TROUBLE IN PARADISE? Losing Hand in Las Vegas Leaves Saints With Many Questions

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Raiders on (Original by Isaac Brekken)

The most penalized team in the NFL yardage-wise after two weeks, A ‘living legend’ starting quarterback who in his first two games, hasn’t exactly looked to be all that legendary. And an uneven overall team performance that suddenly leaves a franchise with Super Bowl aspirations, more questions now than they have answers with the Green Bay Packers up next on their schedule.

That’s the dilemma faced by the New Orleans Saints this morning, after they had what was a ‘losing hand’ of a performance in the gambling capital of the world last night by a score of 34-24 to the Las Vegas Raiders. While the season is only 2 weeks old and there’s no reason for Who Dat fans to panic just yet, is last night’s final result a possible sign of  “trouble in paradise” for the Black and Gold for the rest of their 2020 Season?

If so, it’s very likely that Saints fans this morning are hoping and praying it’s only a sign that will turn out to be nothing more than just a mirage.

The Saints loss to the Raiders in their brand new stadium out west in the Nevada desert, dropped New Orleans to (1-1) in the win-loss column with a whole 14 games still left to play. Nevertheless, technically the Saints are still in 1st Place within the NFC South Division, thanks to their season-opening victory last week over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But that’s little consolation at the moment for the Black and Gold, who clearly appear to be “out of sync” on both sides of the football with undefeated conference rival Green Bay coming to town this upcoming Sunday night.

The Saints jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead, and it appeared at first that they were going to ruin the Raiders’ debut inside of the new Allegiant Stadium out in suburban Las Vegas, by blowing them out completely.

Unfortunately for the Saints and head coach Sean Payton however, they eventually allowed the Raiders to take away their momentum midway through the 2nd Quarter, and it pretty much was a sloppy and somewhat lackluster performance by New Orleans for the rest of the contest, as Jon Gruden‘s (2-0) young Vegas squad tallied 24 unanswered points and took control of the game entirely.

Yet it was the manner in which the Saints allowed the Raiders to wrestle away the upper-hand from them, that had to be the most disturbing aspect of last night’s disappointing outcome. Las Vegas further exposed some of the lingering issues that New Orleans had coming into the game in spite of last week’s season-opening win over the Bucs, and it goes without saying that the Saints have plenty of things that need to be addressed moving forward.

Particularly the Black and Gold will have to correct the inordinate amount of mental errors that led to them being penalized 10 times for 129 yards.

Out of that total, a whopping 5 of those penalties gave the Raiders automatic 1st Downs and allowed them to keep possession of the football considerably longer than New Orleans — a telling statistic that gave Las Vegas a 13-minute advantage in overall time of possession (36:18 to 23:42) and allowed them to successfully convert 10-for-17 attempts on 3rd Down.

Counting the 6 penalties for 119 yards even that they were flagged for against Tampa Bay the previous week at the Superdome, the Saints are now the MOST PENALIZED team in the entire NFL yardage-wise (16 penalties for 248 yards).

Sadly for the Saints, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

The team’s high-powered offense seemingly isn’t quite in sync thus far in the first two games, and it can’t be ignored that starting QB Drew Brees — who turns age 42 in January — doesn’t necessarily have the look of a supremely-confident future Hall-of-Famer that he normally has had, previously in the past.

Whether it’s just because the team didn’t have its normal off-season routine or a Preseason which were cancelled by the NFL due to the ongoing COVID-19 / coronavirus pandemic, is a matter that’s open to debate.

But what there’s no debating whatsoever is that Brees just hasn’t been performing at the level that he’s accustomed to, since last season’s disappointing exit from the NFL Playoffs in their Wild Card loss to the Minnesota Vikings,

He had one poorly-thrown pass which stood out in particular that went for an interception (by Raiders linebacker Nicholas Morrow) and as it was noted by the folks at Pro Football Focus: just 33% of Brees’ passing yards last night actually traveled through the air before being caught, which was his lowest percentage in that particular statistic in the past three seasons.

