After an opening game to the 2017 regular season where the New Orleans Saints pass defense quickly reverted back to their at times-embarrassing play of the past 3 seasons, it was Saints starting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro earlier this week who summed up in 8 or 9 words the thought that Saints fans all over the "Who Dat Nation" are thinking to themselves right about now.
“We can’t let Brandin Cooks get a deep ball."
And he would be exactly right.
With tomorrow's home opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the defending World Champion New England Patriots less than 24 hours away from kickoff, the Saints pass defense could be in some deep (no pun intended) trouble.
After this past Monday Night's loss at Minnesota in which the Saints secondary yielded EIGHT (8) passing plays of 20-plus yards or more (the most in the NFL in Week #1), the team's pass defense has to find a way to quickly regroup, against a player with Cooks' talent who already knows the tendencies of New Orleans' defense quite well after having faced it during practice every day for his first 3 NFL seasons.
It's the very same Saints pass defense that since the start of the 2014 season, they have allowed 75 pass plays of 30-plus yards -- also the most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information via ESPN beat writer Mike Triplett.
And with Cooks' obvious reputation as a big play / "deep ball receiver", one can only imagine that New England's 5-time Super Bowl champion and future Hall-of-Fame QB Tom Brady will be looking to hit Cooks with a deep pass every single opportunity that he gets tomorrow afternoon.
The question then becomes: what can the Saints actually do to stop it?
“I mean, you can run your curls, you can run whatever your little route tree is besides the home run ball,” Vaccaro said. “But when you put on the tape, Brandin Cooks is running deep a lot. So that’ll definitely be something that we have to stop.”
Cooks, traded from New Orleans to New England in March a few weeks before the 2017 NFL Draft, caught three passes for 88 yards last week in his Patriots debut, including a 54-yard reception.
Oh, and just in case Saints fans may have forgotten, now that Cooks plays for another team: he is tied for the NFL lead with 12 catches of 42-plus yards since the start of 2015, according to Triplett.
Now he gets to face a pair of young Saints CB's in current starters P.J. Williams and rookie Marshon Lattimore who while they did well at times this past Monday Night, still got credited with giving up a combined 16 receptions, 250 yards and 2 touchdowns to Vikings starters Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Williams surrendered a 44-yard reception when he took a false step toward the line of scrimmage on an all-out blitz and was beaten downfield by Thielen, according to the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill.
The receptions given up to Thielen in particular were particularly disconcerting, since the Vikings' #3 WR is unlikely at any other point this season to put up the numbers that he was able to put up against the Saints: 9 catches for 157 receiving yards.
Where did the Saints go wrong, and how can they avoid doing it again tomorrow against Cooks?
Against Minnesota on Monday Night, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen essentially ran a typical zone defense, which 9 times out of 10 will allow the opposing offense to hit on a lot of quick crossing patterns to open up the zone coverage underneath.
However, the Vikings capitalized on two weaknesses in the Saints secondary, but neither of whom are named Williams or Lattimore.
2nd year Saints CB De'Vante Harris had Saints fans yelling at their TV's near the end of the 1st half and then again during the 2nd half, when the former UDFA out of Texas A&M University, seemingly got victimized time and time again by Vikings QB Sam Bradford.
Bradford and the Vikings picked on Harris repeatedly as he was playing the nickel back spot in single coverage, and he simply was NOT up to the task.
He gave up not one but 2 TD receptions to Diggs (though one was eventually blamed on Vaccaro), and was caught out of place or position on several long Vikings pass plays to Thielen.
Why the Saints decided to keep Harris out there when he was getting beaten so badly is a mystery, though it would probably be safe to assume we might not see very much of Harris tomorrow afternoon (and more of veteran CB Sterling Moore), assuming the Saints coaching staff has learned their lesson.
But another thing Minnesota did which the Saints may not be able to get "fixed" in time for tomorrow is the play of Vaccaro himself.
Whenever the Vikings hit the Saints with "big plays", they seemed to specifically target / go after Vaccaro. The first of 2 Diggs TD's was actually Vaccaro's responsibility, and appeared to be a communication breakdown in Cover 2 coverage between Vaccaro and Harris that allowed Diggs to be left WIDE open for an easy touchdown.
Later on during Minnesota TE Kyle Rudolph’s TD, Underhill noted that Lattimore got frozen on an underneath player when it appeared he was supposed to sink, which allowed Rudolph to get open and left Vaccaro in a bad spot.
Clearly the Patriots will take what they've learned from watching the film from this past Monday Night, and will seek to incorporate some things that they determined the Saints defense did poorly at against the Vikings, into their own offensive game plan for tomorrow afternoon.
It's more than likely that the Saints will seek to use the rookie Lattimore in a one-on-one, press-man coverage against Cooks, since he appears to have the best pure cover skills of any Saints CB currently on the active roster.
You can bet that Lattimore will get more than physical a few times with Cooks, who hasn't always been a player who relishes a lot of physical contact to impede his route-running and eventual unimpeded path to the football.
For the Saints pass defense, it will simply come down to playing with discipline and more importantly, playing SMART --- and being where you're supposed to actually be, on a given play.
If they can do that, then perhaps they can avoid getting "burned" by Cooks , or at least not often enough to have it matter on the final scoreboard tally at game's end.
“Obviously he was a great part of this team for three years,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Cooks to reporters on Wednesday. “We wish him the best of success. Although we’d rather him not go off in this game.”
Yeah Drew, that makes you along with everyone else, in the "Who Dat Nation".
Let's hope that it's nothing like the performance like we saw from the Saints pass defense this past Monday Night, and certainly not the handful of ones that we've seen since the start of 2014.........