The Saints have played two games, have lost two games, and so are not good. No debating that. But in the rare moments between autopsies of the team’s surprising return to unwelcome defensive form
, take some time to appreciate what’s going right, because the Saints may be doing more good things than you realize.
Jimmy Graham Beats His Demons
Last year, despite Jimmy Graham’s impressive numbers, fans and observers were often left unimpressed by the kinda-sorta tight end. They were mostly wrong to feel this way, of course, but Graham’s infamous blanking at the hands of Aqib Talib in New England resulted in plenty of talk about how top cornerbacks could shut him down.
Against Cleveland, Graham faced a top NFL cornerback; he shrugged off the Browns’ Joe Haden with relative ease. Check this out:
That’s Jimmy Graham lined up as a wide receiver against a Pro Bowl, all-pro cornerback, a consensus member of that Patrick Peterson/Richard Sherman/Aqib Talib tier of cover guy. That’s Jimmy Graham beating Haden despite Haden’s valiant best effort to keep the beating from occurring.
Two plays later, Mark Ingram scored a touchdown.
Through two games, Graham has 18 catches, 200 yards, and a pair of touchdowns, neither of which cost the Saints a 15 yard dunking-the-goalpost penalty. In 2014, he's picked up right where he left off before his plantar fasciitis injury in 2013. In short, this guy's a monster on the football field, and at some point he'll probably win a game by himself, regardless of what happens with Rob Ryan's defense.
The Running Game Is Dominant
I don't have to talk about how important the running game is. In fact, most of you probably consider it to be of far more importance than I. Not that running the football isn't awesome — it is — but neither the buzz-word of "balance" nor the old cliche of "run the ball, stop the run" generally correlate with wins the way you may think they do.
That's a qualification. The fact is, when the Saints can run the ball, they are a better team. That's something proven by on-field results, year by year. Right now, the Saints have the fifth-best rushing offense in the NFL by total yards, and the second-best by yards per carry. Some of that is due to the superlative play of Mark Ingram since about the middle of last season, but just as much of it is a result of extremely good play by the Saints' offensive line, which has improved measurably between this year and last.
Take this run by Khiry Robinson as your for instance:
It's not spectacular. It's not a 50 yard touchdown, or some such. But it is
the sort of routine gain, produced by outstanding blocking at the line of scrimmage (including something almost resembling a nice block by Jimmy Graham) that makes for a great ground game.
Even without Mark Ingram, who broke his hand against Cleveland but ripped through the Browns' defense, the Saints will likely continue to run the ball well. When your offensive line can shove a defense around, good things tend to happen.
Ask 2011. It'll tell you I'm right.
Signs of Pass Rush Life
Friends with whom I've talked this week might be surprised at what I'm writing here. And, to be fair, there isn't much visual evidence of pass rush life from the Saints' defense so far. But let's pull in some stats that give us reason for hope that Cam Jordan and Junior Galette might be about to turn our season around.
Pro Football Focus, which ranks every NFL player based on how they perform from play to play, is high on both guys right now. Even though he hasn't had a sack, Jordan is still among PFF's top defensive ends so far, and is tied for the league lead in quarterback hurries. PFF credits Junior Galette with four hurries, along with the sack he had against Cleveland, and a pair of QB hits.
The point is, even though the Saints have just two sacks so far this year, there's reason for hope.
What's It Mean for This Week?
Historically, nothing cures whatever ails Sean Payton's team quite like a game in the Superdome. In this case, the ailment is a collection of horrible and often embarrassing defensive breakdowns
The Saints don't need a great defense; they just need one that isn't a total liability. Because then the likes of a monstrous Jimmy Graham and bulldozing rushing attack can ensure the team avoids the late losses that have been so painful these past two weeks; they can avoid that
problem, starting against Minnesota this week, by making sure the game isn't in doubt at all.