As is so often the case in the NFL, the true fate of the Saints season will be determined in the trenches, by the play of the offensive and defensive lines.
While there were some flashes of potential, they did not get off to a good start during their loss in the opening game of the Preseason against the New England Patriots on Thursday night.
One of the longstanding questions this offseason has revolved around the Saints’ options at guard.
Would they sign a free agent or opt to look for young talent in the draft?
The Saints surprised virtually everyone by doing neither, leaving Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemente and Tim Lelito competing for the starting spots on the interior line.
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (9) calls an audible against the Houston Texans during the game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
On Thursday night, the Saints picked up right where they left off — and the results weren’t good.
New Orleans rushed the ball 30 times for just 78 yards. That comes out to a disappointing 2.6 yards per carry.
They also had 9 penalties for 93 yards, with Andrus Peat being called twice for holding.
‘Bell-cow’ running back Mark Ingram fumbled on his second carry of the game. While not the offensive line’s fault he fumbled, it was their fault that he ran into a wall of defenders and was gang tackled just one yard past the line of scrimmage.
“The Patriots averaged five yards per carry, gashing the Saints for multiple long runs”
On a positive note, the offense was able to capitalize on some opportunities and hammer the ball in from inside the five yard line twice, something the Saints struggled with last season.
Ingram’s two touchdown performance partially offset his early mistake, but the turnover left the more definitive impression, partly because it happened to be the Saints’ eventual Achilles heel all night long.
New Orleans had four turnovers, two of which were returned by the Patriots for touchdowns.
Aug 11, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) returns an interception for a touchdown during the first half against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The defensive line got off to a promising start.
On their very first series, they forced a Patriots three and out, with defensive end Kasim Edebali supplying pressure off the edge and getting to Jimmy Garoppolo on a third and five attempt.
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In fact, Garoppolo was under duress for a fair portion of the evening, something that fans aren’t used to seeing from opposing quarterbacks.
However, the biggest defensive problems showed up in the running game. The Patriots averaged five yards per carry, gashing the Saints for multiple long runs, in a fashion very reminiscent of last season.
A year ago, the Saints gave up over four yards per carry to opposing offenses, far and away the highest in the league.
It becomes almost impossible to play defense when offenses are consistently facing second down and four as opposed to second and long.
Aug 11, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) dives for a touchdown in the second quarter during a preseason NFL game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
If the Saints are going to make any noise this year, they are going to have to run the football.
It will give them balance, and allow Drew Brees to get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas more efficiently, without having to force throws.
Defensively, they have to force more turnovers, and they need to get to the quarterback.
It’s a lot easier to generate pressure when opponents are facing third and long, and the defensive line can pin their ears back in the pass rush.
Simply stated: the Saints must get stronger in the trenches, or else it’s going to be another long year for a team hoping to avoid yet another 7-9 campaign……..