Drew Brees was rewriting the record books, the Saints looked like the hottest team in football, and Brees was storming towards his first ever MVP award. But he and the Saints offense might’ve put that award in danger with a mediocre three game stretch.
Over the last three weeks, Brees is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt and just 177 yards per game — that’s far away from the 285 yards per game and 8.8 yards per attempt he averaged in the 11 games prior. Brees has also thrown an interception in four straight games after through one interception in the first 10 games of the season. He had a passer rating of 127.3 after Thanksgiving, which would’ve broken Aaron Rodgers’ season record of 122.5, but now it sits at 116.8. His passer rating over the last three weeks is 77.0.
The Saints are only scoring 14.3 points per game over their last three games compared to 37.2 points up to that point.
Interestingly enough, the Saints’ offensive output hasn’t really hurt them as far as playoff seeding goes. They’ve gone 2-1 through the three games that Brees and the offense have been in a slump, only losing to the Cowboys 13-10 on the road. They’re still in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 spot in the NFC.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with the Saints’ offense. Their offensive line has only given up five sacks during this rut. Brees is still completing 69.2 percent of his passes. There doesn’t seem to be a singular culprit, but a few things have gone wrong for them during their offensive funk.
Michael Thomas is good, but the rest of the Saints receivers are just OK
Saints receivers, outside of Michael Thomas, don’t really scare anyone. Thomas is having an All-Pro caliber season, but the rest of the receiving options after him have struggled recently.
New Orleans’ game against the Panthers was a perfect showcase for the problem with the passing game. Thomas caught seven of his nine targets for 49 yards — the Panthers sent a lot of attention his way in coverage.
Here’s an example of safety Eric Reid undercutting Thomas’ route while cornerback James Bradberry plays over the top.
The rest of the Saints receivers caught 16 passes for just 154 yards. It wasn’t like the Panthers were locking down the receiving options; New Orleans just wasn’t making plays on the ball.
Dan Arnold failed to make a reception on the ball and it led to an interception by Bradberry.
And Ben Watson dropped a dime up the seam from Drew Brees.
Saints head coach Sean Payton also yelled at Tre’Quan Smith at one point during the game.
#SundaySean has shown up on Monday night. Payton just gave Tre’Quan Smith an earful after he dropped that last play.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 18, 2018
New Orleans has struggled through a host of injuries at wide receiver and tight end. They have 11 players on injured reserve and five of those players are either a wide receiver or a tight end — including Ted Ginn who had who 787 yards and four touchdowns with the team last season.
A lot of guys that they have catching passes from Brees aren’t exactly big names. Michael Thomas has been a star since he stepped on the field as a rookie in 2016, but the rest of the receiving options are rookies, undrafted free agents, or older players like Ben Watson.
Even Alvin Kamara’s receiving production has gone down the last three games. He’s averaging just 5.4 yards per reception over the past three games and hasn’t scored a touchdown.
Worse, when the Saints have been able to get their hands on the ball, they haven’t made much with their completions. New Orleans is only averaging 8.2 yards per completion over the last three games — the Vikings’ offense is currently in last place in the NFL averaging 10.2 yards per completion.
The passing offense has lost its juice.
The Saints are turning the ball over at a higher rate than normal
Turning the ball over is going to make any offense look bad, even one that’s as explosive as the Saints. The Saints have turned the ball over five times in the last three games. They only turned the ball over nine times in the 11 games prior to that.
Not all of that is on Brees. His aforementioned interception against the Panthers wasn’t his fault. The interception he threw against Atlanta probably should have been called back due to a missed pass interference penalty.
New Orleans had two more fluky turnovers during the three-game skid. Tommylee Lewis fumbled the ball out of bounds into the end zone for a touchback against the Panthers, and the Buccaneers intercepted a screen pass in Week 14. Brees also had a pick-2, which isn’t quite a turnover, but still an uncharacteristically sloppy play for New Orleans.
Four of their five turnovers in the past three games have come on unlucky plays. That might not be something to worry about too much moving forward — just have to wait and see if the bad luck continues.
The Saints’ overall offensive performance is down
The Saints’ bogged down passing game has affected the rest of their offense. Over the past three games the Saints are averaging just 4.6 yards per play — that’s on par with what the Buffalo Bills have done this entire season. The Saints offense is averaging 6 yards per play now on the season — they averaged 6.4 on the season before this three game streak.
Their third down performance has fallen off a cliff too. In their first 11 games, they converted 47 percent of their third down plays. That’s dropped to 36 percent in this little slump.
New Orleans has also struggled without stud left tackle Terron Armstead in the lineup. He’s missed the last five games. The Saints have only given up six sacks over those five games, but they’ve given up a lot of pressure without him.
Look at the amount of ground that Jermon Bushrod gives up off the left side. The guy he was blocking might not have made the strip sack, but he was definitely in position to do it. Plays like this, where Brees’ blindside isn’t secure, have become common with Armstead out of the lineup.
Even through all this, it’s not time to completely hit the panic button on the 2018 Saints.
Will they rebound in the nick of time?
Drew Brees has thrown 25 touchdowns in nine home games this year, that bodes well for them if they can get a win next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and lock up home field advantage for the playoffs. Brees has only thrown six touchdowns in five outdoor games this season, but they likely won’t play outside again this year unless the Rams snatch the top seed from their grasp.
The Saints offense has been too good to completely throw away faith in them. They ranked third in open play success rate heading into Monday night’s game against the Panthers.
The defense has stepped up as well — especially the defensive line. The Saints have 28 sacks since Week 10. It’s been a big support as the team battles through its offensive slide.
Win Probability Added rankings— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 18, 2018
Saints O Wk1-10: 3rd
Saints D Wk1-10: 28th
Saints O Wk11-15: 23rd
Saints D Wk11-15: 2nd
The defense was a big reason the Saints were able to pull out a win over the Panthers this week to stay a step ahead of the Rams in the NFC race. The 12 points that the offense scored was the fewest amount of points they’ve put up in a win since 1998.
The Saints' win over the Panthers is their first victory while scoring 12 or fewer points since 1998.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 18, 2018
Since Week 10, New Orleans is allowing 12.3 PPG, the fewest in the NFL over that span. pic.twitter.com/xwgtfYSJs9
The Saints offense hasn’t played up to it’s normal standard over the past three weeks, but it’s impossible to completely count them out. They’ll lock up the top spot in the NFC playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and don’t have to go on the road again over their final two games ... and maybe not until the Super Bowl.
New Orleans is in a bit of a hole right now, but their postseason hopes aren’t sunk yet.