The 2011 Saints: Are They Great, Or Just Good?

Pierre Thomas

The New Orleans Saints are a difficult team to read, aren’t they?  One week, they appear lifeless, out of sync and downright mediocre; the next, they put 62 points on the scoreboard and look like the best team in football.  This was the case in Weeks Six and Seven for the Black and Gold, as they followed up their disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a historical victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the Superdome.  This season has truly been an emotional roller coaster ride for the “Who Dat Nation,” as many fans are still trying to determine where this team ranks amongst the remaining 31 teams in the NFL.  There is one factor, though, that ultimately makes this determination that much more difficult:  the team’s strength of schedule.

There’s a general rule that many of the great teams in this league tend to follow.  The top tier teams in the NFL generally know when to take care of business; in other words, they defeat teams with losing records.  On the flip side, they know when to bring their “A-game” against division rivals, conference foes and potential playoff teams.  This is the primary reason why it is difficult to put a finger on the Saints at the moment.  Against the weaker teams in the league, the Saints know when and how to achieve victory.  Against halfway-decent competition, though, the squad has had its “ups and downs.” 

For now, let’s begin with those “ups.”

The first Saints’ victory in the 2011 campaign came in Week Two against the now 4-3 Chicago Bears.  The Bears, who just recently defeated New Orleans’ NFC South rival, the Buccaneers, are led by their dynamic duo on offense, QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte.  For the season, Cutler has been decent, posting an 84.0 QB rating while throwing nine TDs and six INTs.  Forte has been running hard so far this year, posting 672 yards, 5.4 yds/carry and two TDs.  So how did they fare against the Saints?  Cutler threw for 244 yards and finished with a 67.3 QB rating; Forte rushed for a measly 49 yards, 42 of which came on a single carry.  All in all, the Saints had an astounding defensive performance, recording six sacks, 34 solo tackles, seven tackles for a loss and ten QB hits.  It was the first time that the fan base was able to see the true potential of the Black and Gold’s “D.”

Only a week after their incredible defensive performance against the Bears, the Saints’ defenders looked lost in a winning effort against the Houston Texans.  With QB Matt Schaub having an amazing day in the pocket (he had a 103.9 QB rating) and RB Ben Tate running over the Saints’ defensive line (Tate rushed for 4.3 yds/carry and 82 total yards.), the offense had to make its presence felt in a shootout.  And so they did.  QB Drew Brees led the offensive fireworks as he passed for 370 yards while throwing three TDs and two INTs.  He ended the day with a 99.6 QB rating.  Also, the likes of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas ran for a total of 100 yards on the day, and the Texans left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on the losing side of a 40-33 score.

To relate the previous two paragraphs to my main point, the Saints came out firing on all cylinders against the Bears and Texans, and two victories were the result.  Fast-forward to Week Eight, and both opponents are now sitting happily at 4-3.  But what about the other two games the Saints have played against winning ball clubs?

Now it’s time for the “downs.”

To start, we have to travel back in time to the Thursday Night opener against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.  In a game that was intended to be a battle between two of the league’s top QBs, both squads began lighting the fireworks on offense from the very beginning.  For the Saints, Brees threw for an incredible 419 yards and three TDs, recording a 112.5 QB rating for the game.  On defense, however, the Saints had no answer for the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers would finish the game completing 27 of 35 pass attempts for 312 yards and three TDs.  While the “D” did record two sacks, it only hit Rodgers five times throughout the contest, as the Green Bay QB was left with plenty of time to carve up an average Saints secondary.

For the second “down” of the season, we look no further than Week Six against the Bucs.  In a game that I predicted would be a blowout in the Saints’ favor, the Buccaneers shocked the football world.  Brees would have one of the more miserable games of his Saints career, as he passed for 383 yards, one TD and three INTs en route to a 70.9 QB rating.  Also, the Saints’ run game would only total 70 yards during the contest, as the New Orleans offense was left in shock.  For the Buccaneers, things went more smoothly.  The squad’s young QB, Josh Freeman, threw for 303 yards and two TDs, finishing with a 95.9 QB rating.  RB Earnest Graham would help seal the deal for the Bucs’ offense, as he totaled 109 yards and averaged 6.4 yds/carry.

Here’s the long story short:  I still have no clue what to think of this Saints squad.  Sure, we can call them one of the best teams in the NFC; however, the Black and Gold have gone 2-2 in games against opponents with winning records (three games against Jacksonville, Carolina, and Indianapolis are basically free victories).  At one point, I looked at the Saints’ schedule and thought to myself, “This is going to be an easy ride into the playoffs.”  With that being said, there will be plenty of challenges in the coming weeks.  After the Saints take care of the St. Louis Rams (I assume.), they will have to face off against Tampa Bay for the second time this season followed by the Atlanta Falcons (4-3).  After that, the New York Giants (4-2) make their way into the Superdome, and then the Lions (5-2) find themselves in “The Big Easy.” 

That 2-2 record against teams with winning records still bothers me, and we should begin to see exactly what this team is capable of in the coming weeks.  Trust me, this Saints squad is good.  But until they can consistently find themselves in the “W” column against winning clubs, I refuse to call them great. 

Only time can tell at this point.

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