How is that possible?
How can the guy who broke the NFL single-season record for passing yards last season with a passer rating of 110.6, and a player who's lowest rating as a starter in New Orleans is 89.4, have a 71.6 rating through two games?
There are three central reasons I have noticed in watching the Saints live the first week and studying both games on tape. Here they are:
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The Sean Payton factor: With Sean Payton suspended for the season, the Saints are without perhaps the most brilliant game-day offensive coach in the league. That matters.
Payton was aggressive as a play-caller and fantastic at making adjustments on the fly. He also provided the perfect checks-and-balances for Brees.
Hey, even the greatest actors need a director for balance. Who is challenging Brees now?
Payton is missed.
Timing: A Saints passing game that has been flawless on occasion in terms of timing has been off a tick. That could be because Brees missed the entire offseason in a contract dispute. Nobody can prove that, but even during the lockout in 2011 he was able to work with his receivers on his own.
This year there was none of that. He didn't throw to his guys until the first day of training camp. Brees stood tall in his contract demands, thus missing all of the offseason work, which opens up the issue as to whether he's at fault for some of the problems.
Take a look at a play from the Saints' loss to the Carolina Panthers last week. What should have been a bang-bang play, a completion for a score to Lance Moore, was an incomplete pass that forced the Saints to settle for a field goal.
Moore (yellow circle) is lined up right in man coverage with corner Chris Gamble (blue X). At the snap, he makes a quick move to the outside and clearly has an easy path for the score.
As you can see from this photo, it should be a walk-in touchdown. But Brees threw too low and Moore couldn't pull the pass in.
Inability of Saints receivers to beat man coverage: When the Saints let Robert Meachem leave via free agency, it meant they lost the outside speed threat.
Meachem wasn't a top-level receiver, but his ability to run made defenses play the Saints differently. In the first two games, especially in the first one against the Redskins, the Saints have seen a lot more man coverage.
And the receivers aren't winning. Marques Colston is a good player, but he isn't a burner and is more strong than fast. The Saints say he's being slowed by a foot injury. Moore is more quick than fast. Devery Henderson can run but has questionable hands. Plus, he missed last week's game because of concussion issues.
So what teams have done the first two weeks is to double tight end Jimmy Graham and play a lot more man against the wideouts.
That's why Darren Sproles leads the team with 18 catches and Graham is second with 13. The top outside receiver is Moore with eight catches.
Sproles is a great pass-catching back, and he had 87 catches last season, but 13 in a game is way too many. Against Carolina, Sproles was targeted 14 times and Graham targeted 13. Combined, the outside receivers were targeted a total of 13 times.
The following screen shots give us an example of Brees not being able to throw to his receivers in man coverage, and checking down to Sproles.
In this formation, the Saints have tight end Jimmy Graham split wide right, with Lance Moore in the slot inside of him. Marques Colston is on the left with Darren Sproles lined up just behind him. Graham, Colston and Moore are in the yellow circles, with Sproles in the red circle.
As you can see, Graham, Colston and Moore are all handled in man coverage (yellow circles), which leads to Brees going Sproles (red circle), who does have a little room against his man, safety Charles Godfrey. But Godfrey reacts well and limits the play to a 3-yard gain.
Brees threw two interceptions against the Panthers, one returned for a score, and even though he threw for 325 yards it wasn't the usual precision we've come to expect from this future Hall of Fame quarterback.
In two games, Brees has thrown four touchdowns passes and four interceptions. He is on pace for 32 of each. His highest interception total of his career was 22 in 2010. His completion percentage is 54.5. His season-low in his time with the Saints is 64.3 in his first season. He completed 71.2-percent of his passes last season.
This clearly isn't the same offense. And Brees isn't the same quarterback. He did suffer an ankle injury in last week's game, but he finished and looked fine. But that could also be a factor.
That's a lot of issues. The question is can the Saints overcome them.
