The Saints squandered several opportunities as they came away with only a field goal in the first half despite over 17 minutes of possession. Meanwhile, the defense held Cleveland to six points thanks to several key third down stops. Both offenses took off in the second half, and without the strong first-half defensive performance, the Saints could have lost this game by a significant margin.
New Orleans Saints Third Down Defense Excels in Win Over Cleveland Browns
Cleveland converted on just one of their six third-down attempts in the first half. They fared better in the second half converting on three of six third-down attempts, but still finished with a low 25% conversion rate. The Saints allowed one-yard or less on six of their third down stops.
New Orleans helped themselves by setting up several third and long situations for the Browns. The Browns faced third and six or longer on all but five third-down attempts. Holding Cleveland to 3.4 yards per rushing attempt was a big reason for this.
As a result of the many stalled Browns drives, they made it into the red zone only once all game. Later on, Cleveland kicker Zane Gonzalez missed a fourth quarter 44-yard field goal attempt following a Saints stop on third and six. The kick would have given Cleveland a 15-3 lead. Instead, the Saints offense took advantage of the short field and scored a touchdown, narrowing the Browns lead to two points.
Third and Eight at the Saints 22-Yard Line, 9:15 remaining in First Quarter
After going three and out on their first possession, the Browns took over at the Saints 46-yard line following a Michael Thomas fumble. They quickly moved into field goal range with a 15-yard jet sweep but faced this third and long situation on the next series of downs.
New Orleans lined up in a nickel formation with the two linebackers and safety Vonn Bell showing inside blitzes, but all three dropped into coverage. Cleveland had three receivers bunched to the right, but they were merely decoys to set up a delayed screen pass.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan had a free release as the right tackle chipped defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins before sliding outside to block for the screen. Naturally, Jordan put immediate pressure on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, while defensive end Alex Okafor applied pressure from the backside. Taylor completed his pass to running back Duke Johnson, but the Saints quickly caught onto the screen.
Linebacker Demario Davis was the first to notice as he took off towards the sideline and eluded a block by the right tackle. Rankins anticipated the throw as well and forced Johnson towards the sideline. Davis and safety Marcus Williams converged on Johnson and Rankins finished the tackle, holding Johnson to a one-yard gain.
Cleveland settled for a 39-yard field goal on the next play.
Third and One at the Saints 37-Yard Line, 9:24 Remaining in Second Quarter
This drive also started at the Saints 46-yard line, following another Saints fumble, this time by Ted Ginn.
Cleveland faked a handoff from a two tight end, single back formation as the Saints sent a seven-man blitz. The fake did little to slow the blitz as Davis shot through the A-gap and slipped a tight end block, and Okafor turned the corner and escaped the left tackle. Taylor stepped up and avoided a sack, but was hit hard by Rankins who had broken away from blocks by the left guard and running back.
Tight end David Njoku, lined up off tackle on the right side ran a crossing route before streaking downfield. Linebacker A.J. Klein fell behind in pursuit of Njoku, but fortunately, the pressure caused Taylor to overthrow the pass.
This stop was huge because it forced Cleveland to go for it on fourth down rather than attempt a 54-yard field goal. That attempt was unsuccessful as Johnson’s hole closed up quickly on a run up the middle, and cornerback Ken Crawley stuffed him for a loss.
The Saints offense took over with decent field position, but the drive ended with a missed Wil Lutz field goal.
Third and 10 at the Saints 21-Yard Line, 2:19 Remaining in Second Quarter
Cleveland had four wide receivers and an empty backfield, and the Saints lined up in a nickel formation. With only Njoku blocking him, Jordan quickly pushed into the backfield from the right edge. Taylor had an open receiver on an out route on the right side, but Jordan moved into the throwing lane with his hands up. All other receivers were well covered or on long-developing routes
Taylor dumped it off to Njoku, and for a moment it looked like he had a lane to run through for the first down. However, linebacker Manti Te’o slipped between two blockers and stopped Njoku for no gain. Cleveland settled for another 39-yard field goal on the next play.
Reason for Optimism?
The Saints defense was far from perfect on Sunday. This was most apparent when New Orleans gave up a long touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter on fourth down, which was reminiscent of their coverage mishaps last week. The score would have given Cleveland a one-point lead with 1:16 remaining if not for a missed extra point. New Orleans took the lead with a field goal on the ensuing possession.
On their next drive, Cleveland drove 41 yards in three plays and had a chance to kick a game-tying field goal. Gonzalez missed that kick as well, ultimately costing the Browns eight points on two missed field goals and extra points. In a way, the Browns handed this win to the Saints.
Regardless of how fans digest this strange Saints win, it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction for the defense. Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers converted on 8 of 13 third down attempts on the Saints, punting once all game. They allowed two touchdowns this week compared to five against Tampa Bay
It’s clear that the Browns lacked Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower, but that didn’t make the defense’s resilience early on any less impressive. Some feared the Saints defense would collapse again versus Cleveland. Instead, New Orleans can build off this mostly positive performance and aim towards further improvement next week.
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