QUOTE: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
After watching the Saints play Monday night, I am convinced they’re the team to beat in the NFC this year. Their team speed on offense is hard to prepare for, but their offensive execution is even harder. They make throws that very few offenses can make, and the precision of each throw is difficult to simulate in practice. On paper, they run standard NFL plays that can beat the designated coverage, but on the field, the speed, the rhythm and the location of the football makes it very tough for the opponent’s scout team to give the defense the right look for the game. It’s hard to prepare to play well when practicing is 10 levels slower than the game. The Saints proved last night that it’s not new plays, or gadget plays, but rather the execution of the plays. They out-executed the Patriots.
The Saints handled the big game the right way — they used the Patriots as the standard of excellence they want to emulate. Sean Payton has a tough challenge every week in terms of keeping his team completely focused on the task at hand. Winning presents unique problems for a team, including making sure the players don’t get comfortable with their own success. The Patriots game gave Payton a cause to get his team to focus on details in practice. And the fact that the team responded so well is impressive.
On defense, the Saints used multiple looks and multiple fronts to change the pace of the game, getting the Patriots out of their rhythm. They doubled Wes Welker and made sure they tackled him after the catch, then made sure they had help on top to deal with Randy Moss down the field. The Patriots must find ways to counter teams that use this strategy against their offense. The good teams will force the Patriots to make them win the game without Welker and Moss having an impact. Tom Brady was not always comfortable in the pocket, and once again the Patriots were hurt by not having a big-time back who can make opponents defend the box. New England has to be creative with its offense, especially in big games, because this strategy will be repeated.
I asked Bill Belichick last week if the Saints reminded him of the Rams in 2000. He was very honest, saying they did remind him of that team but have a better tight end. They are very similar to the Rams in terms of their ability to score, but my feeling is they’re faster and more talented at wide receiver. The Saints wide receivers never seem to drop any passes, and two of them, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, had reputations for being very inconsistent catching the ball. They run great routes, they run after the catch and they’ve earned Drew Brees’ trust. Last night, on just 44 plays, the Saints had eight plays of 20 or more yards, including three of their touchdowns. They lead the NFL with 59 plays of 20-plus yards. They continue to make a mockery of old NFL rules for success, like time of possession; they had the ball only 26 minutes yet gained 480 yards. They were low in passing completions and rushing attempts with just 44 (over 50 is a good number) yet they dominated the game. They force you to throw out conventional wisdom when dealing with their offensive execution.
And what’s most scary is that the Saints have every play in the book. Just look at Sean Payton’s call sheet — it reminds me of the menu at Ponzio’s diner in Philadelphia. Having a multitude of plays is nice, but being able to precisely execute those plays is what matters most.
Who can beat the Saints? My sense after watching the game is that it will take a team that has played them before, a team that is aware of the speed of the game and knows what to expect in terms of their execution. It’s hard to prepare your team to play against the Saints in practice when only by actually playing them can you know what to expect. Sunday in Washington, the Saints will play a very good defense that beat them last year. It will give them problems in terms of their ability to cover and make plays, but can they keep up with the speed of the game? Possible, but not likely, but it will take a team like the ‘Skins, or any team in the NFC South that has dealt with this offense before, to break their winning streak.
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To read more about the unsung heroes of the Saints–the defense–check out this article from Bleacher Report.