This is the first piece in my series called “Saints and Sinners” where we take a look back and chronicle both the good and bad from Saints’ last matchup. My goal, as it always is while writing, is to try and see everything from more than one perspective. In other words, I’ll always remain biased and call things like I see them. There will be no sugar coating when critiquing, because if we cannot be honest with ourselves as fans, how can we expect that of the players when they are in the film room and at practice trying to improve? Now, who am I, you ask? My name is David Billiot Jr. This will be my 6th year writing about the Saints and after a year and a half break, I am thrilled to be back and want to thank Ross and the guys at All Saints Considered for the amazing opportunity! With that being said, let’s talk some football!
This was, by far, the ugliest game of the year for the New Orleans Saints. Obviously, that is not much of a stretch to say when the team just lost just their second game after starting 10-1, but Thursday was rough. My goal in this series is to always try and find some good and bad from both sides of the ball, but sometimes that is just nearly impossible. For instance, it would have been quite the challenge to try and find much to criticize from the entire team two weeks ago after the blowout of the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. Looking back at Thursday, I could not find any positives to talk about regarding the offensive side of the ball. It was one big struggle fest from the opening drive. Shoot, even the one touchdown came on a fluky play where two receivers were running next to each other, which typically never ends well. There was some good to be discussed on the defense, though, so let’s get to it.
David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins
These two were a force to be reckoned with on the interior of the Saints defensive line. The entire front four played extremely well, but it all started with these two. They combined for 6 quarterback pressures and 9 defensive stops. Pro Football Focus highlighted both of them today with grades of 88.8 and 92.5, respectively. Onyemata had his best game of his career, by far. He had 7 tackles, with 2 of them going for a loss, but his biggest contribution were 3 sacks. They were his first sacks of the year and while it sucks to think about an effort like that coming in a loss, it can hardly be considered “wasted” because it’s only going to help the third-year pro grow.
It should never come as a surprise to see the unquestioned leader of the defense on this list, but, boy, did he deserve it. Jordan was just another contributor to what was a big night for the defensive line, putting up a stat line of 7 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Of course, one of those sacks and the fumble were all on one play, as he pulled off what is commonly known as “the trifecta”. He strip-sacked Dak Prescott and recovered the loose ball, himself. He did so, while essentially being put in a choke-hold by tackle La’el Collins off the right edge. The holding penalty was called, but declined, of course. At the moment, it looked like the game-changing play that the Saints were looking for all night. The takeaway came in the Cowboys red-zone with under three minutes left in the game, where they were looking to make it a two-score game with a touchdown or kick a field goal to extend their lead to 6 and force the Saints to have to find the end zone. Instead, New Orleans took over at their own 15 yard line with 2:15 on the clock, one timeout, and down just 3. It was all for naught, though, as Drew Brees was intercepted just two plays later, effectively ending the game.
In what has become a routine occurrence, it was just another game where Davis seemed to be meeting the ball carrier near the line of scrimmage or just behind it on just about every carry. He led the team in tackles, once again, with 11. The Saints held Ezekiel Elliot to just 76 yards rushing on 23 carries for a yards per carry average of 3.3, well below his season average of 4.8. Late in the 4th quarter, Elliot broke a 21 yard carry, with his longest of the game going for only 6 yards prior to that. So, outside of that one good run, he was held to just 2.5 yards per carry. That’s damn impressive for Davis and the rest of the Saints run defense against who is considered one of the top 5 running backs in the NFL.
