Re-Focused – Saints @ Titans, Week 14

| December 14, 2011

With playoff implications in the minds of both teams, the more experienced 2009 Super Bowl champions just managed to fend off a late comeback effort led by rookie gunslinger Jake Locker. Matt Hasselbeck injured his calf early in the second quarter, but Mike Munchak described Hasselbeck’s injury as mild and he hasn’t been ruled out for Week 15. How the Titans view their playoff chances will likely factor in to the decision to start or sit Hasselbeck. In all likelihood, they’ll need to win out and get some help from a few other teams, but we’d anticipate seeing Hasselbeck out there if it’s at all possible.

With the victory and Chicago’s loss to Denver, the Saints have clinched a Playoff berth. While the 22-17 score line won’t impress, the Saints were very close to firing on all cylinders in this game: they controlled the clock; Drew Brees (+2.2) stepped up his game in the second half; the running game was effective when need be; and their run defense was closer to what we envisioned coming into the season than it has been most of the year. They did a good job converting on third downs and that ability to extend drives showed up on the drive charts. While the Saints had only four drives that produced less than 39 yards, the Titans only had four that exceeded 39 yards, including two non-scoring drives. In truth, the Saints should have won this game by a larger margin.

So why didn’t they? For starters, New Orleans committed 11 penalties for 95 yards, and, especially in the first half, some of those penalties were drive-killers. They were also 0-for-3 inside the red zone in terms of scoring touchdowns, instead kicking three field goals. Nine missed tackles on defense didn’t help matters and the Saints’ inability to get consistent pressure from their front four when teams are trying to play catch-up will always give opponents a chance, just as the Titans had at the end. There were plenty of positives to take from this win, but if the Saints are going to stop Green Bay in the postseason, they need to clear up some of these issues beforehand.

 

New Orleans – Three Performances of Note

The Block Party

The Saints’ offensive line has long since proven to be an asset—all five starters have positive cumulative grades in both run-blocking and pass protection—but they may very well soar to new heights as the unit continues to become more cohesive. The same group has started since Week 9 now and the results have been all the Saints could have asked for. Against the Titans, all five offensive linemen achieved a positive grade and four of them graded at +2.0 or better overall. Perhaps the Saints’ most well-known linemen, right guard Jahri Evans, was the worst of a strong group at +0.8. To his right, Zach Strief (+4.0) was the best of the bunch. Strief has graded in the green in every game since returning from an MCL sprain in Week 9 and had his best game this season against Tennessee. Strief allowed only one pressure in 53 pass plays and helped propel Chris Ivory for big gains in the run game twice, including a 14-yarder at 2:18 fourth quarter that gave the Saints a chance to run out the clock. Strief wasn’t the only lineman to hold up well in pass protection as the unit allowed only six pressures in all, giving them the sixth-highest Pass Blocking Efficiency rating of the week.

 

Sproles and Colston Pace the Offense

While the Saints did put up over 400 yards of total offense, not everybody was at their best. The production was more a testament to Brees’ decision-making—outside of nearly throwing an interception to Jurell Casey in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter—and the offensive line’s blocking than the performance of the so-called skill position players. Jimmy Graham was limited by back spasms and the Saints needed somebody to pick up the slack. Devery Henderson (-1.2) Robert Meachem (-1.5) and Lance Moore (-1.5) weren’t up to the task, but Marques Colston (+1.6) and Darren Sproles were. Colston caught all seven balls he was targeted on and produced 105 yards to go with his two touchdowns, giving Brees a perfect passer rating when throwing his way–his leaping, scoring grab at 12:47 fourth quarter may have been unreachable for some wide receivers. Sproles made plays whenever the ball was in his hands, be it a handoff or check-down pass, and had 97 total yards on 12 touches.

