The New Orleans Saints played the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night in a heart-wrenching 23-20 loss at the Bank of America Stadium. This game was integral to the Saints advancement in a close NFC South divisional race. The Atlanta Falcons, currently sitting at the top, are just two games ahead with a bye this week. It would have been a perfect opportunity for the Saints to gain momentum before they face the Falcons in Week 17. Now any hopes of stealing the number one spot have been swept to the periphery, leaving them very little hope of a playoff campaign this year.
New Orleans Saints Week 11 Takeaways
What went wrong with a team that seemed to be getting progressively better each week? On the surface, we can look to the two first half turnovers which ultimately proved to be the game-changers in the end. This left the Saints with a ten-point deficit which they were never able to recover from. A closer look at the New Orleans Saints Week 11 takeaways reveal a weird twist in the roles played by the offense and the defense. A normally struggling Saints defense played one of their best games of the season, while their top-ranked offense has lacked consistency. Most disconcerting however, are the issues on special teams.
Special Teams Confirmed the Worst Component of this Team
Special teams is by far the worst component of the 4-6 Saints. To say that they need work is an understatement. Every element is struggling with no hope of an ‘easy-fix’.
The return game has suffered all season. Sean Payton has tried rotating different players (including Tommylee Lewis, Travaris Cadet and Brandin Cooks) but nothing has worked. On Thursday, Marcus Murphy was brought back in the hopes that he could prove to be the difference. However, he only managed to demonstrate why he was sidelined as a healthy inactive for most of the season. Sloppy plays like grabbing a ball that would have rolled out of bounds for a penalty, then dropping it out of bounds at the Saints one-yard line did not help the game.
On the final kick return of the game, after Murphy ran the ball to the Saints 24-yard line, Nate Stupar provided one more reason to disappoint. With 14 seconds remaining, and only a field goal required to stay in the game, Stupar took an offensive holding penalty. This put Drew Brees and the offense back ten yards and rendered the drive impossible. This was the second of Stupar’s sloppy special teams penalties. The Saints are currently 31st in the league with their kick return but Thursday night’s game most likely knocked them flat to the bottom.
By far the biggest and most glaringly obvious problem on special teams resides with rookie kicker Will Lutz and his low kicks. This is the second straight week that a blocked kick has resulted in a Saints loss. Late in the second quarter, Lutz had a field goal attempt blocked and returned. This set up a Panthers touchdown on the next play, giving them a ten-point lead over the Saints heading into half time. It eventually proved to be the difference in the game. The sloppiness of this play in and of itself was bad enough. But taking a look at the Saints’ season, this is the third time the team has lost by three points or less on account of a blocked kick which was returned.
Last week, Lutz’s field goal was blocked while playing the Denver Broncos, resulting in a 25-23 loss. And in Week Two, the Saints lost 16-13 to the New York Giants after Lutz’s low kick was blocked and returned by Janoris Jenkins for the Giants’ only touchdown of the game. The Saints struggle to kick a simple field goal is a very disappointing one. It needs to be addressed immediately for the Saints to have a shot at a winning season.
The Defense Played One of their Best Games this Season
The New Orleans defense is seeing consistent improvement every week. Week 11 is no exception. They played arguably their best game in the last few weeks. Although they played without Delvin Breaux and Terron Armstead, two of their top players, their performance was stellar. Their run defense held Carolina to just 50 yards on 27 carries (a measly 1.9 yards per carry). In the passing game, they did a great job neutralizing Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. He caught four of seven passes for just 33 yards.
Safety Vonn Bell had a big play in the passing game when he punched the ball out of the Panther receiver’s hands, forcing a second quarter field goal. Kenny Vaccaro was on his game, and had his hands full keeping Cam Newton in check. And Cameron Jordan, who is having the best season of his career was reliable and consistent as usual. The Saints defense sacked Newton three times in the first half. They confirmed to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Sean Payton that they are dependable through continued improvement.
The Offense Has Seen Better Days
In contrast to their drastically improving defense, the New Orleans Saints have seen a high-powered offense struggle to be consistent over the past couple weeks. In Week 11, the Panthers were more conservative with their approach to Drew Brees and company. They used a four-man pass rush and two-deep coverage with their safeties which prevented Brees from throwing long passes. They forced Brees to hold the ball longer and prevented him from stepping into his passes by putting pressure in his face. The Panthers also defended well against the run. With Mark Ingram out with a concussion, Tim Hightower’s longest run was 27 yards. He had 12 carries for 69 yards total on the ground.
The offense managed to pick up their game late in the second half, with a touchdown catch by Coby Fleener and one by Brandon Coleman. Brees had less yards than usual, but he developed his game when he needed it. He led his offense to move the scoreboard from 23-3 to 23-20 very quickly. Sloppy mistakes as a team prevented them from leaving with a win, despite 17 unanswered points.
Aside from the blunders made on special teams, there were mistakes made on offense as well. Brees threw an interception in the second quarter which was one of two early turnovers. In the second half, after Coleman caught his touchdown pass, he dropped a catch forcing a fourth down punt. But most notably, was their performance inside the Panthers 20. The Saints are leaders in red zone scoring this year. However, they only managed to score two touchdowns out of five red zone attempts (They had three field goal attempts including the blocked kick).
The Saints offense didn’t play their best game, but they are good. They are one of the top offenses in the league and possess every quality that a Super Bowl team should. Their defense started out bad this year. They grew to become mediocre and are now becoming progressively better each and every week. The Saints have won four games and lost six. Four of their losses were within three points and their loss in Kansas City was less than a touchdown. It is clear that this team is good. Arguably far better than their record indicates. However, their special teams are bad. If it wasn’t obvious already, it’s crystal clear now. The Saints will need to make some drastic changes to this group and fast if they want any success this season.