Watching Super Bowl LI was a must.
Even non-football fans watch the game. It is the one time I can actually get my wonderful wife to sit down, at least for a period of time, to watch the game.
As the game unfolded, it was easy to visualize the comparison of the 2016 New Orleans Saints to the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
Many have pointed out to the similarities between the 2016 Falcons and the 2009 New Orleans Saints, including an elite quarterback, a high scoring offense and an opportunistic defense which creates turnovers.
The comparisons are valid but the Saints never had a receiver like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman is arguably better than any running back the Saints had.
That said, how far are the New Orleans Saints from reaching the level of the Patriots and Falcons moving forward to 2017? Let us take a look at where the Saints must improve, gazing through the television HD picture of what we witnessed Sunday.
1) The kicking game matters
Despite missing an extra point, the Patriots consistently pinned the Falcons deep in their own territory with high kickoffs by Stephen Gostkowski and outstanding kick coverage. something New Orleans sorely lacked this past season. Outside of a Legarrette Blount fumble and one short punt by Ryan Allen, Atlanta started drives from their own 8, 12, 19, 15, 27, 10 and 11 yard lines.
Conversely, New England was pinned back by good punts and kick coverage by Atlanta. The Patriots started drives from their own 10, 18, 16, 25, 25, 25, 13, 9 and 25-yard lines. Additionally Julian Edelman showed the importance of a return game, which the Saints sorely lack, with a 26 yard punt return.
The Saints had an inconsistent field goal game (corrected later in the season), poor kickoff coverage and virtually no return game.
2) Speed on defense matters
When you watched the young Atlanta defense flying around before it simply wore out, you got a picture of what the Saints sorely lack–team speed on defense.
Of course, the obliterated cornerback position (injuries) were a huge factor this past season for New Orleans but Atlanta has defensive backs who run pretty well.
More importantly, they have players like Debo Jones of Jesuit and LSU, Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney who can simply beat blockers to make plays with speed.
The Saints have no one like that on the back end of their defense, unless Stephone Anthony can find his game again under a new position coach and unless Dannell Ellerbe can remain healthy over the course of entire season.
3) A pass rush matters
The Patriots and Falcons each displayed effective, intimidating pass rushes. Both quarterbacks were sacked five times and found themselves hit or under pressure on many other occasions, often times without the benefit of a blitz.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was a monster, abusing guard Shaq Mason frequently, collecting three sacks for the Falcons. Jarrett is just 23, very young with a great future. At 6-1, 291 pounds, Jarrett is a bit undersized but very, very quick off the ball.
The Saints are hoping Sheldon Rankins is that guy on the inside, with a quick first step. The only true individual who can create a solid, meaningful pass rush on a consistent basis is Cameron Jordan.
Of course, the Falcons have great edge pressure from the likes of Vic Beasley, Dwight Freeney and Courtney Upshaw.
The Patriots had Trey Flowers harassing Matt Ryan to the tune of 2.5 sacks from his defensive end spot.
Blitzes are an important part of a defense but when you can generate a bonafide pass rush with your basic four down linemen, it allows you to drop seven into pass coverage, making it much more difficult for quarterbacks to find receivers.
4) Third down backs/specialists matter
While Tevin Coleman was not much of a factor, the 23-year-old had 31 catches with three touchdowns spelling Devonta Freeman, who can handle the role as well for Atlanta.
25-year-old James White was arguably the MVP for the Patriots in the Super Bowl. White rushed six times for 29 yards and two touchdowns with a two-point conversion and caught 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. Atlanta had no answer for him in matchups.
Travaris Cadet came on late in the season for the Saints but can he do it consistently? He finished the season with 40 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns, solid numbers, but he is the same guy that New England let go of in 2015 after the Saints originally let go of him.
Cadet improved but he is not what Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles was to the Saints’ offense between 2006-2013.
