Finally, the "streak" is over. With an impressive 13-7 Pre-Season victory last night over the Los Angeles Chargers, the New Orleans Saints won their first Pre-Season game in nearly 3 years.
With the win, New Orleans (1-1) snapped a 10-game losing streak in the Pre- Season that had dated back to 2014, when the Saints beat the Colts at Indianapolis.
The game was dominated by defense, and especially that of the Saints.
The surging Saints "D" held the Chargers to 158 total yards of total offense, and registered 8 sacks and a ridiculous 13 tackles for losses (that's right: THIRTEEN of them).
The Saints linebacker corps appeared to do the most damage, with starters A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o, Craig Robertson and Alex Anzalone all making big plays -- though we can only put one on our list this morning for the biggest "winners and losers" from yesterday's contest.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 5 biggest winners and losers, from last night in Los Angeles........
THE FIVE BIGGEST WINNERS
#5. CHRIS BANJO, SAFETY / SPECIAL TEAMS "ACE"
While 5th year veteran safety Chris Banjo will likely never crack the Saints starting line-up as a safety, his true value for New Orleans is as a special teams "ace", in very much the same manner as former Saints safety Steve Gleason used to be.
Banjo knows he has to make his mark on special teams if he wants to remain on the Saints Final 53-man roster (the final cut is in 2 weeks from now, on Sunday afternoon, September 3rd), and after last night's performance, he may have already secured his spot for the 2017 season.
Banjo stopped Chargers RB/ kick returner Brandon Oliver at the Los Angeles 15 yard line on a kick return one one stand-out play, and followed that up later with TWO tackle for losses on Chargers punt returner Isaiah Burse -- one for a 5-yard loss, and then on another return in the second quarter for an 11-yard loss where he literally SMOTHERED Burse.
Banjo might not ever impact the Saints defense in any sort of memorable way in his entire time in a Saints uniform, but as of right now his impact on special teams is irreplaceable.
#4. WILL LUTZ, KICKER
Speaking of special teams, Saints 2nd year kicker Wil Lutz has improved so much in the past year that I might even have to give him a new nickname besides the derogatory one that I gave him last year when I referred to him as "the next Russell Erxleben", after the infamous Saints kicker from the late 1970's who is generally regarded (by many older Saints fans anyway) as the most hated Saints player of all-time.
But now I have a brand new nickname for the 23-year old: "Money".
Lutz's improved confidence has been the talk of Saints Camp over the past several weeks, and last night he showed off that confidence by drilling a 53-yard field goal that would have been good from 60 yards; and then later added a chip-shot 26 yarder on the team's final drive to seal the 13-7 victory over Los Angeles.
Is he the "next Morten Andersen"?
Probably not --- but the Saints finally have themselves a legitimate kicker, after some moments of trepidation over Lutz's somewhat "shaky" start of 2016.
Let's hope that 2017 goes much smoother for the Saints and Lutz in the regular season, as they have so far in these recent last few months.
#3. ALEX OKAFOR, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER
Okafor, one of the team's "prized" veteran free-agent signees this off-season after his first 4 seasons in the League with the Arizona Cardinals, has had a solid Camp thus far but had been relatively quiet in a sense --- but last night the 26-year old former University of Texas All-American made some noise, and everyone heard it.
Okafor had a sack, a quarterback hit and two tackles for losses in what amounted to at least one entire quarter's worth of game action.
But perhaps more impressively was the fact that time after time after time after time, it almost seemed as if he were a part of the Chargers offensive backfield --- since he was literally inside of it all night with one QB pressure after another.
At this point, it's hard to envision 3rd year player Hau'oli Kikaha (who's actually looked pretty good so far in his attempt to make a 'come back" from a 3rd ACL surgery to his left knee) making any kind of an overwhelming push in the last 2 remaining Pre-Season games to unseat Okafor as the starting right defensive end / Edge rusher on the side opposite of Cam Jordan.
