Three weeks into the season and some constant themes are starting to form for the 2013 3-0 Saints.
They're the top three in my five takes from the tape from Saints vs. Cardinals.
1) Getting Defensive
What else can you say about this unit? As I wrote earlier this week, the hope this offseason was just to back to the middle of the pack on defense. Today they're a top-five defense.
Sunday was their most dominant work yet. The Cardinals last 10 drives resulted in eight straight punts and two interceptions. They also sacked Carson Palmer four times and seemed to affect the timing of his throws.
What stood out most was just how basic it was. A coordinator known for exotic, pre-snap looks and schemes kept it extremely simple. He played with four down linemen for 45 of the 55 plays and only blitzed nine times.
Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster, John Jenkins, Martez Wilson and Tyrunn Walker made up the rotation of the front four most of the game.
All players played great, but Jordan in particular was outstanding. His pad leverage and high motor allowed him to apply constant pressure to Palmer.
Perhaps it's a testament to Rob Ryan to adapt to personnel or it's just a situation where he's not arrogant enough to force a stringent system on his players that may or may not fit it. Maybe it's a little bit of both. Regardless, the Saints have reaped the benefits.
The dominance really showed in the fourth quarter where the Saints offense was on the field for over 11 minutes.
2) Offensive Line is Offensive
This unit just has to get better.
Too much of what they do offensively depends on the decision-making of Drew Brees. And if Brees is under constant duress, eventually it will catch up to them.
Brees has now been sacked 10 times this season. According to Jim Henderson, that's the most for a three-game stretch ever under Sean Payton. What that doesn't account for is the multiple hits he's taking when he doesn't get sacked.
Sunday was their worst effort of this young season. Undrafted rookie Tim Lelito was in for Jahri Evans and struggled mightily. Darnell Dockett abused him all game long with four sacks. Hopefully Evans will be back soon and get back to his previous form.
The player I'm more concerned with is Ben Grubbs. Grubbs is consistently getting pushed back at the point of attack. You can see it in both run and passing plays.
We're three games into the season now and this unit has still yet to figure it out. If they keep struggling, I wonder how long before Coach Payton starts to consider some personnel changes.
3) Jimmy Graham
You can see the dollar signs pop up with each Jimmy Graham catch. Graham is just on another level right now. He followed up a career game last week with a nine-catch, 134- yard, two-touchdown performance against Arizona.
Last week, Graham was living between the numbers in the Bucs' zone. This week Graham faced much more him man-to-man and was all over the field.
Safety Yeremiah Bell, nickel corner Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson each had chances to go one-on-one with him. And each of them lost badly.
I have no idea what strategy works best against Graham but I'm quite sure the Saints are happy they don't have to be the ones to find one.
What has really stood out this year is the development of his route tree. He has become a much more diverse route-runner. He used to run the vertical seems in the middle of the field and the fade route around the goal line.
On Sunday, we saw those but also saw quick slants, outs, digs and corners. On one of his matchups with Mathieu, Graham's jab step inside completely faked him out. Graham then easily beat him up the sideline for a 28-yard gain. That's a 6'7, 270 pound tight end essentially ‘out-quicking' a 5'8, 180 pound cornerback.
At this point in the season, Graham may be not just the best tight end but the best pass catcher in the NFL period.
4)Athletic Drew Brees
He's thrown for over 300 yards in all three games and has six touchdown passes on the season but still there is a feeling that we haven'tseen that signature Drew Brees game this season.
Sunday was certainly much better from last week and we even saw a lot of the vastly underrated athletic side of Brees.
He had to be. He was constantly evading rushers with his feet and used that mobility to make throws downfield or run.
He gave the Saints their first and only rushing touchdown of the season. He also converted another first down and nearly got another one with his feet.
His best play though came in the third quarter on a roll out when he froze the unblocked John Abraham stepped up, did a slight jump with two feet and fired a strike to Marques Colston on a deep-out route for a 19-yard gain.
5)Red Zone Rebound
One scary trend that was forming through the first two weeks that improved Sunday was the Saints red zone efficiency.
After scoring just one touchdown against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the Saints scored three in five tries Sunday. The main objective is to get in the end zone every time but it is a marked improvement.
The Saints got a field goal on another trip and turned the ball over on the other when Brees was picked off by Mathieu.
It was a nice play by Mathieu by running it down but after watching it again, it really was a ball Brees should have never thrown. Colston was open over the middle on what appeared to be a much easier throw. The ball also sailed on Lance Moore who had no realistic shot at catching it.
- With one interception and nearly two more, plus some key tackles, Keenan Lewis played his best game as a Saint.
- Kenny Vaccaro continues to impress me. He's played all of three professional games and is all over the field playing multiple positions. On Sunday he picked off the first pass of his career. But what's really standing out to me about him is just how quickly he closes in on a receiver's route and makes sure tackles. It seems so basic for a defender to tackle, but it's a fundamental that I think has gotten lost a bit in the new age NFL. Luckily for the Saints, Vaccaro has it and he may be the surest tackler on the team.
- The Saints were 7-13 on third downs Sunday. They were 5-5 beginning their final drive of the third and into the fourth quarter. That's winning football.
- My stat of the game: Offensive plays run in the second half: Saints-43 Cardinals- 18. Those third downs mentioned above played a key role in that disparity.
- I'm not jumping on the Khiry Robinson train just yet. I don't want to take anything away from him. He played well. But he did so against a gassed Cardinals defense that was on the field for all those plays mentioned above. On a side note I do find in interesting that Mark Ingram was nowhere to be found all week, inactive for Sunday and at least by my eyes wasn't on the sideline for the game. None of that is out of the ordinary except for the fact that a report came out that he was ‘planning to seek' a trade. The CBS report was carefully worded but I've been around long enough to know that this stuff doesn't just happen. Clearly there are some issues there and I'm sure it will be a storyline moving forward.
Saints will own the Monday night matchup of unbeatens.
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