By Nick Guarisco
In today’s NFL, there are only three things teams need in order to win a Super Bowl. First, teams need a good quarterback. Second, they need to be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And third, they need to be able to protect their quarterback. Anything else a team can do well is just a luxury, not a necessity.
Every Super Bowl winning team in the last decade has hit on all three of these requirements. And while the Saints appear to have two of them (the good QB and O-line) locked up, which is better than last season (sans the O-line), two elements is not going to be enough. The Saints will have to be able to generate a pass rush in order to achieve the ultimate goal this season.
Now, it’s important to notice the one common denominator here: all three elements directly or indirectly relate to the quarterback position.
Because today’s NFL is such a quarterback-driven league, it’s more likely than not that the Saints will be playoff contenders solely based on Drew Brees.
But the real question is why should we expect this Jimmy Graham-less Saints team to be any better than last season’s debacle?
Two big reasons exist:
- An improved offensive line.
- A much easier schedule.
First and foremost, poor pass protection was the biggest difference between the inconsistent 2014 offense and the prolific offenses we’ve seen in past seasons. More than anything else, the unit’s struggles – particularly the inept play from the interior offensive line (that is, the left guard, center, and right guard) – hindered Brees’ production.
The performance drop-off between the tackles last season was a huge problem because Brees wasn’t afforded a clean pocket up the middle near as much as years past. A shorter quarterback like Brees needs a clean pocket up the middle in order to step up comfortably and see passing lanes more clearly.
In other words, the O-lines’ struggles hindered both Brees’ movement and his vision, leading to more inaccurate passes, which in turn disrupted the flow, consistency and efficiency of what was previously a dominant offense.
The increased pressure from the inside also yielded more interceptions.
Brees was under pressure on 9 of 17 interceptions, the highest mark in league.
Additionally, Brees had almost a tenth of a second less to throw per play last season than he had for both 2013 and 2012.
Drew Brees’ Average Time to Throw:
- 2012: 2.73 seconds
- 2013: 2.72 seconds
- 2014: 2.63 seconds
Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level, but last season, his protection was simply subpar. The impact the Saints’ weak trench play had on the team’s ability to score and maintain possession of the ball was paramount for a franchise that thrives on offensive efficiency in order to get leads and keep a struggling, injured defense off the field.
This is the reason the Saints have placed such a high priority on quality interior offensive line play in the past. New Orleans has paid its starting guards more money than any other guard tandem in the NFL for the last four years. And after the metaphorical walls came tumbling down last season, the Saints emphasized reconstruction of the unit this offseason.
First, New Orleans traded away their best pass catcher and offensive weapon to acquire All-Pro center Max Unger from the Seattle Seahawks.
Unger has only allowed five total sacks in his entire 6-year career (per PFF), none of which came in 2014. Unger actually had a HUGE impact on the Seahawks’ offensive success last season.
Seahawks 2014 Regular Season offense in 9 games WITH Unger & 10 games WITHOUT Unger:
- Total Yards of Offense – 392 … 365
- Total Yards Per Play – 21 … 5.69
- Pass Yards Per Game – 188 … 212
- Pass Yards Per Play – 51 … 6.58
- Total Sacks Allowed – 17 … 2.9
- Rush Yards Per Game – 203 … 154
- Rush Yards Per Attempt – 5.97 … 4.81
The rushing numbers for Marshawn Lynch in splits with and without Unger are perhaps even more telling.
In nine games WITH UNGER – Marshawn Lynch rushed 177 times for 892 RUYD and 9 RUTD (5.0 YPC). In 10 games WITHOUT UNGER – Lynch’s rushing line was 166-735-6 (4.4 YPC).
Then, the team passed on upgrading their porous defense in round one of April’s NFL Draft to select offensive tackle Andrus Peat.
The Saints’ offense was particularly ugly at times during the five games that their best lineman, LT Terron Armstead, sat out due to injury. Among the five contests Armstead missed were an embarrassing prime time blowout loss at Dallas, a 41-10 home loss to Carolina, a horrific 30-14 loss to Atlanta when the season was on the line and a narrow 23-20 victory in the season finale over Tampa Bay, a team who not only finished 2-14, but arguably tanked in the second half of that contest to ensure the first overall pick in next year’s draft. Needless to elaborate more, the Saints had all the evidence they needed to support taking the best available player on their board at pick #13.
