Commentary

New Orleans offense gets some help

There's still work to be done, but the Saints' D proved it can rise up when challenged

Originally Published: November 14, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- They can't block out the noise. New Orleans Saints players hear the criticism -- how they can't get off the field, can't stop anyone in the red zone, can't stop the run and can't help an offense that is as explosive as any this side of Green Bay.

There are two extremes to the Saints. The defensive players get it.

But they've grown sick of hearing it, and when Falcons coach Mike Smith brazenly decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 29-yard line in overtime, the Saints defenders took it as a personal affront, a challenge and essentially a referendum on their manhood.

"They were trying to send a message, and we took it personal," said New Orleans defensive end Will Smith. "We were like, 'There's no way we're going to let them get it,' and you could just see it in the eyes of the players. There was no way they were going to get that first down, just by the way everybody looked and just by the way everybody's intensity was, and you know once they snapped that ball, everyone was in the position they needed to be."

The Saints swarmed Michael Turner and stuffed him at the line of scrimmage. It was just one play out of many in a physical game between players who readily admit they don't like each other very much, but it was a big play.

Not only because it led to a 26-23 win that put New Orleans in the driver's seat in the NFC South but also because the Saints stopped a big back using their goal-line package of five down linemen. They didn't allow the Falcons to make a push. They were the aggressors, the ones who didn't break. They got the stop they desperately needed, and quarterback Drew Brees and the offense did what they do best: move the ball and win the game.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Saints
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Saints held against the Falcons, but the defense must improve before the postseason.

If the Saints are going to be anything more than a good team with a glitzy offense that makes an early playoff exit, as New Orleans did last season at Seattle, the defense is going to have to build on this game. When the calendar turns to January, the Saints won't be able to afford to get into track meets with the New York Giants or the Green Bay Packers.

No one doubts the Saints' ability to move up and down the field, but can the defense get stops? Can it get off the field on third down? Can it create turnovers? Can it make a stop when it desperately needs one?

Teams that can do that can succeed in the playoffs. Teams that can't typically do not go far. The Saints' defensive identity is evolving, but it took several critical steps forward against the Falcons.

• That defense kept Atlanta out of the end zone in the first half. The Falcons took their opening drive 15 plays to the New Orleans 19-yard line but had to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. In the second quarter, they drove to the New Orleans 11 but again had to take the field goal, this time for a 6-3 lead. The defense kept the Saints' offense in the game. Typically, it is the other way around.

• The Saints forced the only turnover of the day. On the first play of the fourth quarter, New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle picked off a pass that was intended for Roddy White at the Atlanta 38-yard line. The Saints got a field goal and a 20-13 lead as a result. For a team that came into the game with a minus-6 turnover ratio, to be on the plus side was huge.

• New Orleans made the crucial defensive stop it needed. Fourth-and-1. Off the field.

"It's huge," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "Our defense catches a lot of stuff, and a lot of people say we're the Achilles' heel of this team, and we showed up big today, I think. We played really well early. We gave up some plays at the end of the game to put them back in position, and then we showed up big in overtime. It shows the resolve our team has."

No one was suggesting afterward that the defensive problems were solved. This still is a bend-but-don't-break defense that needs to tighten up. The Saints failed to wrap up Falcons backup running back Jason Snelling, who bounced off at least three tacklers to score the touchdown in the third quarter that gave Atlanta a 13-10 lead. They basically allowed Harry Douglas to roam free in the final seven minutes of regulation as Atlanta erased a 10-point deficit and forced overtime.

New Orleans allowed 481 yards of offense, including 138 yards on the ground. That won't win in the playoffs, but, because the Saints got the stops they had to have, it was enough to win this Sunday.

"We're still figuring ourselves out," safety Roman Harper said. "That's the best thing, man. Early in the season, we played a couple of teams and high-power offenses, I don't think we quite had our identity. Now, we're starting to figure out what we do best."

Forcing turnovers is always key in the schemes of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. So, too, is making stops on third down. At least a couple of times on third down Sunday, the Saints showed man coverage, then dropped back into zone.

"That's uncharacteristic of Gregg, and it really shocked them," Harper said. "We went out there and executed well, especially early."

The Saints' defense, as several players noted, has not arrived, but it is not as far off as some people might think.

Consider this: In 2009, the Saints had the No. 1 offense, averaging 403.8 yards per game, and the No. 25 defense, giving up 357.8 yards per game. New Orleans won the Super Bowl that season.

