It was a day of challenges. I had to step up for an injured Ken Trahan to pound out a First Take column blog while the New Orleans Saints needed to stop the 2012 bleeding and bring home their first win at Lambeau Field. One of us succeeded.
The Saints go home winless after four games with a heart-breaking 28-27 loss on Sunday afternoon. Brees was brilliant. Players on both sides of the ball made winning plays for New Orleans, too. But plays to put you in position to win are not enough. The final moments of the game in the NFL call for the biggest plays to be made. The Packers made them; or more precisely, the Saints did not.
Here was my collection of running thoughts and facts from the end of a September not to remember for the Black & Gold:
Will Herring gets the start at OLB in place of injured options David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas. And the Saints tackle well for three straight plays to force a 3-and-out. Little victories like that are crucial for a Saints defense lacking confidence.
But the Saints hurry up and fail on a 3rd and 1 running play where quick snapping the Packers actually hurt Jermon Bushrod's chances to block Clay Matthews on the backside. Lack of simple execution has haunted the formerly consistent Saints offense.
Green Bay had not scored a point all season in the first quarter. Of course, they had yet to face New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers found Jordy Nelson for a couple of first downs on the Packers scoring drive. Rodgers showed his poise and athleticism by rolling left and finding James Jones between defenders in the red zone for six from 12 yards out. That's a great QB making a play more than anything for which you can blame the Saints. Even when they pressure the passer, the opponent makes the play.
Meanwhile, the US defense of a final day Ryder Cup lead looks like the recent Saints. Not good. A 10-6 lead is now an 11-11 tie. Glad I have multiple TVs and a short attention span.
Saints respond with a terrific drive to respond. Drew Brees is a perfect 8-for-8 in the game and capped an efficient march with a jump ball TD pass to Marques Colston from the 20. So far, the pass protection by the defensive line has been superb against a very dangerous Packers front seven.
The use of the tight end was a key part of the equation for the Saints so far with three completions on the drive to Jimmy Graham and another to David Thomas.
Brees ties Johnny Unitas' NFL record for consecutive games with a TD pass at 47. It has been a truly remarkable run even in this era where the passing game has so many more advantages. But the record stood alone for 52 years for a reason. Brees has been historically great as a Saint.
You see the lack of speed for the Saints by league standards at linebacker and safety when Rodgers was able to avoid another 3-and-out by scrambling to his right and running for seven yards. But Curtis Lofton is a rock in the middle for New Orleans; he sniffed out a screen pass for a shirt game before the Packers converted again on third down through the air.
At the end of the first quarter, the Packers were poised in the red zone as a shootout may indeed develop as expected between these two teams. Holding these offenses to field goals in these situations will tell the tale today. Brees is 8-8 for 90 yds and a TD while Rodgers is 10-13 for 99 and a score. Efficiency.
Mistakes haunt the Saints. An offsides penalty on Junior Galette followed by too much cushion in the Spagnuolo zone to set up first and goal. That's when Rodgers was able to sit in a rocking chair in the pocket on first down before finding Greg Jennings over the middle in the end zone. Part of the problem is the Packers use of no-huddle against a Saints unit that still looks like it is thinking about responsibilities rather than reacting quickly to make plays. Packers back up 7 with 146 yards and 10 first downs less than a minute into the second quarter.
Saints offense in the first looks like the one we are used to seeing. Excellent pass protection including on third downs while Brees has found Graham and Colston over the middle consistently. Colston may finally be healthy which gives New Orleans the duo of big targets most teams cannot handle.
Green Bay has stuffed the running game early on (first 7 rushes for just 12 yards) and finally stop the Saints on third and 9 from the Packers 40 despite once again failing to get anywhere near Brees. When the Saints fail to "hold serve" on offense, worry ensues.
Mike McCarthy challenges an incomplete pass call on a Rodgers throw to Nelson. It looked the officials (the real ones!) called it right with Nelson losing control of the ball while trying to make a "football move" in lunging forward. After the call stands, the Saints BARELY stop Green Bay's Randall Cobb short of a first down. A second three-and-out forced in the half when it was really needed...but WAIT. A fake punt from inside their own 20 works on the short direct snap to John Kuhn. Gutsy call to say the least. Do the Packers make that call if they are 2-1 rather than 1-2?