It all starts with the head coach and Coach Payton had one of his worst games. From the jump, Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli deployed a game plan that was simply better than what Payton had on offense. Dallas had an answer for everything New Orleans tried to do. Coach Payton burned both of his challenges in the first half, which proved costly late in the game. The first was on ball that Michael Thomas appeared to have caught, but it was ruled incomplete on the field and apparently did not have clear enough video evidence to overturn. The second challenge was won by Payton. The play in question was Dan Arnold’s catch and fumble that was recovered by Michael Thomas. It was called incomplete on the field. It ended up being an easy challenge to win, but was it really worth using your final challenge? Personally, I was immediately saying that it was not worth it. If it had stayed an incomplete pass, the Saints would have still had a 2nd and 10 at the Dallas 22 yard line. I am not even taking in to account the fact that the offense ended up getting stuffed at the goal line on 4th down, because that’s hindsight. In the moment, I truly believed that they should have just accepted the result of the play, despite it being a bad call by the officials. It came back to haunt Coach Payton late in the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit. I just mentioned it, but the choice to pass on the easy field goal to go for it on a 4th down and goal from the 2 yard line was another decision that came back to haunt New Orleans and made the game drastically different. Had Payton taken the points, Keith Kirkwood’s touchdown reception in the 3rd quarter would have tied the game at 13 and set them up for a 4th quarter in which things were all even. Instead, Payton’s aggressive mindset got the best of him. Typically, I praise that mindset, but when you are on the road, barely moving the ball, the other team has all of the momentum, you just can not get too greedy. Swallow your pride and take what you can get to help your team get going. On the other side, the emotional burst from getting the stop provided much more momentum for the entire Dallas Cowboys team and fueled them the rest of the 1st half, which ended in a 13-0 shutout.
The Offensive Line
It did not matter if the Saints were trying to run or throw the ball, the offensive line was getting dominated up front. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were held to just 63 yards rushing with a 3.5 yards per carry average. That was the “better” performance from the line. As for pass protection, Drew Brees looked as uncomfortable as he has in a very long time. He was hit 5 times and sacked twice. While two sacks do not normally seem like a lot, that is three in the last two games (vs Atlanta and Dallas), after keeping Brees clean for four straight games. The difference? Terron Armstead has not played in the previous two games. Jermon Bushrod has done a solid job filling in, but it is just a different offensive line with Armstead in their as their anchor. The pressure was coming from all over last night, though. Dallas’ pass rush had Brees antsy from the opening possession. Drew has always preferred to step up in the pocket, so teams that can get push in the middle of the line are the ones that are most effective against the future Hall of Famer. That is exactly what the Cowboys did. I lost count of how many times Brees threw off of his back foot, not being able to step up. It clearly affected majority of his passes, all the way down to the final throw he made. He was trying to throw the ball away when he was intercepted by Jourdan Lewis to seal the game, but he could not even get enough on the pass to get rid of the ball safely.
It was a rough night for Apple. Probably his worst game as a Saint. He played much better in the second half, but his damage was mostly done all on the Cowboys first and third drives of the game, which netted them 10 of their 13 points. During those two drives, Apple was called for a defensive pass interference, two holds, and got beat for a long 40-yard pass down the sideline. There was also a play in the second half where he bit hard on a double move, leaving Michael Gallup wide open for what should have been an easy touchdown, but Prescott overthrew him. Apple had shown steady progress in each of his game since becoming a Saint, but this was a step back. Dallas attacked him early and often, so I am thinking it had a lot to do with Eli coming from the NFC East and the Cowboys having a lot of familiarity with him. Hopefully he can get back on track with over a week to prepare for the next game and more time to continue getting familiar with every wrinkle of Dennis Allen’s defense.
Look, let me start by promising that you will not find this in my blogs very often. I am rarely a “blame the officials” guy. But, sometimes, it is just that bad. This was one of those times. First off, regardless of which side you are on regarding whether or not Sean Payton should have thrown the red flag for his two challenges, the referees botched both of those plays on the field and Payton should not have even had to challenge the plays. First, Michael Thomas was essentially being tackled by cornerback Byron Jones before the ball even got to him on his play that was ruled incomplete. Sure, there are plenty of plays on both sides of the ball for each team in every NFL game that you can argue could go other way, but when a missed call ends up costing a team a challenge, it deserves to be called out. Moving on to the second play in which Payton had to use his other challenge, the officials were too quick to call Dan Arnold’s catch incomplete. The NFL has made an effort to teach their officials to swallow their whistles and let potential turnover/scoring plays carry on once they changed the rule a few years ago making every turnover and score an automatic review. That was an effort to prevent coaches from having to use one of their two challenges on game altering plays that should be looked at to ensure accuracy, no matter what. Now, Michael Thomas ended up recovering Dan Arnold’s fumble, so technically it would not have ended up being a turnover and an automatic review, but referee near the play start blowing the play dead immediately, well before it became clear who would recover. Had he not blown his whistle and let the play carry on, the Saints would have had their same 1st and 10 as they ended up with, except Sean Payton would have still had one challenge remaining that he could have used on a play we are going to talk about in just a little bit. One of their worst missed calls of the night came on one of the most obvious personal fouls you will see all year. On a critical third down in the 4th quarter, Alvin Kamara was trying to get around the right corner when Jaylon Smith launched himself, helmet first, into Kamara’s head. According to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 of the NFL Rulebook, not only should Smith have been penalized for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness, but he should have also been ejected from the game.
