Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Oct 2006
by Michael David Smith
If any team has ever been primed for a letdown, it was the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Traveling on a short week, after their emotional Monday night win over the Atlanta Falcons in their first game at the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, the Saints looked exhausted by the end of Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers, giving up two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of a 21-18 loss.
Is the real Saints defense the unit that surprised everyone with that 3-0 start, or the unit that allowed Carolina to run 19 plays for 164 yards and two touchdowns at the end of Sunday's game? After analyzing every play of the loss to the Panthers, I think it's mostly the former, but I also saw some weaknesses that future opponents will no doubt exploit.
The Saints' best player Sunday was linebacker Scott Shanle, who joined the team this season in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. Both Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were on the Cowboys' staff last year, and they must have liked what they saw of Shanle, who was mostly a special-teams player in his three years with Dallas. I liked what I saw of him on Sunday.
On a third-and-4 Shanle showed a very fast first step when he blitzed up the middle and sacked Jake Delhomme for a loss of 12. Shanle deserves most of the credit for the play, although he got two sizeable assists: First, Carolina rookie running back DeAngelo Williams did a terrible job in blitz pickup, barely laying a finger on Shanle and allowing Delhomme to get drilled. Second, Gibbs called a very well designed blitz. The Saints tackles, Brian Young and Hollis Thomas, acted like offensive linemen, pushing guard Will Montgomery and center Geoff Hangartner away and opening up the A-gap for Shanle to make the play.
Surprisingly, as well as that blitz worked, New Orleans rarely blitzed on Sunday. And despite playing against a banged-up Carolina offensive line that was without starting center Justin Hartwig, starting left tackle Travelle Wharton and, for part of the game, starting left guard Mike Wahle, the Saints didn't put much pressure on Delhomme.
But even though he wasn't often called on to blitz, Shanle played well, not only in the pass rush but also in pass coverage. On Carolina's first play of the second half, Steve Smith caught a pass over the middle, and Shanle was right on top of him, knocking him to the ground for a gain of only four yards. A player who blitzes and covers receivers that well makes a huge difference to any pass defense.
That's especially true for the Saints because their biggest defensive weakness is that the defensive backs, particularly cornerback Fred Thomas, don't play aggressively enough, seeming so intent on not giving up big plays that they can't stop giving up a few yards at a time. Thomas was credited with 12 tackles against Carolina, making him the game's leading tackler. But of those 12 tackles, only two can be called successful plays: One came on a third-and-17 when Thomas (initially lined up on the outside covering Keyshawn Johnson) read Carolina's screen and tackled DeShaun Foster for a gain of only six yards. The other was a tackle of Smith after a three-yard completion on second-and-10. That's it, two tackles out of 12 where Thomas helped his team. Every other time Thomas made a tackle, it was at the end of a successful Carolina play, often with Thomas so deep in the secondary that Carolina easily picked up yardage in front of him. If I were an offensive coordinator preparing a game plan against the Saints, I'd tell my quarterback he could march down the field using six-yard completions to the receiver matched up with Thomas all day.
New Orleans started the game in a dime package (six defensive backs on the field), and used that for much of the game against Carolina's standard three-receiver formation. Combine that dime package with Carolina's regularly using maximum-protection blocking schemes, and it's easy to see why the Saints couldn't pressure Delhomme. Take a look at Steve Smith's diving 22-yard catch (which got overturned on replay) in the first quarter. On that play the Saints rushed four and Carolina kept seven in to block. Delhomme scrambled around behind the line of scrimmage, and New Orleans never got close to him even though he waited a long time for Smith to get open. The Saints figured that the best way to stop Smith was dropping seven into coverage, but Smith is too talented a receiver not to get open, even if he's playing against a dime package.
A few plays later, on a third-and-10, New Orleans again rushed four and Carolina again kept seven in to block, and Delhomme had all day to set up in the pocket and scan the field, eventually finding Keyshawn Johnson for a 15-yard gain. The Saints were too passive and should have done more to try to pressure Delhomme, especially playing behind that weakened offensive line.
Early in the game, the Saints did a good job of shutting down the Panthers' running attack. On second-and-8 on Carolina's first drive, linebacker Scott Fujita attacked up the middle and ran into DeShaun Foster at the line of scrimmage. What would have been a good play for the Saints turned into a great one when, instead of just accepting that Fujita had him stopped, Foster foolishly backtracked. Middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, who had been trailing the play, tackled Foster for a loss of 10. It was a good play by both Fujita and Simoneau, but it was mostly a bad play by Foster.