"Even last year we were a top-five defense, and they still talked about our offense, so it's OK. It's just the way everybody looks at this team," Harper said. "I don't care. We're just going to stay humble and continue to come to work and put our hard hats on every day. We can't worry about outside people or what they think. As long as we stay together as a defense, as a team and as a unit, we'll be fine."

INSTANT REPLAY

What I learned from Week 10:

[+] EnlargeSmith
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireMike Smith will know before his Falcons take the field on Sunday if they can earn the No. 5 seed for the NFC playoffs.

Coaches are human. They get caught up in the rivalry and the results. It happened to Bill Belichick against Indianapolis a couple of years back when Peyton Manning was in Belichick's head. And it happened to Mike Smith against the Saints.

Smith's explanation for going for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime: "In previous games, in close games that we've played them, we've punted the ball and they've gotten the ball back with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again, and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process I went through."

How often do coaches tell players to stay in the moment? You don't play in the past; you play in the present. You have to have short memories in this game. Smith didn't. He allowed the past to dictate the present, and it cost his team.

The Jets are going to have to take the long road through the playoffs. At least it's a familiar path. By losing to New England 37-16 on Sunday night, New York more or less assured that it would need a wild card to get into the playoffs, just like last season and the year before that. It isn't a deal breaker; Mark Sanchez has won four road games in the past two postseasons, but he has lost two AFC championship games on the road.

A home playoff game would be nice.

"It looks doubtful right now," Rex Ryan said when asked whether the Jets could win the AFC East despite trailing the Patriots essentially by two games. "What am I going to say? Maybe I should guarantee the fact that we're out of it. The last time I did we made the playoffs. Yeah, we've got no chance."

Rob Gronkowski might be the best tight end in football. With all due respect to Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, but New England's second-year tight end certainly got a huge compliment on Sunday when Ryan put Darrelle Revis, whose main responsibility is defending the best receiver on the field, on Gronkowski for a handful of plays.

Gronkowski had the best game of his career, tying his career high with eight catches, gaining 113 receiving yards and scoring two touchdowns. It was his third 100-yard receiving game of the season, his third multi-touchdown game and his second straight game with eight catches.

Why does anyone punt or kick off to Devin Hester? It is just unwise. Hester is the best returner the game has ever seen. He's better than his contemporary in Cleveland, Josh Cribbs, better than Brian Mitchell, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson or even the great Gale Sayers.

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz admitted the Lions made a mistake punting to Hester early in the second quarter Sunday. Hester dropped the punt, picked it up, avoided a couple of tacklers and sprinted up the left sideline, eventually avoiding another tackler to get into the end zone.

With that 82-yard punt return that gave the Bears a 20-0 second-quarter lead, Hester has 17 kick and punt returns for touchdowns in the regular season. Add in a postseason return TD and a missed field goal returned for a touchdown, and the number grows to 19.

No one has done it better than Hester. Ever.

Look what Tony Romo can do with a reliable running game. Sure, Bad Romo can rear his head at any moment, but Good Romo was magnificent Sunday against Buffalo, completing his first 13 passes and helping to build a 21-0 lead.

Why was Romo so effective? In part it was because of DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys trust Murray, the rookie out of Oklahoma who has gained 601 yards the past four games after gaining just 73 in the first five this season. Murray finished with 135 rushing yards against the Bills, and Romo had one of his best days ever, completing 23 of 26 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

Green Bay is going to have competition for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I see you, San Francisco. That was an impressive old-school win over the New York Giants. The 49ers' remaining schedule looks like this: Arizona, at Baltimore, St. Louis, at Arizona, Pittsburgh, at Seattle, at St. Louis.

I see potentially five wins there, and if so, 13-3 should be good enough at least to guarantee hosting a divisional game.

SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE

Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

[+] EnlargeHarbaugh
Kirby Lee/US PresswireJohn Harbaugh and the Ravens once again looked lost the week after a big win.
The Ravens can't handle success. For all the chest pounding that was going on in the Baltimore locker room after its season sweep of Pittsburgh in Week 9, several players noted that the win would mean nothing if the Ravens followed it up with an egg at Seattle. That's exactly what happened.

The Ravens are wildly inconsistent after big wins. Week 10 marks the third time this season Baltimore followed a huge win with a bad loss. After trouncing Pittsburgh in Week 1, the Ravens lost to Tennessee. After beating the Jets and the Texans, they lost at Jacksonville. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

You have to be consistent to be great. Baltimore is not there yet.