Meanwhile, Patrick Robinson struggled with Jordy Nelson from the start. Robinson has been decent in run support but often reacting rather than acting to make plays for a defense that lacks playmakers all over. He should have been called for pass interference twice on a second quarter Packers drive but got away with a shirt tug in the red zone. No matter...a second touchdown for Jones who beat beat Jabari Greer badly on an inside route with no safety support. No one on this defense makes key plays.
Brees versus Rodgers in the first half was the pitchers' duel you'd expect. The Saints scored a must-make TD in the final seconds before the half. Combine that with the ability to receive the opening kickoff to start the second half and you get the most clutch play by the offense so far this year. Brees has found his top four targets (Graham, Colston, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles) with the diminutive latter two making key plays. Sproles had a big gainer on a well-designed screen pass before catching on in the flat inside the 10 and taking it to the house.
In the opening half, the running game was as poor as the passing game was good for New Orleans. The Saints converted two 3rd-and-ones on the final drive through the air.
A replay decision goes the Saints way when they had to have it. Jimmy Graham "caught" a third down pass for a first down. A Packers challenge proved inconclusive. It was very close. Of course, the scab officials last week took away a Pierre Thomas touchdown with far less evidence to overturn it. Ironically, Graham said this week that the return of the regular officials would help the Saints offense. So far, he's right.
And the US has lost the Ryder Cup. Europe completes the biggest comeback in the events history on the final day, but they had plenty of help from the hapless Americans. Missed putts. Lots of them.
Yet another huge 3rd down conversion by Drew Brees who avoided pressure but found Lance Moore near the Green Bay 10. But the Saints have to settle for a field goal...but they DON'T. The Saints ran the field goal team onto the field late while contemplating whether they would go for it on 4th and elss than 2. The Packers not only had 13 players on the field but B.J. Raji also shoved Saints long snapper Justin Drescher for a personal foul and automatic first down. Yet, the Saints still cannot cross the goalline. First and goal from the 2 yields three Saints passes. Yet Troy Aikman on the Fox Sports broadcast compared Mark Ingram to Emmitt Smith; if Ingram was like Smith, the Saints would have run the ball in that spot. Just saying.
With halftime sandwiched between two long Saints possessions, the New Orleans defense has tons of real-time rest after chasing the Packers no-huddle attack. The rest did not help. The Saints have no pass rush and no answers for Rodgers. He scrambles with a purpose when there is occasional pressure, buying time to find open targets as the zone coverages break down. Even though Jennings' injury troubles have taken him out of action once again today, the rest of the Packer weapons have been rolling with Nelson leading the charge.
Malcolm Jenkins has been a bust overall. He comes free on a blitz on a crucial 3rd and 3 play inside the 5 but not only fails to sack Rodgers but pokes him in the eye for a personal foul penalty on a play the Saints had stopped. When you draft a safety in the middle of the first round, "middle of the road" starter is not the production you are looking for from him. When the chance to match Green Bay's red zone stop presented itself, New Orleans missed the boat. Or DID THEY (sense a theme here)? With Rodgers needing treatment for the eye poke, former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell comes in on the next play, trips over the foot of center Jeff Saturday and botches the handoff to Cedric Benson. Of all people, Jenkins comes out of the pile at the 7 yard line with the ball. The Saints are due a few breaks after such a poor start, to say the very least.
Deep threat! Joe Morgan finally does what he was kept on the active roster to do. A blown coverage by Packers DB Sam Shields turns into the longest Saints play of the season, an 80-yard strike. The speedster's first touchdown as a pro has to excite all parties concerned about the Saints lack of field-stretching speed at the wideout spot. Saints have their first lead of the day. At this point, 342 of the Saints' 368 yards and all 18 of their first downs have come through the air. Yet somehow, play-action worked on that bomb. Go figure.
After the long scoring toss, Brees is now 4th player in NFL history with 60 career 300-yd passing games, joining Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Brett Favre. And for those who wanted to see a more vertical element to the offense, Brees is now 8-9 for 212 yards and two scores on passes traveling more than 11 yards downfield.
Big moment! There was a breaking point in the Robinson versus Nelson battle. After giving up another catch, Robinson stepped in front of a Rodgers forced throw for a big INT inside the Saints 40. Crucial drive here for the Saints. A touchdown would yield a massive two-score lead for New Orleans.