Tackle Brian Young and end Will Smith made a couple of key stops on runs up the middle. On one first-and-10, Young overpowered Carolina guard Evan Mathis, shoving him into the backfield and hitting Williams for no gain. That was the best play I saw any Saints lineman make on the day. On a third-and-1, Carolina handed off to Brad Hoover up the middle. At the snap all four defensive linemen took a hard step to the left, which put right defensive end Will Smith in perfect position to hit Hoover in the backfield for no gain. It was clear on that play that the Saints defensive line wanted to force the action, rather than simply reading what Carolina's offensive line did and reacting to it. The Saints should have done more of that.
However, Carolina ended up having a very successful day on the ground. When Foster picked up a first down on second-and-4, defensive tackle Hollis Thomas couldn't hold his position against a Carolina double-team, and Foster ran behind it. Thomas got doubled on most running plays, which means Simoneau, playing behind him, was often unblocked and should have made more plays.
A big part of Foster's success was that New Orleans dime defense. On a first-and-10 with four minutes left in the second quarter, New Orleans had only six in the box. Foster had an easy run up the middle for 12 yards, especially because Simoneau took a first step in the wrong direction and opened up space in the middle of the field. Foster's yardage total also benefited from the Saints' deploying a rarely used but correct end-of-game strategy in allowing him to run for a 43-yard touchdown after he picked up a first down on third-and-7. It was after the two-minute warning and New Orleans was out of timeouts, so if Foster had simply gone down after gaining seven yards, the Panthers could have kneeled down and secured the victory. Instead, Foster's score gave the Saints the ball back with 1:45 left. The Saints promptly scored, but they failed to recover the ensuing onside kick.
In their dime package, New Orleans usually counted on strong safety Roman Harper to help out in run support, and he struggled in that role. On a second-and-3, DeAngelo Williams took a handoff up the middle and broke it for a 31-yard gain. The key to the play was the way Harper, who came into the box and lined up in perfect position to stop an inside handoff, was abused by center Geoff Hangartner. Harper ought to know that when you're a defensive back, the key to beating an offensive lineman is evading his block. Instead Harper allowed Hangartner to get his hands on him, and at that point it was over. Fortunately for New Orleans, cornerback Mike McKenzie made a nice play in catching the speedy Williams from behind in the open field and preventing a touchdown.
In fairness to Harper, he did a good job of covering Carolina's tight ends. Delhomme only threw to tight ends three times Sunday, and all three fell incomplete. On one third-and-3, Harper blanketed Kris Mangum completely and kept him from getting in place to catch Delhomme's pass. Harper also showed that he can blitz effectively, even though the Saints rarely tried it. On a third-and-12 when New Orleans rushed six, Harper got in Delhomme's face and forced an awkward throw off his back foot into traffic. Saints safety Josh Bullocks missed what should have been an easy interception. Harper is a rookie from Alabama, and although he needs to get better against the run, I think he showed with his coverage Sunday that he's going to be a good player.
In fact, the veterans in the Saints secondary could learn a thing or two from the more aggressive way that Harper engages with the player he's covering. Perhaps afraid of being beaten deep, Thomas gave Smith too big a cushion all day. On first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Smith was split wide to the left. Thomas lined up five yards off him and had no other Saints around to help. The television camera showed Delhomme's face just before the snap, and you could almost see him licking his chops at that coverage. Delhomme took a three-step drop and fired to Smith, who ran a slant, reeled in the ball at the four-yard line and strolled into the end zone. Near the goal line, a cornerback can't afford to allow Smith to get halfway there without challenging him at all. Coverage in goal-to-go situations is something the Saints clearly need to work on. When Delhomme hit Drew Carter in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Omar Stoutmire got confused when Carter and Johnson crossed paths before running their routes into the end zone and left Carter open.
But those coverage problems may have been mostly just a problem covering Steve Smith: As the Saints repeatedly lined up six defensive backs and made them all play with more caution than aggression, it looked much different than the defense we had seen six days earlier against Atlanta. In that game, the Saints played close, man-to-man coverage, thinking (correctly) that no Falcons receiver had Smith's ability to beat them deep. As the season goes forward, I think we'll see more of that, more aggressive pursuit from Shanle, more clogging of the middle of the line by Hollis Thomas, and more improvement from Harper. If that happens, a team that made off-season headlines by building its offense will earn a reputation as one of the league's top defenses.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
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