A combination of a bad play call (known as “Cover Zero”) along with poor technique in pass coverage. It was a combination of those two things that nearly cost the New Orleans Saints a season-opening victory the other night in their game vs, the Houston Texans.
And if the players in the team’s defensive backfield aren’t able to those mistakes corrected within the next few days, it could make their challenge this Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles vs, the top-rated Rams air attack all the more critical.
Specifically, a handful of Saints defensive backs — outside boundary / starting #1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore, outside boundary / starting #2 cornerback Eli Apple, slot cornerback PJ Williams, and free safety Marcus Williams — were victimized by the Texans wide receiver corps. as each player gave up the BIG PLAY to opponents has plagued the Saints defensive backfield for many years.
The Saints gave up 268 yards of passing offense to Houston 3rd year starting QB Deshaun Watson. which after one week of NFL action leaves the Saints pass defense ranked 13th in the NFL overall.
Watson completed 20 out of 30 passes for 268 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception for a QB rating of 114.3. But a majority of those numbers put up by the Texans wide receivers were simply because they were able to make the “big plays” for Watson at the most critical of moments in last Monday’s contest.
Granted, the Texans have one of the very best WR corps in the entire NFL, and the Saints defensive backs had trouble keeping up with them at what seemed like the most inopportune of moments.
Texans perennial All-Pro WR Deandre Hopkins was targeted 13 times and caught 8 receptions for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns. Only one of those touchdowns was with Lattimore covering Hopkins in the red zone; and the other was with Saints free safety Marcus Williams standing on the goal line and allowing Watson to complete an easy route to Hopkins for the score.
Those plays occurred after Apple — who has been heavily criticized for his lack of coverage ability recently — inexplicably yielded a 54-yard reception to Texans #2 WR Will Fuller as Watson threw the pass from near his own goal line when New Orleans had Houston pinned deep near their own goal line.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 9, 2019
All of those lapses in coverage aside, the Saints were still able to eventually win by a score of 30-28 on the game’s final play, an improbable 58-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz that was set up thanks to the offensive heroics of veteran QB Drew Brees.
But those heroics wouldn’t have been necessary were it not for the struggles in coverage and then what many observers covering Monday’Night’s game feel was a rather questionable call by Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen on the Texans’ final TD drive; a drive which only took Houston two plays to score after they got the ball back with less than a minute remaining in the contest.
On the first play of the drive, Watson found Hopkins for a 38-yard gain that set the Houston offense up on the Saints’ 37-yard line. And it clearly wasn’t an easy play for Watson to make, since he had a defender right in his face but yet still managed to complete the throw perfectly in stride down the sidelines to a an open Hopkins with Lattimore draped all over him.
DEANDRE IN CLUTCH TIME pic.twitter.com/0cumhEr8Qb
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 10, 2019
After Lattimore gave up that reception to Hopkins, Texans (and former Saints) WR Kenny Stills was then able to easily score on the very next play as he absolutely burned Saints slot cornerback PJ Williams on his way to the end zone.
Stills’ touchdown tied the game, but Texans kicker Kai Fairbairn missed the extra point; but Houston was fortunate enough to get another chance to convert the extra point attempt due to a roughing the kicker penalty. He made the kick on his second try to put Houston up 28-27, which appeared at that time would allow the Texans to escape with a win.
ALL DESHAUN NEEDED WAS TWO PLAYS pic.twitter.com/TPpYIUiPyR
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 10, 2019
However, later after the game it was revealed that PJ Williams was put in that position because Allen had the Saints defense aligned in what’s known as “Cover Zero” on the play that put Houston ahead.
“Cover Zero” is a coverage scheme with zero deep defenders. This is an entirely man-to-man coverage that involves a heavy pass rush ‒ with normally six or more defenders blitzing the quarterback. That’s one of the main reasons why Cover Zero is also referred to as “zero blitz.”
The goal is to get as much pressure as humanly possible on the quarterback to disrupt the timing and progressions of the passing game, which usually results in a sack or an errant throw. But with Stills’ elite speed and with PJ Williams getting no safety help over the top on the play from Marcus Williams,it was a formation / alignment that the Saints shouldn’t have been in at that critical moment.
We really giving Cover 0 looks with the game on the line? This what we doing #Saints? (This is the TD pass to Stills)
No wonder Payton was unhappy… oof pic.twitter.com/jMRFk7CRzl
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) September 12, 2019
Nevertheless, the Black and Gold was ultimately able to survive Allen’s questionable decision and still escape with the victory.
Now the Saints defensive backfield will face yet another critical challenge on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, where they will face yet another talented WR corps in the Rams’ vaunted offensive passing attack led by QB Jared Goff and L.A, wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp.
The Rams have enjoyed their share of positive results against the Saints defensive secondary, and particularly in their last meeting at the venerable Los Angeles Coliseum two years ago during the 2017 Season; at the stadium where the Saints haven’t had very much success in the past, leaving there with a victory.
It’s hoped that the Saints DB’s will up to the task, although their recent struggles in coverage have put those hopes in doubt, at least after that performance against the Texans.
That narrative seems to be supported by the Saints defensive backfield rankings in their last few previous seasons under Allen, which are as follows:
|YEAR||YARDAGE ALLOWED/GAME||NFL RANKING|
Key Defensive Stats
|Opp Completion %||66.67%|
|Opp 3D Conv %||53.85%|
|Opp RZ Scoring %||100.00%|
(Courtesy – TeamRankings.com)
Without question, the Saints DB’s will be tested mightily by the Rams WR’s and their capabilities to thrive in head coach Sean McVay‘s offensive scheme; and if they somehow aren’t able to show some notable improvement from last week’s game against Houston, it could end up being a long day for the Black and Gold out in Southern California on Sunday.
For New Orleans. it’s yet another critical challenge that they will have to overcome, if they really want to accomplish their #1 ultimate goal in a few months from now: winning Super Bowl LIV (54) on February 2nd in Miami, Florida; the site of their one and only World Championship after they defeated the Indianapolis Colts ten years ago (2009) in Super Bowl XLIV (44).
Come this Sunday evening at the L.A. Coliseum, we’ll see if the Saints DB’s can hold up their end of the bargain and manage to pull it off….