The Saints squandered a 13-point lead Sunday, ending their season. What happened?
The Saints entered the playoffs having bounced back from a tough, unexpected loss at home against the Cowboys in Week 13. They won three of their final four contests to capture the number one seed in the NFC, ultimately labeling themselves as one of the frontrunners for the Super Bowl LIII title.
New Orleans was able to narrowly escape the defending champion Eagles in the Divisional round, thus setting up a date with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game. Sean Payton and company came into the highly-anticipated clash as reasonable favorites (-3.5 at kickoff), and appeared to be in good position late in the game. However, a questionable call—to say the least—essentially put the game into overtime, where the Saints would fall short of their Super Bowl hopes.
Following a bitter end to an otherwise, memorable season, it’s time to examine what exactly went wrong in New Orleans, what the biggest issue was for the Saints this season, and what moves the front office should make to get back to the playoffs next season.
What Happened Against Los Angeles
The first half of Sunday’s contest provided a tale of two quarters. The Saints sprinted out to a 13-0 lead in the first, capitalizing on a Rams’ turnover and a three-and-out. Dennis Allen’s defense shut down Los Angeles’ high-powered offense, as they held Jared Goff and company to 10 total yards in the first quarter of play. At one point, the leading receiver for the Rams was cornerback (yes, cornerback) Sam Shields, who hauled in a 12-yard pass from Johnny Hekker on a successful fake punt attempt. One could say that Sean McVay was desperate to generate any type of offense for his team.
Nevertheless, that desperation yielded success and sparked Los Angeles’ offense. The Rams, like we all knew they would, responded with 10 unanswered points to close out the half down a field goal. With New Orleans’ defense struggling late in the second quarter against McVay’s potent offense (second in the NFL in points per game at 32.9), Drew Brees and company knew they had to set the tone coming out of the locker room. And although they did with an opening touchdown drive, the Rams answered every score from thereon with one of their own.
After holding Goff to a meager 110 yards and an interception in the first half, the Saints allowed the third-year pro to explode in the second half to the tune of 194 yards and a touchdown. While their first-quarter performance on both sides of the ball displayed the dominance that led this team to the playoffs, the Saints were unable to channel that success down the stretch in Sunday’s matchup.
When playing the Rams, it’s never a good idea to get into a scoring battle, even when you have an arsenal of Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara. At just 32 years old, McVay is a mere magician behind the playbook. New Orleans took the challenge, and ultimately paid the price with yet another heartbreaking playoff loss.
No questions here. Following a game-tying Greg Zuerlein field goal with just over five minutes remaining, Brees—having driven down into the redzone—had his team in prime position to ice the game with one first down. Brees, facing a crucial third down from the Rams’ 13-yard line, threw a wheel route pass intended for Tommylee Lewis. Lewis was then completely taken out of the play on a blatant combination of pass interference, as well as a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman performed the illegal hit on Lewis well before the ball arrived. The egregious mistake by the officials, which will go down as one of the worst no-calls in football history, gave the Rams enough time to set up Zuerlein for another game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime.
I mean, how is this not a flag? pic.twitter.com/dHbaQmiulk— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 20, 2019
The missed call forced the Saints to settle for a Will Lutz 31-yard field goal. Had Robey-Coleman been rightfully flagged for pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact, New Orleans would have been awarded a first down. With Los Angeles down to one timeout at the time, Brees could have run the clock down all the way down to a few seconds to set up a potential game-sealing kick.
WR Brandin Cooks: seven receptions, eight targets, 107 yards
Facing his old team—the one that drafted him with the 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft—Cooks stepped up big for Goff, as he’s done all season. After a frustrating first quarter on offense, the Rams needed a spark and Goff needed a reliable target to go to. Cooks provided both, lighting up his former teammates in the secondary for 107 yards on seven catches.
The Saints simply didn’t have an answer for Cooks, as the fourth-year man constantly beat his defenders off the line and found some spots in New Orleans’ zones. Moreover, after essentially blanketing Los Angeles’ offense for much of the first half, P.J. Williams allowed Cooks to get behind him for a 36-yard completion, which set up a Todd Gurley touchdown on the very next play. Cooks’ speed and playmaking abilities were on full display Sunday and played a huge role in the Rams’ offensive scheme.
The Biggest Issue of the Season — No Reliable Weapon at Tight End
Much like last year, the Saints were solid at the running back and wide receiver positions, but they lacked a serviceable option at tight end. Ever since they lost Jimmy Graham to free agency in 2014, New Orleans has struggled to find that vertical threat at the position. After bringing veteran Benjamin Watson back, Sean Payton was hopeful that the 38-year old would have renewed success with the Saints. However, Watson failed to replicate his career numbers from 2015 (74 catches, 825 yards, six touchdowns), as he amassed just 35 receptions for 400 yards and two scores.
To New Orleans’ credit, they have made concerted efforts to fill Graham’s void; they just haven’t received the production they hoped for. In 2016, they invested $36 million into Coby Fleener. Fleener was cut after two seasons in which he failed to top 50 catches or 631 yards.
Watson, who will turn 39 in December, is not a long-term answer. With the Saints lacking a proven threat who can consistently win at the line of scrimmage, opposing teams are invited to and able to key in on other receiving weapons like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, or Ted Ginn. We saw this to some extent last week, as the Rams were able to limit Thomas, who paced the league in receptions in 2018 with 125, to four catches for a measly 36 yards.
Plan for the Offseason
1. Draft a Potential Replacement for Drew Brees
Now, don’t get me wrong, Brees’s 2018 season at age 40 was nothing short of spectacular, and once again, placed him in the MVP conversation. However, if the second half of the season was any indication, it’s that Brees is no longer a sure-fire, top-three quarterback week-in-and-week-out. Through his first 11 games in 2018, Brees threw for 29 touchdowns and just two interceptions, while possessing a passer rating of 127. Compare that to his final seven games, where Brees’s numbers dipped dramatically in all three categories—nine touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 88.
With Teddy Bridgewater set to become a free agent this offseason, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Saints decide target guys like Kyle Shurmur, Brett Rypien, Trace McSorley, or Gardner Minshew in the later rounds of this year’s draft.
2. Pursue a Tight End in Free Agency
Although the numbers are tough to match, none of the Saints’ tight ends have come close to equaling the production level of Graham, who averaged 77 catches, 950 yards, and 10 touchdowns per season during his five-year stint in New Orleans. If the Saints can sign a quality tight end such as Tyler Eifert, Jared Cook, or Jesse James in free agency, it would take some of the weight off Brees’s 40-year-old shoulders, and provide him with another serviceable receiving target.
3. Draft a Wide Receiver
New Orleans is very thin at wide receiver outside of Pro-Bowler Michael Thomas. Similar to Watson’s situation, No. 2 receiver Ted Ginn is set to turn 34 in April and struggled with injuries in 2018. With a draft class loaded with intriguing options, it may be in Payton’s best interest to nab one in the first couple rounds.
The Saints concluded a very productive season with a gut-wrenching loss that’s going to sting for some time. Though it wasn’t the ideal ending by any stretch, this team—with the weapons they currently have on both sides of the ball—should be back in the playoffs next season. And if they can address the three issues listed above, they’ll have a great shot to capture Super Bowl LIV.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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