Football is back!
The sense of relief may not be the same as last summer when we faced a potential lost season, and this time around the Olympics are stealing the world’s sporting focus, but after seven months of talk the real hard work of football is beginning again.
Preseason is often, both fairly and unfairly, derided as irrelevant but while the results and performances may not be indicative to season success there is important work to be done by teams and players alike. New systems are run in anger for the first time, rookies have to get that first experience of football and players around the league are fighting for a starting job — some of them just for a job.
After a break of one season the 26 weeks of football got underway with the customary curtain raiser in Canton. Both teams had lots to learn from this game; how will the Saints fare without Sean Payton on the sideline? Who will win the quarterback derby out in Arizona? How will the Saints’ defense change under Steve Spagnuolo? The Saints may have won on the scoreboard but who laid the best groundwork for the season to come?
Cardinals – Three Things of Note
1) Was that just some first night, first drive jitters? After what looked like a good start to the game when the Cardinals’ defense got quick inside pressure and cut off Drew Brees’ first read of the game, a slant to Marques Colston, things quickly unraveled for Ray Horton’s defensive first team. They may have been without a couple of starters, Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett, but that doesn’t excuse a concerning first drive. The Saints’ offensive line comfortably controlled the Cardinals’ defensive front in the running game. The tackling behind the Cardinals’ front was little short of abysmal as the Saints strolled upfield for an opening drive touchdown. Arizona missed seven tackles on that opening drive and their only other positive play came courtesy of an uncharacteristically off target pass from Brees. Things improved on the second drive, concluding a solid series with a third down sack, but this was against backups and the Cardinals will need a confidence boost when they next face a first string offense.
2) The theme song to Kevin Kolb’s preseason should be “Under Pressure” by Queen. In both a figurative and literal sense he will be feeling the heat after his display in that first quarter last night. He started the game with an awful first throw. Malcolm Jenkins was already driving underneath the out route by Andre Roberts before the ball was thrown and Kolb simply cannot make that throw under any circumstance. As efficient as Kolb was on out routes last season, this throw highlights just how wrong you can get it on out routes. Kolb was under pressure on that throw and that theme continued on his subsequent passes. His second pass was a ‘safe’ incompletion on a back shoulder throw, again targeting Andre Roberts, the disconnect on that throw illustrating the work the Cardinals still have to do to round out their receiving corps. From then on in Kolb was running for his life, taking one hit to the knees (could easily have been flagged as roughing the passer based upon last season) and then that final knockout blow when he was again flushed from the pocket. Kolb dug himself a hole with his first pass and his offensive line was unable to throw him a rope to help himself out of it.
3) In what seemed to be a parallel of last season Kolb’s competition, John Skelton capitalized on his chances as he made the most of some improved play by those around him. He seemed to steal the momentum in the short first round of this bout for the starting gig in the desert. Skelton did not look good early on, making a late pass over the middle to Todd Heap that should have been a first down if the throw was on time, and then missed his fullback a play later. After the Cardinals gave him an easy play to Larry Fitzgerald he appeared to settle. He only threw two passes after that but both were good. His fifth pass of the night found Andre Roberts in soft spot on a hitch for a first down and his sixth and final pass was a good throw across his body moving up through the pocket for another first down. From there on in he simply rode the Cardinals’ running game which got on track nicely behind the running of Alfonso Smith. We didn’t see much from Skelton, but by not making that catastrophic error he wins round one here. The Cardinals will need to see far more from both as the preseason rolls on.
Saints – Three Things of Note
1) The Saints put the rest of the league on notice with their opening drive against the Cardinals’ starting defense. With or without Sean Payton on the sidelines, this offense will still be brutally efficient in its execution and the minor personnel changes on offense appeared to have very little effect. The passing game was extremely conservative so we’ll gloss over that, but the running game was as excellent as ever. At center, Brian De La Puente showed again the Saints won’t be short changed in the middle of the line, as he comfortably controlled Dan Williams. To his left, Ben Grubbs made an excellent first impression and provided the key block on Darren Sproles’ 11-yard carry as he pulled left to cut off the pursuit of Paris Lenon. This line should once again be one of the league’s best.
2) The Saints highlighted their Jekyll and Hyde defense again in this game. Even with the customary vanilla preseason defense, they got into the face of the Cardinals’ offense but weren’t 100% consistent in finishing plays. The first defensive play of the game was a case in point, as the backside of the defense let down some fine work by the front-side. Broderick Bunkley and Will Smith controlled their blockers, Lyle Sendlein and Rob Housler, to disrupt the run by LaRod Stephens-Howling. However, some poor backside play by Cameron Jordan and Scott Shanle, who were pursuing far too aggressively, allowed Stephens-Howling to spin out of the back-side of the play for a 15-yard gain. Curtis Lofton later showed what he brings in terms of an upgrade over the suspended Jonathan Vilma as a run stopping linebacker. On the second drive, he diagnosed and tackled Stephens-Howling for a loss and adding another stop for no gain on the first play of the second quarter.
3) The most concerning thing for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be the ease with which the Cardinals moved the ball on the ground when they got their offensive linemen moving laterally. On consecutive plays when the Cardinals pulled linemen in the second quarter they picked up a total of 31 yards, as they split Curtis Lofton and Scott Shanle on each of the two runs. The drive culminated with a walk-in touchdown on a stretch play as the Saints pursuit was conclusively cut off by the Cardinals’ blockers. From a trips bunch formation Todd Heap and Andre Roberts cut off the pursuit of Scott Shanle and Isa Abdul-Quddus, while Rob Housler led the rush and kicked Johnny Patrick way out of the play. While two of those defenders may not be first stringers, the ease of the TD run should be somewhat alarming for Spagnuolo and his defensive staff.
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