Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports/ASC Illustrations
2017 was such an exhilarating year as a Saints fan. First playoff appearance since 2013, outstanding rookie class yielding the offensive and defensive rookies of the year, a historically successful ground attack, and a reinvigorated defense all made for an inspired season of football. Though the postseason ended short of the team’s potential on a miracle, the regular season went quickly from doom to boom rather quickly. With that, I’ll be counting down my top five best Saints games of 2017.
Beginning today with #5: the Saints 34-13 win over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
This win came after the Saints dropped the first two games of the season for the fourth year in a row and snapped their eight-game September losing streak. They were taking on the then undefeated Panthers and pulled off their first win of what would turn out to be a three-win sweep come the playoffs. Which plays a big part in why I selected this game to start off the list.
During the 2017 offseason, the Saints signed former Panthers Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Klein. Both came into Week 3, Klein as a defensive team captain, to take on their former team in their old home. Ted Ginn Jr. hauled in two catches for 44 yards and a 40 yard touchdown. Klein wrangled six total tackles and lead a defense that only allowed 288 total yards of offense. This was the first time New Orleans had held an opponent to less than 300 yards since Week 12 of 2016 when they demolished Gregg Williams and the Rams at home.
The Saints came away with three turnovers that game, all interceptions. These were the first takeaways of the season after not causing a single turnover against Minnesota and New England the previous weeks. It was also the first time the Saints had three interceptions in one game since Week 15 of the 2014 season in a game against Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears. The Saints, on the other hand, didn’t give up a single turnover.
The first interception came at the hands of P.J. Williams who read a slant/flat route combination better than the receivers ran it. He cut in front of Funchess just in time to leap and snag a pick out of the air.
The second came courtesy of the league’s best rookie Safety, Marcus Williams who took advantage of the tip drill. Newton’s pass (too high) went off the fingertips of rookie Christian McCaffrey, then was tipped by Kenny Vaccaro playing great coverage on Ed Dickson, and then finally fell into the outstretched hand of Marcus Williams who made a falling, one-handed snag to reel in the interception.
The final pick came in the fourth quarter when Cam Newton curiously passed up throwing to a wide open McCaffrey and elected instead to try a strike to Devin Funchess over the middle. Kenny Vaccaro was roaming the deep middle of the field and past on a deep route just in time to get in front of Funchess and return an interception 30 yards into Panthers territory.
The Saints offense would then go on to score the final touchdown of the game despite already leading 27-14 on what would prove to be the first of many touchdowns by outstanding rookie running back Alvin Kamara.
3rd Down Defense Won Early
Though the takeaways lead the Saints defense to a win, the tone was set much earlier than P.J. Williams’s first pick. On the very first drive, the Saints employed what would be their staple opening defensive strategy- a bend-don’t-break approach that allowed them and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen a chance to learn the opponent’s gameplan and then adjust according moving forward. The Saints allowed a 15-play 61-yard drive that halted in Saints territory when Cam Jordan flew off the edge for a huge 3rd down sack effectively wiping four points off the board. The second drive was halted again in Saints territory after an outstanding read by Ken Crawley to nix a screen to Curtis Samuel in the backfield. The Saints defense also forced two punts on three and outs. and held seven of their ten drives to 40 yards or less.
Drew Brees Shared the Love
Drew was at his usual best in this game, sharing the love all ready the field. He completed passes to 10 different receivers and threw touchdowns to three. His first touchdown pass to Michael Thomas, his first of the year despite a pass interference penalty by the Carolina secondary. His second came to Brandon Coleman on a masterful play fake in the red zone which left Coleman wide open in the end zone. His final came to former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep ball that was thrown beautifully to Ginn’s back shoulder to keep the ball away from the inside help coverage that was on the way.
This was an incredible showing by the Saints after getting steamrolled in terms of yardage in the first two contests. The experts warned that it would be more of a flash in the pan and resolved to counting the team out when it came to the early power rankings and post-season conversations. Turns out though, it was the truth. This game lit the fire that fueled an 8 game winning streak and proved that the New Orleans defense could and indeed had improved drastically. Additionally, the Adrian Peterson experiment was on its downward course. So this game and the aforementioned Alvin Kamara touchdown began the trend of what would later become the historical running tandem with Mark Ingram. This game changed the course of the Saints gameplan, personnel, and season on the way to their playoff run.
Come back later this week for Game #4!