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What Went Wrong: New Orleans Saints

The Saints suffered a heartbreaking loss against Minnesota. What happened?

The New Orleans Saints came into their divisional playoff match-up against the Vikings having knocked off a tough Carolina Panthers team in the Wild Card round. And although they were four-and-a-half point underdogs and trailed 17-0 at the half, the Saints battled and fought back to take a one-point lead on a Will Lutz 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining… only to have their NFC Championship hopes doused by Stefon Diggs, as he leaped over rookie safety Marcus Williams to make an unbelievable grab, somehow stayed inbounds, and darted into the endzone to seal the victory for Minnesota.

Following a heartbreaking end to an otherwise, impressive season, let’s examine what exactly went wrong in Minnesota, what the biggest issue was for the Saints this season, and what moves the front office should make to return to the next playoffs.

What Happened Against Minnesota

As they headed to the locker room chasing a 17-point deficit, the Saints were, without a doubt, concerned about their chances to mount a comeback. Their defense was struggling, as they allowed two first-half rushing touchdowns (one by Latavius Murray and one by Jerick McKinnon), while Minnesota’s stout defense limited Drew Brees to just 8/18 passing for 117 yards and two interceptions. However, New Orleans responded well to their first-half adversity, and their renewed passing attack, combined with solid defense, provided fans with an exciting back-and-forth second half that led to an improbable finish.

After a rough first half in which he only completed 44% of his passes, Brees returned with a vengeance, lighting up the Vikings’ secondary for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. Rookie sensation Alvin Kamara also delivered a strong performance, as he continued to establish his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year, finishing with 105 total yards on 15 touches (11 carries and four catches) and a touchdown.

Although New Orleans’ ambitious second-half comeback attempt displayed the dynamic offense that led them to the playoffs, their 17-point halftime deficit proved to be fatal in completing it. The Saints couldn’t generate any offense in their disappointing first half of play, while their defense struggled mightily to slow down Case Keenum and the Vikings’ offense.

The Saints crossed the 50-yard line just twice before the break, with both drives failing to yield any points. Brees’s costly interceptions, along with a missed field contributed to an overall miserable first half for New Orleans that prevented their second-half resurgence from leading to a win.

Key Play

Following what looked to be the game-winning 43-yard field goal by Will Lutz, Keenum and the Vikings were trailing by a point and faced a crucial 3rd down from their own 39-yard line with ten seconds remaining. Keenum took the snap and threw a dart intended for Stefon Diggs towards the sideline; Diggs then secured the tough catch over Marcus Williams, who made an ill-fated attempt at a tackle, maintained his balance, and proceeded to go untouched into the endzone. The miraculous play, that will go down as one of the wildest playoff moments in recent history, capped off a four-play, 75-yard drive that only took 25 seconds.

Had Williams tackled Diggs in bounds, Minnesota would have been forced to get set and spike the ball with just four seconds left after Diggs gained possession; not remotely possible for any offense. Or had Williams been able to force Diggs out of bounds, this would have prompted Minnesota to kick a 50+ yard field goal for the win. And although he connected on a 53-yard attempt earlier in the game, Kai Forbath is not known for kicking long-distance.

Key Stat

Case Keenum: 25/40, 318 passing yards, one touchdown, one interception

Aside from one interception, which he forced into double coverage, Keenum played phenomenally, picking apart the Saints’ secondary en route to 318 yards and a touchdown, while completing 63% of his passes. New Orleans didn’t have an answer for Keenum and constantly couldn’t get the Vikings off the field, allowing them to convert on 10 of 17 third downs.

Keenum Game Highlights: 

Moreover, after their offense was able to secure a one-point lead with less than 30 seconds left, the Saints’ defense allowed Keenum and Minnesota’s offense to drive down the field for the game-winning touchdown, in essentially just two plays (if we disregard the two incompletions and false start penalty). Keenum’s ability to move both in and outside the pocket and pick up key third downs was crucial to the Vikings’ offensive success.

The Biggest Issue of the Season - No Reliable Weapon at Tight End

Ever since Jimmy Graham departed for Seattle following the 2014 season, the Saints have struggled to find a serviceable option at tight end. Outside of a breakout year from the then-35-year-old Benjamin Watson, in which he recorded a career high in receptions (74) and yards (825), New Orleans has yet to fully replace Graham. The Saints’ leading receiver among tight ends this season was Coby Fleener, who recorded 22 catches for 295 yards and two touchdowns.

After signing a five-year, $36 million contract with the Saints in 2016, it was originally thought that Fleener could be the replacement option for Graham. However, he hasn’t come close to matching the production level of Graham, who averaged 77 catches, 950 yards, and 10 touchdowns during his five seasons in New Orleans.

With the Saints lacking a vertical threat at tight end, teams are able to focus more on their other receiving options like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Ted Ginn. We saw this to some extent against in their match-ups against the Lions, Falcons, and the Vikings (regular season Week 1 game), where these teams were able to limit one or more of these key players.

Plan for the Offseason

1. Re-sign Drew Brees

There’s been a lot of talk surrounding Drew Brees on whether or not he’s going to hit the open market this offseason; however, Brees has openly said that he wants to remain in New Orleans and couldn’t imagine playing for anyone other than Sean Payton. Even at the age of 39, Brees is showing why he’s still an elite, top-five quarterback in this league, as he recorded another solid season, throwing for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, while completing a career-high and NFL single-season record, 72% of his pass attempts. The Saints need to re-sign Brees and keep him around for the remainder of his Hall-of-Fame worthy career.

2. Bring Back Jimmy Graham

It’s safe to say that Jimmy Graham is not a fit for Seattle’s offensive scheme; in the three seasons since being traded to the Seahawks in exchange for veteran Center, Max Unger, Graham has averaged just 57 receptions for 683 yards and six touchdowns. These numbers are considerably lower than the Pro Bowl-caliber stats that he put up during his five-year stint with New Orleans. If the Saints can convince Graham to return, they would have another dominant receiving threat, alongside second-year standout Michael Thomas.

3. Pursue another Edge Rusher 

The Saints were optimistic for an improved pass rush, following a productive offseason in which they brought in veteran defensive end Alex Okafor, while adding A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o, and rookie Alex Anzalone (in the draft). Unfortunately, injuries were a major issue, as Okafor, Kelin, and Anzalone all finished the season on injured reserve, leaving Cameron Jordan to anchor the defensive line. And while Jordan’s 13.0 sacks earned him Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors, New Orleans didn’t have a consistent option behind him. If the Saints can sign a quality defensive end such as: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, or Trent Murphy to accompany Jordan, their defense would be one to watch for in 2018.

4. Go After a Free Agent Wide Receiver

Although Ted Ginn had a productive season, hauling in 53 passes for 787 yards and four touchdowns, he’s creeping up in age (32 years old), and is nowhere near the outside threat that Michael Thomas is. With an offseason, loaded with talented free agent receivers (Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins) approaching, the Saints should seriously consider signing one.  

The Saints concluded a very successful season with a disappointing loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Although not the picture-perfect end to their 2017-18 campaign, this team should be proud of their accomplishments, following three straight 7-9 seasons. And if they can address the four issues listed above, then they could take home their second Super Bowl title in franchise history.

Edited by Brian Kang.

When was the Saints' last Super Bowl win?
Created 1/19/18
  1. 2006
  2. 2008
  3. 2010
  4. 2005

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