Times Pic Mid Season Analysis part I
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Saints making the best of it after disappointing start
Thursday November 06, 2003
By Jeff Duncan
On Oct. 9, four days after the Saints suffered their third consecutive loss to drop to 1-4, Coach Jim Haslett stood outside the locker room and made a bold, and some would say utterly insane, prediction: "We'll be 5-4 at the break."
He was wrong. But not by much.
The Saints were one missed block, perhaps one official's call, away from achieving their goal.
That said, 4-5 is not where the Saints wanted or expected to be after nine games. It's far below preseason expectations.
Then again, it doesn't look so bad after such a grim start.
And that is where the Saints are at the midpoint of their season. Disappointed, yet optimistic. Backs against the wall but with a playoff beacon still visible at the end of the tunnel.
"I like where we're at right now," Haslett said. "We've played three phases of football pretty well, and I still think we can get better. We don't have a lot of margin for error, but there are a lot of teams that are in the same situation. The positive thing is we've won three of our last four games. If we can continue that pace we'll be all right."
NFL players and coaches like to say they take it one game at a time.
In reality, they play their 16-game season in quarters of four games each.
Go no worse than 1-3 during one of the quarters, throw in a couple of 3-1's or a 4-0, and you're playoff bound.
Under this criteria, the Saints flunked the first quarter. They stumbled through a 1-3 start, looking non-competitive in losses to Seattle, Tennessee and Indianapolis.
They were better in the second quarter, but the 2-2 mark was only average at best. Two close games to Carolina and business-like wins against Chicago and Atlanta earned them a C.
The third quarter began with a resounding 17-14 win at Tampa Bay. The victory not only was the Saints' best all-around performance of the season, it was the third consecutive game in which they played with the fire and aggressiveness that characterized previous teams of the Haslett era.
But Haslett is correct: The poor start has left the Saints with little margin for error.
With a home date against struggling Atlanta pre-dating a pair of crucial road trips to Philadelphia and Washington, the Saints can elbow their way into the playoff race. But they must win at least two of those three games to do it.
To get there, they'll need to improve dramatically in several phases. Typical of a 4-5 outfit, the Saints are mediocre in too many areas. They rank 16th in the NFL in total offense and 17th in total defense. They rank 13th in points scored and 21st in points allowed. In the league's 32 other statistical rankings, they rank in the middle of the pack in 16 of them.
"It's disappointing," General Manager Mickey Loomis said. "We haven't lived up to our own expectations. We've had to deal with injuries and some bad breaks this season. But the bottom line is we're (4-5).
"There is some clear improvement in our team, both offensively and defensively. Part of that is we're getting guys back from injuries or guys that are new are getting acclimated to our team. We all expect the second half of the season to be much better than our first."
So what went right in the first half?
-- The defense improved.
The Saints remain light years away from Jim Mora's Dome Patrol units or even the dominant group Haslett had in 2000. Along with their ranking in total defense, they have produced just 12 turnovers. But, despite a merciless string of injuries, they managed to improve in the statistic that coordinator Rick Venturi most emphasizes: points allowed. Opponents have scored 22.7 points a game compared to 25.8 last season. Moreover, the Saints held six opponents to 20 points or less in regulation. The unit should produce more turnovers once Darren Howard and Sedrick Hodge return in the second half.
-- Aaron Brooks progressed.
The much-maligned quarterback is quietly enjoying his best season. He hasn't been as spectacular, but he's been much more consistent. His 59.2 percent completion rate is a career best, as is his interception rate. His touchdown totals and big-play production have decreased slightly from previous years, but that is a product of some early dropped passes and an increased reliance on high-percentage throws to his running backs and tight ends. Deuce McAllister is second on the team with 33 receptions. Tight ends Ernie Conwell (26) and Boo Williams (12) have combined for 38 catches. Before this season, Brooks had a tendency to force things by trying to make a play downfield. That strategy produced more big plays but also more incompletions and interceptions.
-- McAllister ran well.