Matthews with a sack on a twist not picked up by Ben Grubbs forces a 3rd and 17 and likely kills the Saints momentum. Or DOES IT? The Saints continue to convert on third down as Colston again finds an opening in the zone coverage over the middle and Brees finds him. All of the Saints big guns in the passing game have shown up today. New Orleans on the move and with a 24-21 lead in Green Bay territory after three quarters.
It's rare but Packers LB D.J. Smith sniffed out a Pierre Thomas screen play to force another Saints third and long. Brees and company must be stopped. NOPE. Once again, Colston is open down the middle of the field. Inside the Packers 20. The Saints top wideout is back in a major way, and not a moment too soon.
Green Bay holds at their nine to force another Garrett Hartley chip shot field goal (27-21 New Orleans). Brees hit the 400-yard mark before the drive stalled. His last six 400-yd games in regular season have all come on road ('11 GB, MIN; '09 WAS; '08 DEN, ATL) and his eight overall tie him with Peyton Manning for second all-time (Marino has 13). Before Brees arrived in the Crescent City in 2006, the Saints had 39 300-yard passing games in 39 seasons. Brees has 53 in 99 regular-season games with New Orleans.
Saints extend the lead to six and really cannot be upset about the missed redzone opportunity considering all the hard work it took just to get down there. Most of the 4th quarter left means either a lot more scores to come via two clutch quarterbacks or ball-control marches against defenses on their heels trying to bend and not break.
Colston had 10 catches for 160 yds through his 1st three games but racked up 8 for 138 yds and his first score through just over three quarters.
Saints bend and don't break. Packers forced to punt just inside New Orleans territory. Galette comes off the right edge with pressure to force Rodgers to leave the pocket and throw too high for Randall Cobb. Making plays at keys times here in the second half have stopped Green Bay drives. Like breaking serve in tennis on a fast surface, you only need a few to win a match. Time for Brees to hold serve here, but the Saints start from their 9-yard line.
Sometimes it's meant to be. A poor Brees throw while backed up inside his own territory has become a theme for him this year, but he gets lucky when a pair of Packers collide trying to catch a deflected pass that never should have been thrown. The Saints fail to gain a yard on three plays, but a monster Thomas Morstead punt covers 48-yards and lands out of bounds to prevent the dangerous Cobb from doing damage. The Saints defense is back under pressure with 10:25 left.
Touchdown Packers. You really couldn't expect three straight Green Bay drives to end without points. A couple of plays to Cobb including a shovel pass followed by two catches by Nelson including a physical run-after-catch score on a slant route gives Green Bay a one-point lead with 7 minutes to go in regulation. Rodgers wants a contract bigger than Brees, the league's highest paid player; the Green Bay playmaker now has four TD passes and likely more work to do. The Saints, who had scored 20 straight points, must score on this next possession.
Mayhem. No, not the commercial. Darren Sproles is stripped from behind but is inexplicably called "down by contact." Bad call, but Green Bay has used up their challenges. Also, there was no clear recovery of the fumble at around the Saints 30 amid a desperate scrum. Boo birds in Green Bay are not happy with these officials either. Even the best make mistakes. Oh the 'human'ity!
Grubbs was whipped by C.J. Wilson who sacked Brees on first down but a 15-yard strike once again over the middle once again to Colston gave them third and manageable. But a throw to Sproles over the middle falls incomplete. After a near-delay penalty that initially announced before the Saints were awarded a timeout, New Orleans goes for it on fourth down, a season-defining play. Brees threads a needle between three Packers to Moore for six-yards. Wow!
Crucial drop by Sproles on third down, but Hartley is solid gold from 43-yards out only to have a holding call against David Thomas blocking on the end. Mad at the officials now, Cheeseheads? And even the replcement refs would have called the ensuing offsides against the Packers. No matter. Hartley misses from 48 yards away wide-left. Green Bay is one first down from burying New Orleans. Even when it is set up to be your day, you still have to make the plays when the chips are down. A false start by Morgan, the Sproles drop, the Thomas hold and a missed kick come in sequence. For the Saints, the famous quote "we have seen the enemy and he is us" applies.
On 3rd and 3, can someone tell me how Jabari Greer is playing tight coverage yet not looking for a quick throw. Jones actually catches as pass on his back while being interfered with by the Saints best corner who somehow never turned to look for the throw. Game over. Season? What do you call 0-4?
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