By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
The New Orleans Saints were just one fluke play away from the NFC Championship Game last season, and came into yesterday’s 2018 Regular Season Opening Game at the Superdome against division rival Tampa Bay with high expectations to make it to Super Bowl 53 next February.
However, the Buccaneers were expected to be one of the worst teams in all of Pro Football after posting a (5-11) record last year, and were tagged as a huge 9.5 point “underdog” by the odds-makers out in Las Vegas; all of whom had already determined that the Saints-Buccaneers game yesterday had the highest probability of being a blowout.
So it goes without saying that many ‘Who Dats’ were left in a complete state of shock yesterday after watching Bucs journeyman and 14th-year veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick TORCH the Saints’ defense as Tampa Bay rolled up 530 yards of total offense in a complete ass-whipping of monumental proportions.
To be clear: the Saints offense with the exception of a few key turnovers, played well overall and showed why they’ll still be a Top 5 offense once again this season as their 40-point effort demonstrated.
But the Saints defense apparently isn’t ready to join them at the top of such rankings anytime soon, based on yesterday’s subpar showing.
Fitzpatrick—Tampa Bay’s back-up QB who is starting while their regular starting QB Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension—went 21-for-28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns. He also had 12 carries for 36 yards and another TD on the ground.
And as a result: the Saints were left with an embarrassing loss that was not only just their 5th consecutive loss in a row in Season Opening games, but now has many observers questioning whether New Orleans is actually a legitimate Super Bowl contender or a fraud.
I’m shocked by this defensive performance. Wow. Thought there might be some communication things after seeing some busted coverages this preseason, but not this. Not even close to this.
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) September 9, 2018
Either this is just an aberration, or the @Saints defense has REGRESSED HORRIBLY in the past 8 months…..
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) September 9, 2018
So here’s the question that Saints fans need to concern themselves with this morning, which is: was yesterday’s embarrassing loss simply just one “bad game”, or is it a sign of much bigger trouble ahead for a Saints team that still has a brutally hard schedule to play in the weeks and months ahead?
To be completely fair to the Saints, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Tampa Bay came into this brand new 2018 season with such little hype or fan-fare outside of Southwest Florida, that it’s easy to forget that their team has one of the best WR corps in the entire NFL.
But what was disturbing about yesterday’s game from the Saints perspective was how bad their defense looked, not only performance-wise but with the mental aspect of the game, specifically with blown assignments and obvious miscommunication among members of the secondary.
In the NFL, you will get beaten VERY QUICKLY no matter who the opponent is; when you fail in achieving those critical aspects of the game defensively.
Saints head coach Sean Payton echoed that same sentiment in his post-game press conference with reporters after the game’s conclusion:
“That’s not the type of game that suits us and that’s the type of game we’ve played in years past as a .500 team. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to correct”, Payton said. “We had way too many mistakes, and we struggled with explosives (plays on offense) that they had and we have to get cleaned up”.
“Obviously, it starts with me and our staff and we didn’t do a good job. We will look at the tape tomorrow and start again next week.”
And he isn’t kidding, either.
Starting Saints CB’s Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley both got burned time and time again, with Lattimore yielding 7 catches for 147 yards and a TD to Tampa #1 WR Mike Evans; while Crawley got burnt several times by veteran Bucs #2 WR DeSean Jackson — who had 5 catches for 146 receiving yards and 2 TD’s.
From just those 2 players alone, the Saints secondary gave up nearly 300 receiving yards (293) and 3 TD’s.
But Lattimore and Crawley weren’t the only ones who struggled.
Starting safeties Kurt Coleman and Vonn Bell both seemed completely discombobulated at times, and it was their blown assignments in pass coverage that were exploited by Fitzpatrick; who despite his notable short-comings as a NFL QB is still capable of picking apart a defense like he did yesterday.
It was one of the big reasons why Fitzpatrick joined former 1990’s Washington Redskins QB Mark Rypien (11-10-91 vs. ATL) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards, 4 TD’s and zero interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown in a single game.
And it was also why Tampa Bay’s 14.9 yards per pass attempt yesterday was the 4th best single game mark in NFL history for a team that attempted 28 or more passes, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. It was the best mark put up by an NFL QB in nearly half a century (46 years ago, by Jets QB Joe Namath back in 1972).
The Buccaneers 14.9 yards per pass attempt today is the fourth best single game mark in NFL history for a team that attempted 28 or more passes, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. Best mark since ’72: https://t.co/BbrQeJMcBq
— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) September 9, 2018
But it wasn’t just the secondary that played poorly.
In nearly 40 pass attempts, the Saints D-Line recorded zero sacks and had only two QB hits on Fitzpatrick; while the linebackers always seemed to have their hands full with defending the run when the Bucs weren’t too busy “burning down the house” with throws deep down field.
In nearly 40 pass attempts, the Saints recorded zero sacks and only two QB hits on Ryan Fitzpatrick.
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) September 9, 2018
REPORTER’S QUESTIONS (on what didn’t work defensively):
Payton: “Take your pick. We did not hurry the passer. Guys were open. Third downs were awful. They had over 500 yards. We didn’t disrupt the timing to any element of the passing game and too many penalties. I can’t think of any positives.”
On the disorganization in communication:
Payton: “Listen, there were guys playing their technique. At times, technique was poor and we got beat at the line of scrimmage. They have some talented players, but I wouldn’t equate it to that. I thought the quarterback for the most part was pressure-free, and that’s going to be tough. If he’s pressure-free then the receivers are running through the defense and that makes it doubly hard. Somewhere you have to disrupt the timing of the pass.”
On Tampa having big plays:
Payton: “Listen, just giving a good quarterback in this league time to throw and (then) you have talented receivers is not a good combination.”
On pass defense not coming together as well as last year:
Payton: “It’s not like we’re taking last year’s group and (last year’s) numbers. Tampa Bay came ready and they put it to us. They put it to us good.”
Give Payton credit where credit is due, because he isn’t one to mince words.
But neither do I in any of my Editorial / Opinion articles, and I’m not about to start now.
Let’s be perfectly honest: that performance by the Saints defense was COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. There’s no chance of the Saints even having a winning season, if they continue to play as poorly as they did in that contest yesterday.
However, let’s also take into account that it was just last year when the team started out with an (0-2) record; as the defense struggled in back-to-back losses against the Vikings and Patriots while giving up 65 points in its first two games of the 2017 NFL Regular Season.
We all know what happened afterwards, which was the Saints defense found its “groove” and was a big part of New Orleans’ eventual 8-game winning streak, (11-5) record and the organization’s first NFC South Division Championship since the 2011 season.
And in the process: they succeeded in reminding all of us that the NFL schedule every year is SIXTEEN games long, not only one.
Which means that we could just be witnessing another “slow start”.
So……. is THAT 2017 version from last season the same defense we can expect to see starting next week against the visiting Cleveland Browns in a game at the Superdome, that will take on added importance for a Saints team hoping to avoid ANOTHER (0-2) start to this season?
Responsible for 41 pts on defense… UNACCEPTABLE…24 hr rule can’t come fast enough, we’ve got plenty to improve upon… We must improve rapidly; WE will improve this week #WhoDat
— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) September 9, 2018
Was this simply just one “bad game” or a sign of much more trouble ahead?
This morning while Saints fans are still in a state of shock, Sean Payton and the defensive coaching staff have at least 6 more days to get it figured out — and to prevent the Saints’ dream of making it to Super Bowl 53, from turning into a nightmare…..
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his detailed story on the how the Saints and their fans are tackling the controversial NFL-National Anthem issue, featuring his interview with Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as a piece we released today on a controversial movie filmed in New Orleans!