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No Need to Panic…Yet

By Josh Preston

With the New Orleans Saints falling to 0-2 this past weekend against the Carolina Panthers, some will tell you that the sky is falling and the Saints are in for a long, abysmal season. That may be true, but we don’t know that just yet.

The primary reason the Saints have been relegated to 6-10 status by some of their critics is a result of their poor performance on defense, a unit that gave up 35 and 40 points to the Washington Redskins and Panthers respectively. Those two numbers alone justify many of the defense’s detractors, but a closer look into the situations the Saints’ defense was thrust into suggest they may not be quite as bad as the masses believe – especially against Washington.

Mike Shanahan and his Robert Griffin III tailored-made offense certainly gave Steve Spagnoula’s new defense headaches at times but the unit did play well in certain aspects of the game – one of which being third down, holding the Redskins to just a 26% conversion rate. That conversion rate led to field goal attempts in half of Washington’s eight scoring drives, one of which occurred after a special teams penalty that allowed the drive to continue after forcing a punt.

Field position also played a factor in the defense’s performance. The Redskins averaged more than 10 yards per possession than the Saints in terms of starting field position and only had to go further than 60 yards on two of their scoring drives.

Two of the four touchdown drives occurred after converted fourth down attempts, one of which was a result of a controversial pass interference penalty committed by Roman Harper that put Washington at the one-yard-line. A third touchdown drive was all of three yards thanks to a Drew Brees interception, and the remaining touchdown was a result of one big play given up by the secondary (Harper did not run into a teammate by the way, receiver Josh Morgan pushed Harper in what could have easily been called a block-in-the-back or illegal pick).

In addition to that, over 65% of the Redskins’ rushing attempts were stopped for three yards or less and their average for the day was just 3.6, which would put them in the bottom third of the league this year and have them finishing tied for dead last in 2011 and 2010 with the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals respectively.

Unfortunately, however, the Saints fared much worse in these same categories facing the Panthers. The defense held Carolina to just four scoring possessions out of ten, but all were for touchdowns, extended at least six plays, and only one was under 74 yards. Carolina also converted 50% of their third down attempts.

The difference between the Redskins and the Panthers is that the latter has 3 stellar playmakers in the backfield as opposed to one being RGIII with the Redskins. Rookie running back Alfred Morris did run for 98 yards but only averaged 3.4 yards per carry. With backs like Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, runs that should be stopped for negative or short yardage turn into six, seven and bigger gains.

Last year with the addition of Cam Newton, and perhaps just as importantly, the spread option, Carolina jumped from 12th in the league to 1st in yards per carry at 5.4. Only two teams ran the spread option last year in the NFL, Carolina and somehow making his way into this story – Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, who finished first in the league in rushing yards per game. Willis McGahee had a lot to do with that ranking but the fact that the

Broncos still led the league in rushing despite Tim Tebow completing only 47% of his passes says a lot about the offense.

One of the reasons it’s so effective is because it gives the offense a numbers advantage up front. On every read option play, a defender (usually the defensive end) is left purposely unblocked and the quarterback keeps or gives the ball depending on what he does. As a result, the offensive line can double and create favorable angles to shield off defensive lineman and linebackers that create natural running lanes.

In defending any run game, one of the keys is penetration, which is difficult to get against the spread option because the defense is now outnumbered up front. To stop, or at least slow down the read option, the unblocked defensive end has to make the read difficult for the quarterback. Any hesitation the end can force in the quarterback’s decision to give or keep the ball gives the rest of the defense time to get off blocks and pursue – or even make the play himself.

The number of ends in the league that are athletic enough to do this, however, are few and far between, and the Saints simply do not have that player. Both Will Smith and Cam Jordan hold the point of attack well in the run game but they don’t play well in space against elite talent, which is where the spread option with athletes the caliber of Cam and RGIII puts them. The defensive ends of the New York Giants, who the Panthers play Thursday night, will present major problems for Carolina’s spread option.

So Saints fans need not worry just yet. The offense and Drew Brees is still its high-powered self as long as they don’t commit penalties that keep them behind the sticks as they did in week one. In both games, the Saints’ offense put up 25 and 27 points respectively, even with no turnovers forced by the defense and giving up five themselves.

Brees can’t continue to give the opposition seven points as he did in both games, and chances are a six-time pro bowler won’t. The formula for success for the Saints is a bend-but-don’t-break defense, and an offensive attack that most teams can’t keep pace with.

The Saints’ defense certainly won’t be great this year, they just don’t have the playmakers, but they could end up being solid. There are only three quarterbacks in the entire league that run the spread option and the Saints have faced the two with transcendent athletic ability.

The Kansas City Chiefs play a much more conventional offense that will provide a much better picture of how the Saints’ defense will perform this year. This is the game that will give Saints fans an idea of what to expect from their 2012 squad.

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