No. The defense wasn’t great Week 1. They allowed 41 points and over 500 yards in a performance reminiscent of the historically bad years the teams has worked very hard to put behind them. But with the personnel they have now, I have no doubt they’ll recover over the course o the next three weeks.
But the key to upcoming wins will be the explosive offense that the Saints fielded on Sunday in the home loss. Since 2015 there have only been three NFL games in which a team has scored 40 or more points and lost. One was the Saints loss to the Bucs, the other two were the 2016 Arizona loss and the 2016 New York Giants loss both to New Orleans. This team has faced this kind of struggle before and has found a way to come out on top using the incredible firepower on the offensive side of the ball.
When you have a combo like Drew Brees and Sean Payton game planning and scheming around opposing defenses it’s already a one-sided affair. But add in playmakers, or gamebreakers, like Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the odds are in the Saints’ favor regardless of defensive performance. It’s reasonable to expect and wish for a defensive improvement, and like I said, I’m confident it will come, but let’s look at this offense to illuminate exactly why the Saints can never be counted out.
Michael Thomas’ Route Tree
Can’t Guard Mike may only be in his third NFL year but he’s well on his way to establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. He furthered his case in week 1 bringing in a franchise record 16 catches, 180 yards, and a touchdown on only 17 targets. Part of what makes Thomas so incredibly difficult to guard is his command of the route tree. Check out the graph below of CGM’s routes against the Bucs from NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
I feel like I bring this up in podcasts every chance that I get, but it’s such a gamechanging skill to have that much of an expansive list of options in your number 1 receiver. Easily one of the most important chess pieces in this Sean Payton offense. The thing about having this type of versatility is that Michael Thomas can get matched up on smaller slot corners, safeties, and even linebackers depending on the defensive personnel that Drew Brees reads before the snap. And when that happens, watch out. According to PFF, through Sunday’s matchup Thomas was targeted 11 times from the slot (22 snaps total) and caught 10 of his 16 catches and touchdown along with 96 of his 180 yards. This week, look for more of that same production as he’ll be matched up with Brien Boddy-Calhoun who gave up over 100 yards in the slot to the Steelers last week.
Alvin Kamara’s Versatility
Kamara opened the season with a 141 yard performance, 29 on the ground and 112 through the air. This was Kamara’s third 100-yard game against the Bucs in as many contests. But it’s not just about the total yardage when it comes to the outstanding sophomore and reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, it’s the variety of ways he makes plays on the field. As a running back, Kamara only had 29 yards rushing last week but his 112 yards receiving come from all over the field. Here’s Matt Waldman breaking down a route he ran from a stacked LWR position.
Kamara took 52 snaps against the Bucs, Of those, he ran routes as a receiver on 37 plays. He was targeted 12 times for 9 receptions. That’s a pretty good ratio for a running back being targeted on 37.5% of his routes run. But here’s the thing. Not all of those routes came from out of the backfield. Kamara doesn’t just take routes from behind the QB, he gets lined up on the outside and, more importantly, takes snaps from the slot. According to PFF, Kamara took 5 snaps from the slot and was targeted 3 times catching 2 for 31 of his 112 receiving yards. We constantly talk about how the Saints offense isn’t one-dimensional. How if a defense takes away the run, they have the pass and vise versa. But the fact of the matter is that the playmakers on this offense aren’t one-dimensional either. So if you take away the run game, it doesn’t mean you take Kamara out of the game because he has so many other ways to punish a defense.
Drew Brees’ Accuracy
Brees has started off 2018 in an unexpected fashion. We all knew he had it in him, but with everything we came into this year knowing about the run game and defense, we didn’t think he’d have to do it. Brees passed 45 times against the Bucs in week 1, the fourth most attempts in opening action this season. Of those 45 passes, he managed a 82.2% completion percentage. That ties Matt Ryan (2015) and Jeff Garcia (2007) for the best completion percentage recorded by a QB with at least 45 pass attempts. This comes one year after Brees set the new best season completion percentage mark at 72%. A record for which he holds the first, third, and fourth bests.
The offensive line helped out a bit giving Brees a clean pocket on 32 of his 45 attempts, per PFF. From that clean pocket Brees’ completion percentage improved to 87.5%. The incredible thing is that on the 13 attempts that Brees did get pressure, he completed 9 passes and threw the ball away once, giving him a 75% completion rate under pressure when accounting for the throw away. That’s a huge improvement from the 54..4% mark he closed out 2017 with under pressure. If you’re concerned that those stats might suffer after opening on a loss, check out PFF’s post about Brees’ 2017 performances after a loss
Brees, somehow continues to trend in the right direction. Up until Thursday’s week 2 action began, he was leading the league in yardage and completion percentage. Between these three weapons, before factoring in Ted Ginn Jr.’s everlasting speed, Benjamin Watson never-fleeting reliability, and the offensive line’s ironman-esque production (all five starting offensive lineman played 100% of snaps in Week 1) there’s so much more to this offense that keeps me from ever being concerned about the defense faltering. Bear in mind, too, that this is also before Mark Ingram returns from his suspension and without even knowing what Cameron Meredith and Tre’Quan Smith will bring to the table once they’re settled in the offense.
In lieu of being concerned about the defense, I’m more interested in trusting those issues will be fixed and focusing on the explosiveness of this offense with weaponry that Sean Payton and Drew Brees are only just starting to scratch the surface of. This is some of the best talent that New Orleans has seen on offense in some time. Usually Drew is out there making par-for-the-course players look like superstars. Now, he’s got some superstars, young superstars, in the crop.
Follow Ross on Twitter @RossJacksonASC