A funny (but not really funny) thing happened to the New Orleans Saints in their season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. That contest marked the very first time in the franchise's entire 52-year history that New Orleans lost a game when scoring 40 points or more.
It's a dual-edged sword of a statistic that speaks to just how good the Saints offense remains in spite of the ever-changing talent that's in place around future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, but also is indicative of how unreliable that the team's defense remains even after last year's notable improvement that helped lead New Orleans back into the NFL Playoffs and win their first NFC South Division Championship in the last 6 years.
But here's the big question that Saints fans are asking this morning as the team prepares to face the Cleveland Browns in a critically important game this Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which is:
Is scoring 40 points per game going to become the new required minimum for the Saints to win games for the rest of the 2018 Regular Season?
One would certainly hope not from the Saints' point of view, in spite of 2nd year CB Marshon Latimore's comment to reporters after the game.
"We can't lose if our offense is going to score 40 points", Lattimore said somewhat sheepishly to reporters in the locker room after the game.
Well Marshon, thanks to the poor performance by you and the rest of your Saints defensive teammates against Tampa Bay's offense, it turns out that 40-point prerequisite isn't actually good enough to guarantee a win.
Maybe it's because Lattimore and his fellow members of the defensive secondary allowed Buccaneers back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to join former 1990's Washington Redskins QB Mark Rypien (11-10-91 vs. ATL) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards, 4 TD's and zero interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown in a single game.
And it was also why Tampa Bay's 14.9 yards per pass attempt last Sunday was the 4th best single game mark in NFL history for a team that attempted 28 or more passes, per Pro Football Reference's play index. It was the best mark put up by an NFL QB in nearly half a century (46 years ago, by Jets QB Joe Namath back in 1972).
The Buccaneers 14.9 yards per pass attempt today is the fourth best single game mark in NFL history for a team that attempted 28 or more passes, per Pro Football Reference's play index. Best mark since '72: https://t.co/BbrQeJMcBq
— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) September 9, 2018
But it wasn't just the secondary that played poorly. In nearly 40 pass attempts, the Saints D-Line recorded zero sacks and had only two QB hits on Fitzpatrick; while the linebackers always seemed to have their hands full with defending the run when the Bucs weren't too busy "burning down the house" with throws deep down field.
In nearly 40 pass attempts, the Saints recorded zero sacks and only two QB hits on Ryan Fitzpatrick.
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) September 9, 2018
In short, the Saints defense CAN'T BE TRUSTED (what else is new?) — and now once again, it will be up to the Saints offense to "catch their slack".
“We needed to get slapped in our face one good time to see that we’re not on the level that we think we’re on", Lattimore said.
"(But) we’re going to get better.”
Fortunately for the Saints, they still have Brees to bail them out of the unpleasant situation that they now find themselves in this week, with this Sunday's critical game against Cleveland looming as a "must win".
Even now at age 39 (he turns 40 on January 15th) and in his 18th season, Brees is showing little signs of slowing down.. And even though the Saints lost, the offense looked great at times despite missing some key contributors and STILL managed to score 40 points.
Brees was 37-out-of-45 for 439 yards and 3 TD's for the Saints. Alvin Kamara, the 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year, caught nine passes for 112 yards and one touchdown to go with two touchdown runs. Wide receiver Michael Thomas caught a franchise single-game record 16 passes for 180 yards and a TD, even though he turned the ball over on a fumble across midfield in the third quarter.
So it goes without saying: the Saints offense in spite of some tinkering and tweaking, remains a well-oiled machine.
Since Sean Payton took over the team back in 2006, the Saints haven’t finished any lower than 6th overall in total offense in ANY season; and 2018 likely will fall into that category yet again.
But — how many times will Payton's offense actually be able to save them for the remainder of the year, especially against tough defenses such as the Vikings, Rams. Eagles, and Steelers on this season's schedule?
Clearly unless we see some dramatic improvement from the Saints defense starring with this Sunday's game vs. the Browns, then the offense even scoring 40 points still won't be enough to "guarantee" victory, in spite of Lattimore's inference otherwise.
As it is, Sunday's game won't exactly qualify as a Sunday picnic at Grandma's house by any stretch.
Cleveland’s defense is led by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (2009-11), whose reputation is well-established for blitzing and creating pressure on quarterbacks; and as Brees noted to reporters yesterday, is a defense that will present a difficult challenge to meet any sort of 40-point offensive mandate.
“It's an aggressive style,” Brees said. “He gets those guys playing hard. They’re multiple, meaning they do a lot of things and do a lot of things well."
“Looking at them from last year to this year, they kind of revamped their secondary in the draft. (Cornerback) Denzel Ward, high pick. And (they) go out and get some free agent guys as well that have really bolstered that secondary. (They have a) really good linebacker corps, really good front seven (and) one of the most elite pass rushers in the league in (defensive end) Myles Garrett. So they're a formidable defense.”
Brees' observations were a sentiment that was echoed by Payton in that same press conference with reporters:
“I think the first thing you want to avoid is minus plays, because of the amount of pressure and zone pressure,” Payton said. “So you’ve got to be able to recognize what it is (Williams is) trying to do and then, there’s opportunities for big plays.
“And then when they play in a softer zone, you’ve got to be smart and patient enough to move the ball down the field. So it’s really recognizing what it is he’s trying to do relative to the down and distance, and what you have called. It’s a challenging defense and it forces you to really go through your protections, your run game – all the things that you want to do offensively get tested a little bit.”
While the Saints offense is certain to be tested, they clearly are the better unit and it's the reason why they enter into Sunday's contest as a 9-point favorite.
But as we saw for ourselves last Sunday, even if they hang 40 points or more on Cleveland inside the Superdome this Sunday, it still might not meet the required minimum that for most other NFL teams, would guarantee success.
And the impetus is on the Saints defense to help them out, instead of making the offense's task more difficult.