That said, not everything that one would consider to be worrisome regarding the Saints offense, was about Brees specifically.

With All-Pro starting #1 WR Michael Thomas sidelined last night and possibly a few games longer, the team was hopeful that other players would step up and fill the void left by his absence, but outside of the two TD’s scored by RB Alvin Kamara, that wish simply did not materialize — nowhere even remotely close at that.

Saints prized free-agent signee and #2 WR Emmanuel Sanders had an abysmal performance, as he was held to one single catch for 18 yards (which came in “garbage time” near the very end of the game) on 4 targeted pass attempts from Brees; and he also was flagged for a penalty on an illegal blind-side block against a Raiders defender that wiped out a Saints 1st Down and killed a potential scoring drive.

Even worse was the fact that the Raiders defensive backs as a group basically dared Brees to find a rhythm with any of the receivers at his disposal, with the lone exception of a few catches made by #3 WR and 3rd year veteran Tre’Quan Smith. It’s more than fair to surmise that Las Vegas (and possibly future opponents) didn’t fear any of the Saints pass-catchers who weren’t wearing jersey #13, something that Payton and his offensive coaching staff will need to compensate much better for and quickly.

As if that wasn’t bad enough of an issue for Who Dats to be worried about, last night also exposed the Saints defense as a unit that although immensely talented and is thought to be Top 5-caliber, is undisciplined and at times prone to giving up too many “big plays”.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen had the Saints secondary playing most of the night in their substitution pass coverage packages, but they still were unable to limit the effectiveness of Raiders QB Derek Carr; who after a rough start was able to notch a 2nd victory of his NFL career over New Orleans while compiling an impressive 120.7 passer rating.

But without any doubt whatsoever, the most frustrating aspect of the Saints performance on defense was their inability to contain outstanding Raiders 2nd year star TE Darren Waller.

Photo Credit: Las Vegas Raiders on — Original by Isaac Brekken

The Las Vegas phenom finished with 12 catches for 103 yards and a TD and was virtually unstoppable as several Saints defenders (most notably 12th year veteran free safety Malcolm Jenkins) were powerless in their concerted efforts to cover him with any sustained degree of success. In fact: Waller’s 12 catches were the 2nd-most by a TE in a single game in Monday Night Football history.

Bottom line: the Saints look like anything but a team that’s considered by most observers and analysts to be a Super Bowl “favorite” — and they need to get things corrected and fast — with an opponent (the Packers and superstar veteran QB Aaron Rodgers) up next in just 6 more days from now that will have very little to no sympathy at all for their plight.

After the game’s conclusion, Payton told reporters via video teleconference that he and his staff are more than aware of the wide variety of issues that came up to the surface during last night’s defeat, and they plan on correcting them as soon as it’s possibly feasible.

“Two things,” Payton said. “We couldn’t possess the ball enough offensively, and defensively we couldn’t get off the field. We’re gonna look at the turnover before the half. We’ve got to do a better job coaching. I don’t think it’s going to be a real pleasant film to watch, for some of our star players as well.”

Give Payton and the Saints credit that if nothing else, they know what must be done moving forward — especially if they have any REAL INTENTIONS of achieving their ultimate goal, which of course is trying to win the Super Bowl before Brees retires — something that at this point in time,  presumably and most likely will be in just a few more months from now at the end of this season.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original Photo by David Becker)

Keep in mind that in the 15 years that Payton and Brees have been together, the Saints have only started out with a (2-0) record just 3 other times: in their first season together in 2006, their Super Bowl season in 2009, and then the last time 7 years ago at the start of the 2013 Season (the year after the infamous “BountyGate” controversy).

So starting out at (1-1) isn’t exactly a death sentence for their Super Bowl hopes this season, and certainly not for a team that in the past 3 years counting the first 2 games thus far this season, has a Regular Season win-loss record of (37-12).

Regardless of that consistent success however, last night’s ‘losing hand’ of a performance by the Saints out in Las Vegas, could be perceived as a sign of “trouble in paradise” — a sign that Saints fans this morning are hoping and praying will turn out to be nothing more than a mirage….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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