 

Linebackers have Little Impact: A Recurring Theme

The Saints’ linebackers haven’t been the most effective unit this season—with only one player barely grading positively in cumulative ratings—and it was more of the same in Tennessee. Again, each Saints linebacker who saw action graded negatively, except Martez Wilson who played only 12 snaps. Jonathan Vilma has been over-hyped since joining the Saints and has graded negatively in 11 consecutive games dating back to last season. In this game he failed to record a defensive stop and applied pressure only once in 17 blitzes, but he was far from the worst offender. Ramon Humber (-2.3) gets that recognition with a truly invisible performace—no pressure and no tackles in 31 snaps.  JoLonn Dunbar was a little more effective than the others in regards to his pass rush (+1.8) and had the game-winning sack, but only after allowing the Titans into the red zone in the first place by losing track of Nate Washington streaking down the middle.

 

Tennessee – Three Performances of Note

Run-game Reversion

Javon Ringer broke his hand and had to leave the game in the second quarter, so Chris Johnson (-1.4) took advantage of the increased snap count and continued his recent resurgence, right? Not quite. Johnson didn’t get a lot of help from his blockers, but that excuse only goes so far as even Locker was able to run the ball more effectively than Johnson. Locker’s longest run (17 yards) was nearly twice that of Johnson’s (9 yards) and Johnson even picked up fewer yards after contact than the quarterback as well. It was the seventh game this season in which Johnson averaged less than 3 yards per carry. The 23-yard effort also means that Johnson now has more games rushing for less than 30 yards this season than he does games rushing over 100. While Johnson wasn’t able to make anything happen in the run game, his only negatively-graded plays actually occurred on passing downs. He whiffed on a block in pass protection at 3:11 third quarter and then dropped a screen pass on the very next play when he tried to catch it in stride with one hand.

 

Locker Beats Mental Pressure, but not Defensive Pressure

Give credit to Jake Locker for nearly leading his team to victory on the Titans’ last possession against a superior team and with the pressure of the Titans’ playoff hopes being realistically on the line. That being said, it’s not time to hand the reins to the rookie unless the Titans have given up on the postseason. If you look at the box score, Locker’s 9.7 yards-per-attempt, 282-yard passing performance certainly doesn’t look bad. His overall grade of -0.9 doesn’t even fully emphasize the disparity between Hasselbeck and Locker as passers. However, that grade was boosted by Locker’s running ability, and his passing grade (-3.1) paints a much clearer picture.

He made some throws that would leave the impression that he has a long-term future in the NFL, but his accuracy hasn’t yet made the leap it needs to for him to be an effective starter. He completed only 45% of his passes in all, but that percentage only gets worse the deeper you delve into the numbers. He failed to complete a pass in eight drop-backs under pressure and created three of those pressure situations himself by holding onto the ball too long. More concerning than his accuracy in the face of pressure was his accuracy any time the Saints sent the blitz: he completed five passes in 18 blitzed drop-backs. It takes time to become proficient passing under pressure, but most starting-quality NFL quarterbacks can exploit defenses when their blockers are able to pick up the blitz.

 

Defensive Rookies Divided

Of the Titans’ four defensive rookies who saw extensive action in this game, half recorded a strong game while the other half didn’t do much. Karl Klug (+1.3) had two big sacks. The more important of the two occurred on a 3rd-and-4 with 5:22 remaining in the fourth as Klug beats Carl Nicks with a quick inside move. Akeem Ayers (+1.7) was also playing well before leaving the game with an undisclosed injury. He had recorded four defensive stops and was on his way to his best performance yet in run defense.

Conversely, Klug’s more highly-touted teammate Jurell Casey had his least-productive game, if not his worst. It was the first time Casey failed to record a defensive stop in his young career and he was also held without a pressure, which is, of course, a much more common occurrence for the run-stuffing defensive tackle. Colin McCarthy also graded negatively due to some lapses in coverage. He had the deep middle zone on Colston’s first touchdown.

 

Games Notes

- The Titans’ offensive line actually had a higher Pass Blocking Efficiency rating than the Saints with only three total pressures allowed.

- Tracy Porter missed three tackles, matching his total through the first twelve games.

- Shaun Rogers’ +2.4 overall grade was his best since Week 7 of the 2010 season. He achieved it in only 25 snaps.

 

PFF Game Ball

Marques Colston caught everything in his vicinity and scored his team’s only touchdowns, making this one of the easiest PFF Game Ball choices I’ve had this season.

 

 

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