The New Orleans Saints won their fifth game in a row on Sunday in a hard-fought 24-23 squeaker over the Baltimore Ravens.
The Saints got the ball first and set the tone immediately by being aggressive and physical with one of the NFL’s most physical teams, holding the ball for twenty plays and over ten minutes on their very first drive. That drive included four attempts on 4th down, including a fake punt and another conversion in their own territory. Unfortunately, the march ended in disaster inside the Baltimore 10 yard line on another fourth down attempt when Taysom Hill and Alvin Kamara botched a pitch play. The play was a poor call, poorly executed, and was perfectly diagnosed by the Baltimore defense. In a game where yards and points would be an intense battle all afternoon, netting nothing out of a prime scoring chance will often cost a team the game, and this nearly did exactly that.
The Saints defense continued to play as well as they had over the past few games and matched the Ravens physicality on that side of the ball as well. Baltimore managed to put the first points on the board with a field goal midway through the second quarter, but the Saints quickly answered.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw the 500th touchdown pass of his illustrious career near the end of the half, just the fourth player to accomplish the feat. The pass went to tight end Ben Watson and capped an eight-play, 75-yd. march that had the Saints poised to lead into the break. Unfortunately, the New Orleans defense would surrender any momentum earned from that drive by allowing the Ravens to roll over them on a touchdown drive of 75 yards on just six plays in less than two minutes.
The drive was highlighted by a 56-yd. catch and run by wide receiver John Brown, who took advantage of poor positioning by the Saints secondary. The score gave Baltimore a 10-7 halftime advantage, in a first half of body blows and brazen 4th down gambles from each team. Both defenses outplayed their offensive counterparts for the most part, and Brees, in particular, looked out of rhythm. His first half statistics weren’t bad, 10-14 for 87 yards and a score, but he was just slightly off of his usual razor-sharp precision.
The Saints defense quickly nullified any Baltimore momentum gained late in the first half coming out of the locker room. Demario Davis ended the Ravens’ initial 3rd quarter drive with a huge stop of Alex Collins on a 3rd and short running play. The New Orleans offense was bottled up on their own one yard line afterward though, and could only manage to move the ball just slightly before punting back to the home team. The Ravens responded with a 10-play march ending with a short touchdown throw from Joe Flacco to tight end Mark Andrews, widening Baltimore’s lead to 17-7. The score looked like a potential game clincher against a Raven defense that had not given up a point during the second half of the 2018 season.
The Saints offense would suddenly catch fire though, responding with a 12-play, 75-yd. drive that ended with an Alvin Kamara touchdown run early in the 4th quarter. The march was highlighted by Brees escaping a Baltimore blitz on 3rd and 8 and delivering a strike to Michael Thomas, who fought his way through tacklers for the key 1st down. After Alex Okafor sacked Flacco to cause Baltimore to go three and out on the ensuing possession, Brees and Co. would get the ball back near midfield. Another twelve play drive, including another 4th down conversion, would end in a score.
This time it was a 5-yd. touchdown strike to Michael Thomas, giving the Saints a 21-17 lead. Taysom Hill, who had another impressive game, made a big special teams tackle on the kickoff return causing the Ravens to begin inside their own 20. After a pass interference penalty on P.J. Williams reversed a turnover on downs, the Saints finally got a 4th down stop to get the ball back. Play calling remained aggressive, and New Orleans moved into position for a Wil Lutz field goal to widen their lead to 24-17 with just 2:07 to play. Similar to the end of the half though, the Saints pass defense again collapsed.
Flacco riddled the passive New Orleans coverage, and move his team 81 yards in just six plays, throwing a touchdown pass to John Brown with just seconds remaining. On the play, communication broke down between Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who had an up and down afternoon, and safety Vonn Bell to lead to the easy score. Just as it seemed like this war would be headed to overtime, the most shocking thing of the afternoon took place. Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker, a seven-year veteran who had never missed an extra point in 222 attempts, shanked this extra point wide, giving the Saints an improbable 24-23 victory.
This was not an impressive game statistically (games against the Ravens rarely are), but there were a few notable performances. Brees finished the day completing 73 percent of his throws for over 200 yards and still has not thrown an interception this season. Alvin Kamara was again shut down in the passing game but was the game’s leading rusher with 64 yards and a score. Michael Thomas fought his way through tenacious Baltimore coverage to catch seven passes, and rookie Tre’quan Smith had a few key grabs as well.
The Saints offensive line played extremely well. They were missing left guard Andrus Peat, out with a concussion, and would lose his replacement Josh Leribeus to a leg injury. The line kept their quarterback upright most of the game, however, and managed to control an extremely deep and talented Ravens front.
Defensively, the Saints again shut down the run, and continue to be the league’s best defense at doing so. Although they finished with just one sack, they were able to get some hurries on Flacco. Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Marcus Williams all had some big pass breakups in the secondary, and linebacker Demario Davis looks like a Pro Bowl player. Coverage breakdowns and communication errors in the secondary continue to be a major concern, however, and the defense needs to bring down the quarterback when they are able to break away from initial pressure. Both factors were nearly the team’s undoing in this game.
Great teams are able to beat their opponents in any style of game and do so in a hostile environment, and that’s what New Orleans was able to do on this day. The Saints were able to defeat a physical and talented Ravens team on the road and do so playing a Ravens style of game. Things on the offensive and defensive side of the ball still need to be addressed and improved, but this is the kind of win that championship teams pull out. One that will boost the confidence of a still young squad as they enter the most challenging portion of their schedule.
Bob Rose is the host of the Bayou Blitz podcast and contributing writer for the Saints at Canal Street Chronicles.