Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Upon Further Review: Saints 27, Bills 7

The Saints covered the spread by 14 points, moving Bad NFL to 2-0 on the young season. Let's see why, upon further review, they ended up doing so.

1. The Saints ran the ball extremely well, particularly in the second half. Their 3 RBs combined for 214 yards on 32 carries, for a robust 6.69 YPC. While Hamilton and Bush were decently effective in the first half, the game really turned once Pierre Thomas, making his season debut at halftime, stormed onto the field for an absurd 126 yards and 2 TDs in the second half alone. The running game allowed the Saints to generate a 7 minute edge in time of possession and a huge advantage in total yardage, placing the Saints in a tactically favorable position for most of the game. The work of the running game, particularly in the 4th quarter, demoralized the Bills and enabled the Saints to stretch the close game into a comfortable victory.

To be fair, while the Saints were running the ball well, Brees was not, in actuality, "shredding" the Bills like Bad NFL predicted. In fact, his completion percentage, QB rating, and total yardage were all a far cry away from the dominating pace he had set the first two games. So to the extent that I predicted that Brees's insane dominating level of play would continue against the Bills, I was wrong. Why did this happen, and what does it reflect about the pregame prediction?

It seemed there were roughly 3 reasons that Brees played a game that was quite pedestrian from a statistical standpoint. First, Brees--and the Saints passing game generally--was at times mediocre. After a great first drive in which Brees completed 4/5 passes and marched the Saints right down the field for a TD, the Saints offense looked out of sync. On a crucial 4th and 2 play on the second drive in which the Saints went for it in Bills territory, Brees slipped and nearly fell, untouched, on a designed rollout, throwing the timing of the play off and leading to a turnover on downs. After that, he looked somewhat out of sorts for the rest of the game, as he was under relatively constant durress, threw several passes that were batted down at the line of scrimmage, and overthrew several open receivers on deep outs.

But Brees's erratic (for him) play did not occur in a vacuum; it was quite clear that the Bills had schemed to take the Saints passing game away. They came out in their nickel defense, playing in a 3-deep coverage with 5 DBs for much of the game. They ran very few run blitzes and didn't even shift back into their base cover-2 that much, as they seemed to be daring the Saints running game to beat them. Moreover, as Mike Mayock pointed out on NFL Network's indispensible Playbook, the Bills DEs, who are both talented but undersized pass rushers, were in passrushing mode the whole game, routinely tearing up the field on quick speed rushes or inside rips, losing containment and leaving gaping holes for counter rushes. In other words, the Bills defensive coordinator was determined to take away Brees and the Saints vertical passing game, but in the process opened the door for the Saints dominating performance on the ground.

Finally, the weather may have contributed to Brees' unwillingness to go deep; it was a blustery day, with neither QB showing much penchant to throw accurately for distance. The effect of adverse weather on the Saints' passing offense will be a trend to keep track of as the season progresses.

But all in all, Brees played an effective, if not dominant game. He patiently worked underneath zones, set up the Saints running game, and he didn't make any costly mistakes. As such, the Saints were able to put up a very respectable 27 points on a day in which their marquee player undeniably did not play his best.

2. The Bills offensive line is not good.

This was one aspect of the game that I was right about: the Bills offensive line was no match for the revitalized Gregg Williams-led Saints defense. The youth and inexperience of that line was on display Sunday, as several backbreaking penalties and miscues led to an abysmal 14% 3rd down conversion rate. Consequently, the Bills, even when they would string a few plays together, failed to sustain drives. The O-Line stats are not pretty: 8 tackles for losses allowed, 4 sacks, 14 QB hits. Because of this constant pressure placed on Trent Edwards and co., the Bills were never able to acquire any sort of offensive rhythm. To the astute observer, the failures of the Bills offensive line should not be surprising; as I pointed out before the game, it is historically inexperienced, lacks pedigree, and the Bills have grossly underinvested in acquiring talent or depth.

The flaws in the protection were particularly apparent late in the game; once the Saints finally increased their lead beyond 3--the Saints, after all, only led 10-7 for a good portion of the game--they felt sufficiently confident to unleash their most aggressive defensive packages, which in turn sparked a series of sacks and negative plays for the Bills. In fact, the 4th quarter did confirm one of my feelings about the Saints: that once they get decent-sized leads, they rapidly stretch them out. Thus, although the game was within a FG for several quarters, the Saints remained a good bet to cover. Were it not for two somewhat fluky plays--the aformentioned Brees slip on 4th and 2 and the Bills successful fake FG for a TD--the Saints likely would have generated a two possession lead early in the game. And I think once they got that 2 possession lead, they were going to run away with it. That this didn't happen until late in the game doesn't disprove the premise of the bet.


1. Be careful about simply betting on the hot quarterback. Brees is a very good QB, and played out-of-this-world well the first two games of the season. But specific QB performance seemingly fluctuates week-to-week, depending on opposing scheme, weather, personnel matchups, injuries (Lance Moore missed week 3) etc. Before betting on the hot QB, make sure that the team has the capability to adapt should the opponent overcompensate to take the vertical passing game away. On the other hand, Brees, although individually less than stellar, managed the game well and avoided mistakes; he played the type of game against deep shell coverage that Cowboys fans sorely wish Romo would have played against the Giants week 2. But the Saints running game picked up the slack, and they are starting to demonstrate that they are a multidimensional team, unlike in years past.

2. The Saints look like a decent bet to cover the spread when favored this season. As I said, the makeup of their team looks like a poor man's version of the 1998 Vikings, with a similar penchant for large margins of victory. Their gameplans tend to generate early leads--look at how the Bills came out in a 3-deep zone but still got shredded by Brees on the first possession--and once they gain a lead, they look to expand it, not merely protect it. Their demonstrated ability to run the ball can only help in this endeavor. And at the end of the day, on a day where Brees was not his best, they still won on the road by 20 points! As members of the national media are increasingly realizing, this is the sign of a legitimate contender. While obviously future bets should be matchup dependent, I am thinking that betting on the Saints covering as the favorite against mediocre-to-bad teams (particularly those overrated coming into this week like the Bills) will be a very solid strategy this season.

Stay tuned this Friday for my week 4 pick!

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