1: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt destroyed the Jaguars last week. He had 1.5 sacks, batted down two passes and spent the day in the backfield. The Texans moved Watt to the left side more in this game in part because he could work against Guy Whimper, rather than Eugene Monroe. Whimper is one of the worst tackles in the game and Watt owned him. Watt might be on his way to winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
2: One of the more impressive young offensive linemen to catch my eye is Panthers right tackle Byron Bell. He is a big, athletic tough player. He was dominant against the Saints, handling Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette with ease. Jordan got a sack in the game -- the Saints' only sack -- but it came when Cam Newton held the ball. Bell handled Jordan on the play, actually stoning him, but he was able to get free after Newton held the ball too long. Because of Bell, the Panthers were willing to get rid of injury-plagued Jeff Otah. If Bell can continue to grow, he and Jordan Gross will form a heck of a duo.
3: I love when teams learn from their mistakes. That happened in the Baltimore-Philadelphia game. Early in the game, the Ravens used an overload blitz from the left side of the offensive formation. The Eagles had a slide protection to the right, where there was another blitzer. Big mistake. That left three rushers coming on the left side, with only two blockers, one being back LeSean McCoy. He picked up Dannell Ellerbe, but Bernard Pollard came free to sack Michael Vick. Later in the game, the Eagles slid to that side. Left guard Evan Mathis picked up outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw on a stunt inside, leaving McCoy to stone Ray Lewis and backup tackle Demetress Bell to handle Jameel McClain. That allowed Vick to get outside to the right side and scramble for 8 yards on the winning drive. It wasn't exactly the same blitz, but the concept was the same. Vick actually looked that way at the snap the second time to help slide the protection.
4: The kneel-down mess at the end of the Giants-Bucs came is a black eye for Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. No matter how he justifies it, he's wrong. The players in the NFL make their living playing the game. That's why it's different than the college game, where he used the same tactic. I watched the play over and over again on the All-22, and pulled out some frames to show you what happened. At the end of the play, not visual on the pictures below, Giants center David Baas takes a shot at Bucs linebacker Quincy Black, who dove in from the outside. Giants coach Tom Coughlin had every right to wave his finger at Schiano. I talked to several league people this week who termed the move "bush."
Here are two pictures to show you what went on.
This is the start of the play. As you can see, the Bucs are pinched in on the center. The players involved are No. 71 (Michael Bennett), No. 90 (Roy Miller), No. 93 (Gerald McCoy) and No. 94 (Adrian Clayborn). They are all going low toward the center at the snap. Notice Hakeem Nicks. He's either taunting or amazed at what he's seeing.
Here you can see them diving toward the center with others crashing in. Nicks still has his hands up. Eli Manning is in that mix getting stepped on by his center, who was ambushed.
5: Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was wrong when he said the Rams hit him late and were cheap after the whistle. I watched every Redskins offensive snap and there was one questionable hit. That was on defensive end William Hayes, who should have been flagged for a late hit. That's it. Everything else was legal, although one hit on a slide was not flagged because Griffin III slid late. The problem Griffin III might have is that he did take a lot of shots. But that's because of the style of play the Redskins are using. He was tackled six times, hit another six times and run out of bounds twice. Were some of those shots hard? Yes. But he better get used to it if the Redskins play the style they've used the first two weeks. I say they change -- if only to keep their franchise passer safe. Griffin III did take a shot on an option play from Rams defensive end Robert Quinn. He better get used to it.
6: People think I am too harsh when I evaluate the current version of Ray Lewis. But there are too many things that show up on tape that show he's far from the same player. I know he lost weight to help his game, but he isn't getting to the football and he's getting blocked. Lewis had five tackles last week against the Eagles, but he didn't make any real impact plays. He was lost in coverage on a long pass to Brent Celek late in the game. He also took a bad angle on a long run by McCoy earlier, tiptoeing around bodies as he tried to make a play. Lewis, in my mind, is the greatest middle linebacker ever. But age is starting to win in a big way against him.
7: A Couple of things about the Patriots end-of-game fiasco. Should they have tried to get more yards? Or did they do the right thing with a kicker like Stephen Gostkowski settling for a 42-yard attempt? They ran a play to the middle of the field to center the ball, but they also spiked it to lose a down. I think they could have been more aggressive, even if a 42-yard field goal should be made. Also on that attempt, it appeared Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson ran into Gostkowski, but there was no call. That would have given them another chance to win it.