5) Play-calling matters
Sean Payton has long been considered one of the best offensive minds in the NFL and one of the best, most daring play-callers in the league. Pete Carmichael, a solid coach, took over play-calling duties quite often in 2016. Will that continue or will Payton return to that role?
Josh McDaniels wisely eschewed the running game for most of the second half in the Super Bowl. McDaniels is likely to get another head coaching opportunity as he has clearly rehabilitated his image after falling short as head coach of the Broncos in 2009-10.
McDaniels ran a direct snap to White for one two-point conversion and a smoke screen to Danny Amendola for another with a good block by Chris Hogan. Pick plays, of any sort, always work well in goal line situations.
Conversely, Kyle Shanahan is set to be named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers off of a prolific season in which the Falcons led the NFL in scoring.
While he had many toys to play with in terms of great talent, Shanahan proved that he is an innovative offensive mind but his play-calling clearly had much to do with the Atlanta collapse.
Up 28-12 with under 10 minutes to play, Shanahan called only four running plays the rest of the game.
Most notable were his calls on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter. On the first, a pair of runs by Coleman gave Atlanta third-and-one from their own 35. Having run it extremely well all evening and with a 16-point lead, Shanahan called a pass play. Matt Ryan was strip-sacked by Dont’a Hightower with Alan Branch recovering at the Atlanta 25-yard line with 8:31 to play in the game.
It was the play that changed the game. The Patriots capitalized, with Tom Brady connecting with Danny Amendola on a six-yard touchdown pass and White’s run for two points made it 28-20 with 5:55 to play in the game.
On the next Atlanta possession, Ryan hit Freeman for 39 yards and a first down at the New England 49-yard line and then connected with Julio Jones on a fantastic throw and catch for 22 yards to the New England 27 yard line with 4:40 to play in the game.
With Matt Bryant, who had converted 92 percent of his field goal attempts in the regular season, including a perfect 9-for-9 from 40-49 yards and 7-of-8 from 30-39 yards lurking and with a potent running game, why in the world did Shanahan not run the ball?
On first down, he did and Freeman gained two yards to the New England 22-yard line. A field goal would have been 40 yards maximum from there. Inexplicably, Shanahan then called a pass play and Ryan was sacked by Flowers, a loss of 12 yards to the 35-yard line. Still, it would have been a 52 or 53-yard field goal from there and Bryant was 6-for-8 from 50 plus yards in the regular season.
Then, Shanahan elected to throw again. This time, Ryan connected with Mohamed Sanu for nine yards to the 26-yard line but the play was negated as Jake Matthews blatantly held Chris Long, horse-collaring him. It was an easy call, one the officials had to make. That put the ball at the 45-yard line and an incomplete pass from Ryan to Gabriel forced a punt. You know the rest of the story.
The good news for the Saints is that the last two quarterbacks to win Super Bowls were Peyton Manning and Brady.
Manning was the oldest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl at 39 years and 320 days old. Brady became the second oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at the age of 39 years and 186 days old, surpassing John Elway, who was 38 years and 217 days old when he won Super Bowl XXXIII, ironically, against the Falcons.
Super Bowl LII will be played on Sunday, Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Drew Brees will be 39 years and 20 days old on that date.
While Manning was severely hampered by the delicate neck surgeries that took his arm strength away, Brady shows no ill effects at all. The same is true of Brees.
Brady had one severe injury, a season ending left knee injury in week one of 2008 which caused him to miss the rest of the season. He recovered brilliantly to become the most brilliant quarterback in NFL history.
Brees had one severe injury, a bad right shoulder injury in 2006 (torn labrum, partially torn rotator cuff) which caused everyone else, including his employer (San Diego Chargers) and Nick Saban (Miami Dolphins) to pause about.
You know the rest of the story. Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis took a leap of faith and Brees justified that faith times 11, the number of years that Brees has played at an extremely high level for New Orleans.
The Saints still have an elite quarterback, at least for one more season. They still have Sean Payton, at least for one more season. It can happen if they firmly, decisively and effectively address the “matters” mentioned.