McAllister clearly is the most valuable player on the roster. He is a rock of consistency on a team plagued by inconsistency. He has rushed for 96 or more yards eight times and has topped the 100-yard mark in a club-record six consecutive games. The scary part for defenses is that McAllister is getting better. His yards-per-carry average is up (4.3 in 2002 to 4.5). So are his receptions per game (3.1 to 3.6). His blocking and blitz recognition have been much better. More important, the quiet Mississippi native is starting to emerge as a leader. The toughness he exemplified in the second loss against Carolina goes a long way in the locker room.
-- The team bonded during adversity.
The Saints did a commendable job of sticking together during the poor start. They avoided the finger pointing and in-fighting that have plagued other losing teams (See: Atlanta, Oakland). Credit goes to Haslett and his coaching staff. They kept their fingers on the pulse of the team and encouraged rather than discouraged during the adverse start. Credit also goes to veteran leaders like Wayne Gandy, Conwell, Tebucky Jones, Ashley Ambrose, Orlando Ruff, Derrick Rogers and Ki-Jana Carter, who have nurtured the team's young core of leaders and fostered a professional atmosphere in the locker room. The season could have disintegrated without their experience.
Of course, there were problems.
Saints officials might claim otherwise, but they weren't ready to start the season. Too many players sat out practices and exhibition games to nurse injuries. Too many of the exhibition games were treated as glorified scrimmages.
Such a conservative approach is understandable for a veteran team that has played together for years. But not for a team with so many new faces in key places.
The precautionary approach came at the sake of continuity. The Saints were a lost, disorganized group to start the season. And that, more than anything, could cost them a playoff spot.
-- Injuries piled up.
Every team has them so they're no excuse. But the Saints endured more than most and, in their case, nearly all of the injuries were concentrated on defense. Defensive starters missed a staggering 31 games because of injury. The situation was exacerbated by injuries to reserves Cie Grant and Henry Ford and the suspensions of Derrick Rodgers, Keyuo Craver and Grady Jackson. As a result, the Saints didn't play one game with their projected starting defensive lineup and played without at least two starters in every game. Considering the attrition, the coaching staff has done a terrific job of mixing and matching personnel and tweaking the game plan each week.
-- The Saints lost the turnover battle.
In the most relevant statistic in the NFL, the Saints are minus-3 in turnover ratio. It's no coincidence that Minnesota leads the NFC with a plus-13 turnover ratio and Kansas City leads the AFC with a plus-18 margin.
One of the hidden factors in the Saints' club-record scoring output last season was the contributions of the defense and special teams. Thanks to an opportunistic defense and the wondrous returns of Michael Lewis, the Saints' offense played on a "short field" last season. An offense loaded with playmakers feasted on the opportunities, scoring a club-record 27 points a game.
When the Saints have scored this season, they have had to work for it. Before erupting for six turnovers against Tampa Bay, the Saints recovered just four fumbles and intercepted three passes. Their seven takeaways in the first eight games were the second fewest in the league and were 11 fewer than their 2002 total during the same span.
In addition, opponents have neutralized Lewis on returns with high, short punts or directional kicks out of bounds. In seven games, Lewis already has had more fair catches (9) than he did in all of 2002 (6).
The offense, as a result, has been forced to drive 70 and 80 yards for scores, a difficult task against NFL defenses. In the first nine games of 2002, the Saints scored five touchdowns on defense and special teams and nine offensive touchdowns on drives that covered less than 40 yards. This year, they've scored two defensive touchdowns and two offensive touchdowns on drives of 40 yards or less.
-- The Saints didn't play smart.
There's a reason Bucs coach Jon Gruden said his offense practiced the hard count all last week. He knew Saints defensive linemen had jumped offsides eight times in the previous six games.
The Saints are one of the league's most aggressive teams. That aggressiveness, though, often is accompanied by a lack of discipline.
In short, the Saints don't play smart. They habitually commit pre-snap infractions and the infractions occur on both sides of the ball. Thirty of the team's 59 penalties were pre-snap infractions for false start, illegal motion, delay of game or defensive offsides. That's way too many and a clear sign of poor focus and concentration.
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Jeff Duncan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3405.
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