8: Falcons safety William Moore came into the league in 2009 with a ton of ability. But he drove the coaches crazy. He was wildly inconsistent. He'd look great on one play, but get caught out of position the next. But in Mike Nolan's scheme, he might be ready to take off. He had a big game against the Broncos, with his pick of Peyton Manning setting up the first score. At the snap, Moore was actually lined up about 7 yards off the line of scrimmage just behind the linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon. At the snap, he bailed to the left side of the defensive formation. Manning tried to squeeze a pass into tight end Jacob Tamme, who looked to be in man coverage with Christopher Owens. Manning didn't see Moore, who was moving that way. Moore cut in front of the pass and returned it to the 1-yard line. Moore showed his range on that play. Later he had a sack and knocked down a pass in the end zone.
9: The Bills have a lot of high-profile players on their line, led by $100 million man Mario Williams. But defensive tackle Kyle Williams has two sacks this season, while Mario Williams has none. Kyle Williams got them both last week against the Chiefs. The first one game on a stunt with fellow defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. They crossed, but guard Ryan Lilja picked up Williams. He then spun off to sack Matt Cassel. The second sack came when the Bills blitzed middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in the "A" gap. That left fullback Nate Eachus to try and block Williams, who rolled over him like he wasn't there to drop Cassel. Earlier in the game, Dareus and Williams used the same cross-stunt to get Dareus a sack.
The pictures of that are here with Dareus in the yellow circle and Williams in the blue. Teams better be aware that this is something the Bills like to do.
10: One of the problems with the Jacksonville Jaguars' passing game is the design. They don't threaten in the middle of the field. Everything is run to the outside. "We knew exactly what they were going to do," one Houston Texans defender said. "We watched the tape from Minnesota and saw they always went to the outside. And that's exactly what they did." In studying the tape from the Texans game, the Jaguars rarely went to the middle of the field. And when they did, the routes were not crisp. With a banged-up offensive line, the receivers have to get out of their breaks quicker. It's no wonder they had 117 yards of total offense against the Texans last week. Blaine Gabbert needs help.
1. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones: He is a force off the edge and will be one of the next great pass rushers. After two games, he looks like a seasoned vet.
3. Dolphins RB Reggie Bush: He sure looked like he could run between the tackles against the Raiders.
4. Giants WR Hakeem Nicks: It's too bad he's out this week. He was sensational against the Bucs.
1. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly: After a great preseason, he hasn't done much. He's been blocked a lot and gets caught up in the traffic trying to get to a runner.
2. Ravens DT Haloti Ngata: We heard all offseason how Ngata was hurt last season, which is why he didn't play that well. But he was handled against the Eagles. What's happened to him? Evan Mathis handled him a lot.
3. Redskins WR Josh Morgan: Forget about his stupid play of throwing the ball at Cortland Finnegan late to get a 15-yard penalty and essentially take the Redskins out of field-goal range. The worst part is he had an easy first down on that play, but turned the wrong way. If he goes inside, instead of outside, the Redskins have a first down. And even his stupidity wouldn't have forced the 62-yard-field goal attempt that missed.
4. Texans TE Owen Daniels: I saw it live or I wouldn't have believed his hands were as bad as they were against the Jaguars.
5. Falcons WR Julio Jones: He had problems dropping the ball last year, but if he's going to emerge as the next great one that has to stop. He had two drops last Monday night and wasn't a real factor.
Three and outs
Assistants off to good starts
1. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter: He might get a head-coaching job if his offense keeps it up.
2. Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo: He was lit up last year, but his defense is ranked fourth right now after two games.
3. 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman: His unit is ranked eighth overall. If they stay near that, they will win the Super Bowl.
Three assistants off to bad starts
1. Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo: But it's not his fault. His team lacks defensive talent.
2. Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer: His team is ranked 31st in total offense and Chris Johnson hasn't done a thing.
3. Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees: It's strange seeing the Ravens ranked 27th in total defense. Is age a factor?