malcolm Jenkins running down Vincent Jackson to put us on the goal line and then the goal-line stand were about five huge plays right there and it decided the game,’’ said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who made his debut after spending six weeks on the physically unable to perform list with a knee issue.

But let’s be totally honest here. Although Vilma’s return no doubt provided some emotional lift, whatever he has left physically isn’t going to make New Orleans’ defense much better. The goal-line stand wasn’t the kind of thing you saw from the Steel Curtain or the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s.

In large part, the goal-line stand came about because it looked like Tony Dungy and Mike Shula were back wearing the Bucs’ headsets. With a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the Bucs ran LeGarrette Blount straight ahead -- on three consecutive plays.

If Blount is in the backfield and the rest of the offense is lined up tight on the goal line, everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming and any defense -- even the Saints' -- can stop it. The Saints stuffed Blount on all three plays and then forced a scrambling Freeman to run out of bounds for a 4-yard loss on fourth down.

Brees promptly followed that up with a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown drive to put the Saints ahead 35-21. Still, the Bucs came back and scored another touchdown and almost tied it on the final play of the game, but officials ruled receiver Mike Williams stepped out of the end zone before coming back in to catch a Freeman pass.

It just shows the best the Saints can hope for out of their defense is the same thing they got the last couple of years. Maybe one big play or one big stop a game.

Everything else is up to Brees.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Today is one of the rare Sundays when we won't be at an NFL game. As we revealed in Friday's programming note, we're covering Monday night's matchup between Green Bay and Minnesota. We're scheduled to cross state lines later this morning and be with you all day Monday.

But, don't fret. We'll monitor this afternoon's Detroit-Atlanta game as well as tonight's regular-season debut of Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Bears will try to keep up with the Indianapolis Colts. (Here are our NFL Nation thoughts on those games). So check back later today.

There are a number of good Sunday reads to peruse in the meantime. Here are a few from around the NFC North:

  • Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press traveled to the Georgia hometown of Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Among the anecdotes: Johnson so abhors attention that he often sits quietly on the visitor's side when he attends games at his former high school.
  • Despite all their talk about running the ball, the Lions shouldn't ignore the obvious advantage they have over the Falcons' defense in the passing game, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com. The Falcons will send second-year cornerback Chris Houston and little-used Brent Grimes to defend Johnson and Roy Williams.
  • This is the 75th anniversary of Lions football. Roar.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times traces the Bears' defensive slip to the middle of the 2006 season.
  • The Colts learned the hard way not to kick to Bears returner Devin Hester, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers weighs 217 pounds, his lowest since before his sophomore year at Cal. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rogers has lost 11 pounds and cut his body fat from 15 percent to at least 12 percent since he was drafted.
  • In an extended interview with the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Rodgers quoted a passage from Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," to describe his personality. (We tried to come up with a snarky passage of our own but ultimately didn't want to soil Mr. Frost).
  • Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal opened Q&As with Packers coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson with this question: "Do you guys know what you're doing?"
  • Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press compares the Minnesota Vikings' current defensive line to the Purple People Eaters.
  • Former Vikings coach Jerry Burns spoke to the team Saturday.

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