The moves were based on the philosophy that as long as Brees gets more time to throw, it won’t matter who his pass catchers are (aka Brees is what makes them good). The hope is that the Saints’ improved offensive line will allow the team to be more balanced, putting less pressure on Brees (literally) do to everything. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are two very effective running backs that should benefit from better blocking.
The electric second year wide receiver Brandin Cooks will be Brees’ primary target from the get-go, and he’s poised for a huge season. The offense’s new multipurpose weapon C.J. Spiller is just as explosive when healthy, and he’ll be fun to watch on the Saints’ fast track.
Spiller has 12 games indoors on turf this season, and he’ll face a lot more nickel packages with the Saints than he did in Buffalo. Sean Payton will use his creativity to scheme the speedy Spiller into space. Accordingly, the oft-injured runner will be a huge weapon and a featured player, health permitting.
The philosophy will be to use a balanced, efficient offense led by Brees behind a great offensive line to score early, get a lead and make it easier on a deficient Saints’ defense to take chances and force turnovers. It’s the same formula the team used and succeeded with during their 2009 Super Bowl run. Unfortunately, seeing as the team has only amassed one sack in 3 preseason games, this defense may not be up to the task.
Watching a training camp practice live last week, I noticed that NT John Jenkins and DE Akiem Hicks look lighter. Jenkins, in particular, looks quicker. After a down season, DE Cam Jordan has been playing like his old self in preseason, so the hope is that’ll continue on to the regular season.
Jordan will be relied on to generate some form of pass rush for the Saints, as the other threat to pressure opposing QBs is second round rookie OLB Hau’oli Kikaha. In order for New Orleans to be successful this season, it’s imperative for Kikaha and Jordan to have strong seasons.
ILBs Dannell Ellerbe and David Hawthorne have shown flashes of ability but are JAG (“just another guy”) far too often. Fellow ILB, first round pick Stephone Anthony, is a plus athlete with high long-term upside but he may struggle early on, especially in pass coverage.
The secondary looks solid on paper, but they’ve underwhelmed on the field, and the unit is already banged up. FS Jairus Byrd is a ball-hawk when healthy, but he’s set to open the season on the PUP List (physically unable to perform, meaning he’ll miss at least the first six games of the regular season).
FS Rafael Bush will replace him for the foreseeable future. Top CB Keenan Lewis is having hip surgery, which will sideline him for the first 3-4 weeks of the regular season. This means Brandon Browner, Chip Breaux, and Damien Swann are your starters at CB. Meanwhile, SS Kenny Vaccaro looks to rebound after a miserable 2014 season.
Aside from an improved O-line, there is another reason for optimism: the Saints face one of the easiest schedules in the NFL.
New Orleans faces the AFC South, which features three teams that have unsettling quarterback situations, and the NFC East, which features four teams that have equally inept defenses.
The Saints’ own division, the NFC South, includes Tampa Bay twice. The Buccaneers should be better than their 2014 record of 2-14, but they still lack the defense or offensive line to make any noise.
Although Atlanta improved its coaching staff by bringing in defensive-minded Dan Quinn and OC Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons still lack an offensive line, running game, and talent on defense. Carolina finished last season strongly after Cam Newton got healthier and a strong running game led them to a 5-2 finish down the stretch, but they lost their best pass catcher, Kelvin Benjamin, to injury in preseason, which should make the offense less potent.
Overall, the Panthers and Falcons look like two 8-8 teams next year, so the opportunity is there to win a weak division at 9-7 or 10-6. I’d be very surprised if the Saints didn’t improve on their 7-9 win/loss record last season. However, until New Orleans can get healthy on defense and generate some sort of pass rush, a Super Bowl run will likely have to wait until 2016.
Follow Nick Guarisco on Twitter @NickGFantasy for all the fantasy football takes you’ll need to dominate your league this season.