The three standards for ejection in that situation are:
Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet
Player delivering the blow had an unobstructed path to his opponent
Contact was clearly avoidable
Yep. Guilty of all three. Just another costly miss by the officials in a situation that could have resulted in a serious injury for Kamara. After the Cowboys took over following the end of that Saints offensive drive, Dallas faced a 3rd and 5 from midfield. Prescott found Cole Beasley in the flat who was tackled by P.J. Williams with his knee down and the ball a full yard short of the first down marker, but Beasley reached forward and was gifted an extra yard on the spot, resulting in a first down. This is the play I referenced twice earlier when talking about a very critical play for which Sean Payton needed that second challenge back. It would have been an easy call to overturn, setting up Dallas with a decision to go for a 4th and 1 or punt the ball back to New Orleans with around 5 minutes left. Even after Drew Brees’ late interception, the Saints still had one last chance if they could force the Cowboys to kick a field goal. On the last play before the two-minute warning, Prescott went for the kill shot and threw to the end zone for Amari Cooper on a 2nd and 8 from the Saints 14 yard line. The pass was overthrown, but Marshon Lattimore was called for a fairly cheap defensive pass interference that gave Dallas a fresh set of downs and allowed them to take a knee. There was significantly less contact than the no call on Michael Thomas that costed Sean Payton his first challenge, but just throw it in there with another bad missed call in a game that was largely affected by the NFL’s officiating. I do want to also mention that the officials missed an obvious facemask on Saints defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth when bringing down Dak Prescott in the second half. All in all, it was bad all-around
Honorable Mention: Bad Plays
I do not always throw bad plays in to honorable mentions, but there were three significant plays that were costly and needed to be mentioned.
First, when the Saints were forced to punt the ball away with just over 9 minutes left in the game and in Dallas territory, their hope was to pin the Cowboys inside the 10 yard line and play the field position game. It appeared to work, as Thomas Morstead dropped a beauty inside the 10, but despite having a few guys in position, Dwayne Washington got a bit ahead of himself and dove on to the ball too aggressively, letting his arm slide across the goal line and giving Dallas a touchback and 19 and a half important yards.
Just about two minutes later, the Saints had a golden opportunity to stop the Cowboys and get the ball right back with around 7 minutes left in the game, but on a 3rd and 10 from Dallas’ 34 yard line, they blitzed 6 defenders and allowed Prescott to get out of the pocket, barely escaping Marcus Davenport, then slipping through two different arm tackles from A.J. Klein and Marshon Lattimore, before diving for a first down. It was as poor of an excuse of tackling as any display all night and was just another costly mistake by the Saints.
Lastly, this play could go down as one that did not end up mattering, but later on that same Dallas drive, Prescott threw an incomplete pass on a third down with 3:31 left in the game, which was set to bring in Brett Maher for a field goal to extend their lead to 6, but Vonn Bell was called for roughing the passer for making contact with Prescott’s helmet with his hands. It was about as much of an airheaded penalty that a player can cost their team, as it was completely avoidable and just completely unnecessary. The Cam Jordan strip sack happened just three plays later, so the penalty could have ended up saving New Orleans 3 points, but no one will ever know if things may have gone differently with Brees and the offense getting the ball back down 6 after a Cowboys kickoff.
Hopefully that was by far the worst performance we see from this Saints team for the rest of the season, because that was a tough 60 minutes to watch. The whole game was just so uncharacteristic of a squad that has rolled through the season playing smart, confident, and assertive. Thursday was anything but those three things. I’ll see you guys back here following the Saints’ next game, which is a Sunday matchup in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers at 12 noon our time on December 9th. Thanks for reading and I look forward to chatting with all of you on Twitter in the future!
Follow David on Twitter @DCBilliotJr