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26 Sep 2007
by Michael David Smith
ESPN was running a poll Tuesday, asking who is most to blame for the Saints' 0-3 start: Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, the defense or Sean Payton.
After watching the Saints' Monday Night Football loss to the Titans live -- and then watching it again on tape -- I can assure you, the answer is none of the above. The biggest problem facing the Saints is the offensive line, and until that problem gets straightened out, the best story of the last NFL season is going to continue to be the biggest disappointment of this NFL season.
I generally dislike the mentality of treating an offensive line as one unit, rather than treating each of the five players on the line as individuals. But the fact is, left tackle Jammal Brown, left guard Jamar Nesbit, center Jeff Faine, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb all had bad games Monday night.
Plays on which none of the five offensive linemen looked like competent professional football players were common. Consider, for instance, the second play of the second half. On that play, the Titans rushed five and the Saints had seven in to block. That should have given quarterback Drew Brees plenty of time to pass. Instead, Brees was pressured from the right, the left and the middle. Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was the player who hit Brees as he threw, but the other four Titans rushing him all got close.
The worst player on the field Monday night was probably Nesbit, who was brutalized by Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. On third-and-6 on the Saints' first drive, Brees had pressure in his face from both Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch. The pressure came on a stunt, with Haynesworth going to the outside and Vanden Bosch coming inside, but it wasn't trickery that allowed the Titans' front to overpower the Saints' line, it was sheer force. Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch just overpowered Nesbit and Brown.
On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Deuce McAllister was stopped for no gain after Haynesworth blew up the play by easily fighting through a double team of Nesbit and Faine. Nesbit seemed to get more help than the Saints' other offensive linemen, but even when he was part of a double team, he was ineffective -- which is an indication both of his own deficiencies as a blocker and that he's not the Saints' only problem on the offensive line.
Faine had a few solid plays, especially when the Saints had a run called and he was one-on-one against a Titans linebacker. On the first play of the Saints' second drive, for instance, Faine had a nice block on Titans linebacker Keith Bullock in which he drove Bullock back several yards. When his job was to block straight ahead, Faine probably had the best night of any of the Saints' offensive linemen, as evidenced on Reggie Bush's second touchdown run, when Faine overpowered Titans linebacker Ryan Fowler.
But Faine also made some mistakes, including one holding penalty, at least one more play when he should have been called, and twice failing to notice when Titans defenders crossed the line of scrimmage. A center should know to snap the ball and give his team an easy five yards when that happens, but Faine's failure to do so allowed the Titans to get back across the line and avoid an encroachment penalty.
And even worse, when Faine's assignment was to get out in front of the play, he simply didn't have the quickness to do it. On a first-and-10 swing pass to Bush, Faine's responsibility was to get to the second level and block Titans linebacker David Thornton. Faine was far too slow, never got close, and Thornton tackled Bush for a loss of five yards. Faine was so slow to get there that I can't even be sure that blocking Thornton was his responsibility, although if blocking Thornton wasn't somebody's responsibility it was a horribly designed play.
A couple of successful plays succeeded in spite of Faine. On a third-and-1 just before the two-minute warning in the first half, running back Aaron Stecker took the ball over the left guard for a gain of two yards and a first down. But Haynesworth threw Faine aside and got into the backfield almost instantly, and if Stecker had hesitated for even a moment (as Bush probably would have, since Bush so often looks to hit a home run when all he needs is a single), Haynesworth would have drilled him behind the line of scrimmage.
Both of the Saints' tackles struggled, although Brown probably had a better game than Stinchcomb. Brees' first interception came on third-and-14, and he hurried his throw when Titans defensive lineman Antwan Odom looped to the outside, mixing up Evans and Stinchcomb. The Titans only rushed four on the play, and at first Brees looked like he'd have time to set up in the pocket and scan the field, but it Evans and Stinchcomb had a breakdown in communication. That happened a lot, with Evans, in particular, struggling any time the pass rush didn't come directly at him. Stinchcomb got beaten badly by Odom a few times, including one play on which Stinchcomb got completely destroyed but Odom bailed him out by putting his hand on Brees' facemask, drawing a penalty that gave the Saints a first down.
Brown had some solid blocks on running plays and at times looked like a sturdy pass blocker, but he's definitely better against pass rushers who try outside speed moves than he is against pass rushers who try to overpower him. Haynesworth destroyed Brown and hit Brees as he was throwing on one play. Brown also got called for holding once.
In case it isn't obvious, Haynesworth was a monster Monday night. Most fans still know Haynesworth because he committed one of the dirtiest penalties you'll ever see on a football field last year when he stomped on the bare head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode. But the guy can play.
It must be said that the Saints' offensive line isn't the only problem. In particular, the receivers aren't doing much to help the running game. On a second-and-10 run to the right by Bush, the offensive line actually did a good job of opening up a hole. But wide receiver Terrance Copper, lined up in the slot to the right, blocked absolutely no one, and as a result Titans cornerback Nick Harper came up and tackled Bush for a loss of a yard.
Still, that play was among a tiny minority of plays on which I can say the offensive line opened a hole. For the most part, there was nowhere to run.
The obvious question all this raises is: How did the Saints play so well on offense last year, with the same offensive line they have this year? I'm not sure I have the answer to that question, but I will say that Payton's offensive game plans always include a lot of counters, misdirections and trick plays. Plays like that, when they're executed well, can sometimes hide problems on the offensive line. Perhaps a full season -- and a full off-season -- of film study has allowed opposing defensive coordinators to figure out some of the tricks of Payton's offense, and that makes problems that always existed on the offensive line more apparent. The Titans' defense never seemed fooled by anything the Saints did.
With McAllister out for the season, what's next for the Saints' offense? For the rest of the year, it will probably have a lot of plays that look like Bush's first touchdown of the game. On that play, third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Titans' defensive line pushed the Saints' offensive line back into the backfield, but Bush raced to the outside and scored. If the Saints are going to pick up many third-and-1 conversions this year, they're going to need Bush to race to the outside a lot. But that's a hard thing to build an offense around. It's going to be a long year.
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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