On their very first defensive play from scrimmage Monday night in Minnesota, the Saints tried to play with 10 men.
Now you could argue they’ve been short on that side of the ball for years. But actually trying to play a man down is a new strategy, one not crafted in the film room.
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“It wasn’t a good tape,” coach Sean Payton told the team’s website about the Saints' defensive performance in their season-opening 29-19 loss to the Vikings. “I thought defensively, we struggled in coverage at times. For the early portion of the game, the penalties hurt in the first series. There was 30 yards [in penalties] in the first series that led to their game-tying field goal, and then, as the game wore on, I thought the explosive plays hurt us. There were some MEs [mental errors], some poor decisions. Overall, not good enough.”
A season ago, the Patriots would have been licking their chops, knowing they had the personnel to exploit a young and wildly inconsistent defense. They still do, even without Julian Edelman. But right now, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is walking a fine line, immersing himself in New Orleans' players and schemes while also trying to figure out exactly what he has in his own huddle.
By the end of the Pats' 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in their own season opener, McDaniels was rolling out a slot receiver acquired the weekend prior (Philip Dorsett), an outside receiver dealt for just prior to the NFL Draft (Brandin Cooks) and a pair of running backs who were free-agent acquisitions (Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead). Unusual for the defending Super Bowl champions.
“We've got a lot of good players and, whether they've been here for multiple years or a few months or, in some cases, a couple weeks, that's our responsibility,” said McDaniels. “We're supposed to get used to them, learn what they can and can't do well, and then make sure that we put them out there and put them in position to do something productive for the team in their position. There's really no time to stop and think about that, and it doesn't really matter anyway because every team is dealing with the same set of circumstances at some point, at some position, somewhere along their roster, on their team during the course of the season.”
McDaniels publicly pooh-poohing the issue makes sense. It’s rare for the Pats coaching staff to make excuses. But this is unusual so early in the season. What on paper looked to be an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position is now a test of the staff’s creativity and of the player’s intelligence and versatility. Wait, we don’t have a slot receiver? Can Player X do it? How about Y? Can we take an outside guy and turn him into an inside guy? Is the inside guy better suited to play as a boundary receiver? These are the questions you want to have a good grasp on coming out of training camp. Based on injuries -- and what some players believe was a wasted week of camp with the joint practices and preseason game against their Week 3 opponent, the Houston Texans -- McDaniels doesn’t have the same grasp we’re accustom to.
“[If] you have a certain grouping that maybe you don't have as much depth in, you've got to make sure you're smart with how you use it and you can't put all your eggs in one basket,” said McDaniels. “You never can in this league because you don't have an unlimited number of players in each game. You always have to have multiple personnel groupings. You always have to have contingency plans ready to go, which you hope that you build in during the week of practice so you're not making stuff up in the middle of the first quarter. Again, that's a very, very, very common occurrence in the National Football League for each team each week. So, what we're dealing with now, we're going to be dealing with in November, and so is every other team.”
Yet if that’s the approach McDaniels took this year, why was it that Dorsett, with his limited grasp of the playbook, was the first option to replace Danny Amendola after the latter suffered a concussion? Wouldn’t players with more knowledge of the system have been a better option? Or different personnel groupings that gave Tom Brady the players he worked with considerably more often this spring and summer? The Pats have always been able to adjust on the fly. They didn’t do that nearly as well in the second half of their loss to the Chiefs. And now, with a few extra days to prepare, McDaniels and the offense must study up on a Saints team they don’t know as well as they would like.
“They've got a lot of new players, whether that's through the draft or free agency, in each level of their defense,’ noted McDaniels. “Certainly, they're aggressive. Coach [Dennis] Allen calls an aggressive style of defense. You know they're definitely going to pressure you with a lot of different people, different variations, blitzes. They mix the coverages up pretty good. They've got good team speed, they get to the ball, they play hard and they're going to, obviously, be excited for their home opener. This is always a tough place to play. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us to get familiar with the people that we're going to be matched up against across the board and really get used to their scheme and have a great week of practice and try to go down there and put forth our best effort.”
Or face a long flight home.