Okafor will be the starter at Minnesota on opening night against the Vikings, and now the Saints are hoping it's a matter of finally "getting their money's worth" from one of their notable investments over the years in NFL Free Agency.
#2. ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK
One play, one touchdown.
That was the immediate and instantaneous result for the Saints offense last night when Kamara took a hand-off during the team’s first offensive snap from scrimmage, and then EXPLODED through a hole opened up by rookie offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk on the left side of the line on his way to a relatively easy 50-yard touchdown run.
SAINTS TOUCHDOWN: @a_kamara6 gets things rolling early!
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 21, 2017
He also added a 22-yard pass reception later in the quarter, and ended up with five carries for 61 rushing yards and had an 11-yard punt return as well.
During and after the game, Kamara began drawing comparisons on Social Media as a faster and more explosive version of former Saints RB Pierre Thomas; although for me personally, he reminds me of former Rams RB Marshall Faulk.
In any event, for the 2nd straight week Kamara has shown the capability not only to be a "scat back" in the mold of former Saint RB's Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, but can be a "lead" RB --- and get 20-25 carries as a RB that can "tote the rock".
#1. MANTAI TE'O, LINEBACKER
A "dream performance". That's how I referred (on Twitter) to Saints middle linebacker Mantai Te'o's game last night against his former Chargers team, the same team whom with he previously tore an Achilles tendon that nearly ended his NFL playing career.
On the night, Te'o had a phenomenal stat-line: 8 total tackles (3 of them for losses), 1 sack, and a fumble recovery.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 21, 2017
But he stood out most as the player (along with fellow LB A.J. Klein, who also deserved to be included on this list) that linebackers coach Mike Nolan "turned loose" on the Chargers with a variety of different blitz schemes that had the Chargers offense in complete disarray.
It was the type of performance reminiscent of Te'o's time in college as an All-American LB at Notre Dame, that once upon a time made him a college football defensive "superstar".
Te'o's "bone-jarring tackles" of Chargers QB Kellen Clemens showed off the amount of energy and passion that he noticeably brought to last night's contest --- and if Te'o plays like this every week? Then the Saints are in store for one hell of treat for their defense in 2017.
THE 5 BIGGEST LOSERS
#5 WILLIE SNEAD, WIDE RECEIVER
The Saints' 3rd year star WR actually didn't do anything wrong to end up on this part of our list, but was a "loser" in the sense that he was essentially stuck playing in a meaningless game late in the 2nd half that he probably shouldn't have been.
Snead was still in the line-up well into the 4th quarter, and after the game Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that the reason was that Snead has sat out a portion of Training Camp due to undisclosed injuries, and Snead's extended action was a direct result of him missing valuable practice time.
"(Snead) really hadn't gotten as many snaps," Payton said. "A handful of these guys have not had the same pitch count maybe that others have."
Snead finished the game with two catches for 14 yards on two targets, and took the "punishment" in stride: "I think I just got better blocking," Snead said. "(I'm) just getting the feel for the game again, I think just starting to get into rhythm."
While we can understand Payton wanting Snead to get some extra work in to get back into playing shape, it just seems like an unnecessary risk to take with one of your key starting players.
Snead -- if anything -- is actually a "winner" in every sense of the word, but having to play when he shouldn't have been actually could have made Payton and the Saints offense the "biggest losers", had Snead gotten hurt.
#4. STEPHONE ANTHONY, LINEBACKER
When you don't even see a SINGLE SNAP in an NFL Pre-Season game but you're not actually supposed to get the night off in the first place because you're not considered to be a "starter", then you have a serious problem on your hands as an NFL player.
For much-maligned Saints 3rd year linebacker Stephone Anthony last night, that reality had to have come crashing down right in front of him as he watched his fellow LB's dominate last night's game.
Anthony didn't even suit up all week in practice at Training Camp last week, and he didn't play last night against the Chargers.
