The sky is not falling. It is not time to push the panic button. I know that might be tempting, but just remember the last time the Saints lost their season opener in the Brees/Payton era in 2011 they finished the season 13-3. The main reason Sunday’s loss to the Falcon’s looks and feels so bad is because nothing preceded it and there isn’t anything else to compare it to.
That said, week one should not be totally dismissed, either. There were some things to be concerned about going forward, the most alarming of which was the lack of aggression in Rob Ryan’s defensive play calling. The Saints rarely blitzed Matt Ryan, opting to drop the extra defenders into coverage instead. It wasn’t a bad game plan considering Atlanta’s talent and depth at the wide receiver position. But it was largely ineffective as Roddy White, Julio Jones and even Devin Hester all had huge games and the Saints secondary as a whole had only one pass defensed on the day (Cameron Jordan, a defensive lineman, got the other one). The defensive line also struggled to get any pressure on Ryan. Even after the Falcons lost Jake Matthews their offensive line still held the Saints line in check. The Saints sacked Ryan just once and did not register any additional hits on him (a sack is not counted as a QB hit).
There were also some positives to take away from Sunday as well. Brandin Cooks had a solid NFL debut, putting up 95 total yards and a touchdown on just 8 touches. It’s safe to say we can expect big things from Cooks the rest of the season. What I found most encouraging is the Saints showed commitment to the running game. They ran the ball on 40 percent of their plays Sunday for 139 yards, averaging nearly 5 yards a carry. Mark Ingram led the way with 13 carries for 60 yards and 2 touchdowns, once again showing he can be effective when he gets carries on a consistent basis.
Fortunately what ailed the Saints against Atlanta should not be an issue when they take on the Cleveland Browns this Sunday. The Browns lost last season’s leading receiver Josh Gordon to a suspension (though that could be reversed depending on the new drug agreement), leaving tight end Jordan Cameron as their top receiving threat. Cameron sustained an injury in the opener and is currently listed as questionable to play against the Saints. If he can’t suit up, it will leave Cleveland with the uninspiring duo of Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin as their best receivers. That would allow Rob Ryan to focus more on stopping Cleveland’s running game, which they figure to rely on.
Browns’ starting running back Ben Tate is also questionable with a knee injury. His absence would not be as big a factor as Cameron’s because their other options, rookies Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell, had impressive showings against Pittsburgh combining for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21 carries. If Tate is active for game day, he would give the Browns a formidable running attack. It will be imperative for the Saints to stop Cleveland’s ground game and force Hoyer to beat them through the air.
Drew Brees and company will face an interesting challenge with the Browns defense. They will have to contend with Joe Haden, who is considered one of the NFL’s top corners in the same class as Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson. Unlike Sherman, Haden moves around all over the field and will probably shift between covering Marques Colston, Cooks and possibly even Jimmy Graham throughout the game. Though Brees has not been shy in the past about going after opposing teams’ best defenders, it might be easier to just avoid Haden and target rookie corner Justin Gilbert instead.
Week 1 was certainly a disappointment for Saints fans, but hopefully week 2 will end in the team’s first victory. I am personally hoping for a huge blowout with the Saints defense picking off Hoyer 3 or 4 times. If that happens maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to see Johnny Manziel take the field.
One last thing. Colston, we still love you. We know you’re gonna make us proud. But let’s not have a repeat of this performance.