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Monday, October 5, 2015

Behind one-armed superhero Drew Brees, these New Orleans Saints could get really fun

Posted By on Mon, Oct 5, 2015 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees leaves the field after an overtime triumph over the Dallas Cowboys. - DERICK HINGLE
  • DERICK HINGLE
  • New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees leaves the field after an overtime triumph over the Dallas Cowboys.


Without a fully functional throwing shoulder, Drew Brees completed 10 of his last 11 passes (the incomplete one was dropped) for 189 yards and a game-winning touchdown and a passer rating of 149.

You know what the last one looked like:
The game-winning 80 yard pass to running back CJ Spiller was the best moment so far of a young season that has been mostly bad but also kind of fun — and the ratio between those two things may be starting to tilt towards fun.

Brees barely kept the Saints' offense afloat most of the game, throwing short passes under the Dallas Cowboys' coverage and trying to avoid sack attempts allowed by his struggling offensive line. 

Then things changed. Brees went into Terminator Mode, wherein he becomes impossible to stop. It's this mode that we're used to seeing from him at night in the Superdome. Against Dallas, the result was a touchdown to take the initial fourth quarter lead, a 2011-like one minute drive without timeouts to set up the easy game-winning field goal that Zach Hocker missed, and then the Spiller score.

When it was over, Brees had completed 33 of 41 passes for 359 yards, his sixth-highest yardage total for any primetime home game since 2006. His performance was an emphatic statement that he's not done yet, that maybe we buried him a little too soon. If it was a preview of the future, it foretold that even a Brees whose arm actually is in decline — decline here represented by his bruised rotator cuff — can still be spectacular. 

The 2015 Saints are not a good football team right now, but it's starting to look possible that they might not be terrible, and maybe they are getting better. Their offense, which has averaged just 21.5 points per game, somehow ranks sixth overall in the league in terms of yards and ranks third with regard to converting on third down. They've been done in by a lack of playmakers and big plays, but enter Spiller, whose workload increased last night and should increase further.

If defenses begin to fear Spiller, they may devote fewer resources to strangling receiver Brandin Cooks, and suddenly the Saints' yards could be matched by points. This scenario is not so much wishful thinking as it is an evaluation of things actually starting to happen. The Dallas Cowboys left a rookie linebacker in coverage against Spiller and 80 yards later the game was over. Either future teams will not make that mistake, and will suffer the consequences elsewhere, or they will continue to make such mistakes and will suffer even worse consequences.

Even as the Saints are surprisingly good at third downs on offense, they are even more surprisingly decent at third downs on defense. They rank 13th, a massive improvement over last year's ranking of 31st. Football is complex but outcomes often depend on simple stuff, like staying on the field when you have the ball and getting the opponent 's offense off it when you don't. The Saints are pretty good at both of those things.

Their pass rush, behind burgeoning star Hau'oli Kikaha, is also threatening to reach the heights of mediocrity. The team has seven sacks this year, good for 18th in the league, and Kikaha has three of them, one in each of the past three games. That kind of consistency is matched by Kikaha's ability as a pure tackler — he leads the team — and playmaker; he has caused two of the Saints' three takeaways.

At the same time, the sight of linebacker Stephone Anthony running a ballcarrier down behind the line of scrimmage, or from across the field, is becoming almost as familiar as that of cornerback Delvin Breaux breaking up a pass in single coverage. Young, talented, improving players abound on defense. Unfortunately, so does Brandon Browner, who has allowed three passes of over 50 yards. By himself, Browner is responsible for almost two full yards of the Saints' league-worst 9.8 yards allowed per opposing pass attempt. The Saints might have won last night, but they won't win much more if they continue to allow such a number.

But at cornerback too, hope isn't unreasonable. Keenan Lewis played a little against Dallas and will play more and more as his rehab progresses. It's the same story at free safety, where Jairus Byrd will round into form over the next couple games. 

So no, these New Orleans Saints are not good, not yet. Still, neither are the majority of the teams they'll face. The Saints don't have to be good to be fun this year. They just have to be a little better.


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