As a result, it appears that he has fallen even further and further down the team's depth chart at this point; and his future with the team appears to be in a lot of doubt.
Unless Sean Payton decides to elaborate further on Anthony's status, we can only assume that his days in a Saints uniform are numbered, and it wouldn't come as a shock at all to see the team try to trade him in the upcoming days and weeks ahead.
#3. (TIE) RYAN NASSIB / CHASE DANIEL, QUARTERBACKS
After last night, Saints fans will want to remember to start saying a little prayer before each regular season game this year; and ask God to PLEASE protect 38 and soon-to be 39-year old starting QB Drew Brees' health --- because if Brees ever gets hurt, the Saints are TOTALLY SCREWED.
Both #2 QB Chase Daniel and 4th string QB Ryan Nassib (who played the whole 2nd half while Garrett Grayson will get his opportunity next week to do the same) combined to complete 13 of 27 passes for 135 yards.
Although Daniel's spot on the team is secure, he didn't actually distinguish himself all that much; and took a couple of sacks that seemed he could have easily avoided by either taking off and running or simply just throwing the ball away. Instead, he did neither. He finished 7-of-12 for 80 yards.
Meanwhile, Nassib -- who actually played decent against Cleveland last week and was a "winner" on this very list -- ends up a big "loser" thanks to his horrible performance that included a "Pick-6" interception that he threw near the goal line; that allowed Chargers DB Dexter McCoil to take 99-yards " to the house" for a TD.
Nassib finished 6-of-15 for 55 yards, and it's safe to say that his time in New Orleans won't last beyond the 4th and final Pre-Season game on August 31st against the Ravens.
#2. BRYCE HARRIS, OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Part of the reason why Daniel and especially Nassib struggled was thanks to the next player on our list: veteran back-up offensive tackle Bryce Harris -- whom I jokingly referred to as "trash" on Twitter last night, although the truth is that it was an appropriate (and damn accurate) desrciption of how poorly he played.
I always knew Bryce Harris was #trash, but tonight confirms it.....
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) August 21, 2017
Harris himself struggled mightily against a Chargers defensive front made up mostly of reserves, which in turn clearly (and very visibly) made Nassib appear uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit "gun shy".
In short, it was not a very good look.
Harris also picked up two holding penalties, one at left tackle an then another when he shifted over to right tackle and practically had to yank the arm off of the Chargers defensive end on the play to prevent an easy sack of Nassib.
Harris was brought in (once again after several previous times on the roster) to be a back-up following the loss of Terron Armstead, but at this point the team appears they'd be better off looking at other more viable options, than the undesirable one that Harris provides.
#1. DAMIAN SWANN, CORNERBACK
For the 2nd straight week, Saints 3rd year veteran CB Damian Swann ends up on our list of "biggest losers", and that's NOT a good thing.
Swann at this point is in a frantic battle just to make the team, and after last night's performance on top of the one that he had last week in Cleveland, things don't appear to be trending in his favor at the moment.
His most egregious error this week (after last week's embarrassingly blown pass coverage) came during a 3rd-and-23 situation, when Swann was flagged for pass interference on a harmless seam route thrown by Chargers QB Cardale Jones to WR James Jones (no relation), giving Los Angeles a gift-wrapped first down.
On the VERY NEXT play, Swann then gave up a 17-yard reception to James Jones; prompting the Saints coaching staff to yank Swann out of the line-up for a couple of plays, and to the sidelines where Saints head coach Sean Payton was waiting for him.
As Swann slowly walked over, Payton appeared to LIGHT HIM UP with what some would probably describe as a bit of "salty" language, to no doubt get his point across and relay his visible displeasure with Swann's performance.
At this point, Swann's spot on the Saints Final 53-man roster is in serious jeopardy; and if he doesn't show up big in the last 2 Pre-Season games this coming week against the Texans and next week against the Ravens, his time in NOLA likely will be coming to an unfortunate end............