Mike Shanahan doesn't have a starting-caliber quarterback. This isn't exactly breaking news, but it is worth noting -- again -- after Shanahan pivoted from John Beck, 0-3 as a starter, back to Rex Grossman. The results weren't any better. The Redskins lost to Miami 20-9, giving Shanahan the first five-game losing streak of his career.

Grossman threw two interceptions against Miami, bringing his season turnover total to 13 in six starts.

What is wrong with Tampa Bay? The Buccaneers looked lifeless in a 37-9 loss to Houston. It looked as if they didn't want to be in the game, as if they just rolled over against the Texans, as if they had tuned out third-year coach Raheem Morris.

Tampa Bay has lost three straight and is 4-5 heading into a game against Green Bay next week. The Buccaneers aren't officially out of it, but they have the ninth-best record in the NFC. This was supposed to be the year Morris took rebuilding to the next level -- the playoffs -- but instead Morris now must worry whether he has lost the locker room.

John Fox can't bench Tim Tebow. Denver's coach might want to get Tebow out of the lineup, but he can't while the team is winning. It is a conundrum for sure. Tebow obviously isn't ready, and might never be ready, to be a traditional starting quarterback in the NFL. He doesn't have the arm or the mechanics.

But Tebow has given the Broncos something they didn't have previously: Wins.

Fox has had to alter his offensive system and become essentially a gimmick team. The Broncos ran the ball 55 times against Kansas City. Roll that around. Fifty-five times. Fox called eight pass plays, and Tebow completed two, including a 56-yard bomb to Eric Decker.

This can't be what Fox wants, but as long as Tebow is delivering the W's -- he is 3-1 this season -- Fox has no choice but to stick with him.

RANT AND RAVE

A player who will be under review today:

[+] EnlargeAndy Reid
AP Photo/Derek GeeAndy Reid was right on DeSean Jackson, but he's still searching for answers to other problems.

Benching disgruntled wide receiver DeSean Jackson might have been the only thing Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid did right this weekend.

Despite on-the-field evidence to the contrary, Reid was trying to get the team to come together when he decided to bench Jackson, who is unhappy at being in the last year of his rookie deal and making only $600,000, for missing a special-teams meeting Saturday. The message was loud and clear: No matter how important you are to the team, you are not above the team.

Jackson missed a meeting. He said it was an honest mistake, but he has been seething about his salary and lack of a contract extension for months. His discontent was inflaming an already combustible situation. Last season, he let that discontent bubble into another imbroglio with Reid. Jackson came out of that one. Maybe he will come out of this one too.

But Reid had no choice. Seeing his team unravel, he could not let one player's selfishness -- however understandable given the economics of the situation -- affect every other player on the roster. The Eagles could have used Jackson on the field, but Jackson's absence was of his own doing.

Still, there is plenty for which to blame Reid. His team was a disaster in Sunday's 21-17 loss to the Cardinals. Michael Vick continued to throw costly picks. The defense was beaten by backup quarterback John Skelton. The Eagles blew a fourth-quarter lead for the fifth time this season, illustrating just how dysfunctional they are on defense and how tentative they are on offense.

No lead is safe. And now Reid is not safe. The cries for his ouster are going to reach an epic level, which is saying something given the discontent over the years in Philadelphia about Reid's status as the coach. Eagles fans are loud, even more so when they are angry. A .500 team is bad enough. A 3-6 one is unconscionable.

I wrote on Friday, and still believe, that Reid will not get fired during this season or afterward. I think Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie will give him one more season to try to get this collection of talented players to play as a team rather than standing around as individuals.

A lot went wrong on Sunday, and a lot has gone wrong all season. But don't blame Reid for benching Jackson. He really had no choice.

TWEET THIS

Notable tweets from around the league:

"Truly humbled to pass a guy like Ozzie Newsome on all time tight end list! He was the foundation of what TE position represents! #humbled" -- @JasonWitten, the Cowboys tight end who has 666 career receptions, third most by a tight end in NFL history. Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez leads the league with 1,114 catches, and Shannon Sharpe is second with 815.

"The NFL is going to have a field day collecting fines from this Bears/Lions game." -- @MikePereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating and now a rules analyst for Fox.

"Darrelle Revis continues to shut down NFL receivers. If he keeps this pace up, he should be in line to snag a Kardashian by the playoffs." -- @TheBillWalton (a parody account), on the New York Jets cornerback.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.