The Day After: The Decisions That Led to the Saints' Demise

Saints Fall To Packers on Goal Line Play

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that the Thursday night opener between the Saints and Packers could be considered an “instant classic,” but it was pretty darn fun to watch.  Between the plethora of turnovers, special teams spectacles, 40-yard bombs, and last-minute comeback attempts, one thing is for certain:  it was a great way to begin the 2011 campaign.  It was such an amazing start to the season, in fact, that hundreds of thousands of fans from around the country of every team in the nation were reminded of why they couldn’t live without football for an entire season. 

Although there was an excess of heart-stopping plays in this showdown, Saints fans cannot help but be disappointed by the outcome.  After scouring message boards, social media sites, and any other resource I could get my hands on, the general feeling of the fan base is that it is “time to just move on to the next week.”  There is a handful of fans, myself included, that would like to take one last look at the events that occurred in that September 8th contest.  Many questions still linger in my head with regards to the game.  Was it the right decision to go play-action on fourth down instead of using the ground game or kicking the field goal to help narrow the Packers’ lead?  Why was rookie running back Mark Ingram the one chosen to try and bring the Saints back from utter defeat on the goal line?  How could cornerback Patrick Robinson possibly be seen covering the Packers’ number one receiver for the majority of the game?  I’ll do my best to try and put these final issues to rest.

There are a million decisions in this game that ultimately resulted in a Packers’ victory, both on the Green Bay and New Orleans sideline.  And even though I have had some people disagree with my next statement, I think anyone with a general sense for the game can understand that I’m right.  Mike McCarthy outcoached Sean Payton.  This is as plain and simple as it gets.  No, I’m not saying that Payton, as a whole for the contest, coached a poor game.  But when the time was right for the head coach to make a key decision that would ultimately affect the final outcome, Coach McCarthy made the right decisions that Payton simply could not.  Don’t believe me?  Well, that’s why I’m here to explain.

Let us first begin with the first question that I introduced.  With 3:22 remaining in the third quarter, Payton was faced with a key decision.  Down 35-27 at the time, the Saints were staring down a fourth-and-one inside the Packers’ ten yard line.  So the question is this:  do you go for it, and if so, what play do you call?  Well, New Orleans went for it, and pick up a first down they did not.  On a questionable play call, quarterback Drew Brees pulled out the play-action pass, only to find a Green Bay defense that seemed so prepared for the play that you would have guessed they were in the huddle when it was called.  Instead of biting on the play-fake, the Packers’ defenders dropped back into a zone formation, leaving no receivers open down the field and Brees scrambling for his life in a broken-down backfield. 

To this moment, I still don’t understand why one of two things didn’t happen.  First, why wouldn’t the Saints simply take the three points out of the drive and make it a one possession game?  A three-point drive would have been opportune at the time, so that was always the safest option.  Second, why not put veteran running back Pierre Thomas in the backfield and let him try to pound for the first down?  And yes, I understand that Mark Ingram had unsuccessfully attempted to reach the marker only a play before.  But Thomas has seen that situation more often than not over the years, and he seemed like the ideal person to try and grab the Saints a momentum-shifting first down.  Regardless, the final play call was a risky one, and the Saints ended up paying the price.

Now to my second point.  Being that we just spoke of one-yard gains, one would figure that the Saints’ offense would be better prepared for a similar situation later in the game.  With no time left on the clock and one play to help spark a comeback, the Black and Gold looked into the eyes of the Green Bay defenders as they tried to hold the Saints off of their goal line.  Instead of pulling out the tricks, though, the Saints decided to play it simple and run it “up the gut.”  The final result?  The rookie RB ran into a wall that included six Packers defenders on the ground level and three more flying in from over the top of the barrier that was the GB defense.  As one can imagine, Ingram was left without his shining moment in his first regular season contest, and the Saints were left heartbroken and with a 0-1 start.

Now, can someone please explain this to me in a logical manner?  The Saints tried a similar play earlier in the contest.  On third-and-one inside the Green Bay ten yard line (the same drive that would result in the controversial fourth down call), New Orleans called for a rush straight up the middle.  So they stuck the rookie into the backfield and gave it a shot.  Needless to say that it failed.  So why on Earth would they go and try the same exact play in a more costly situation?  That is still beyond me.  The fact that not one, not two, but three Packers were seen leaping over the line of scrimmage on that final deciding play makes me think one thing:  they knew what was coming.  Green Bay stacked the box for a potential run play, and the Saints played right into their hands.  So, looking at this situation from a mind on the Saints’ sideline, why does it seem like a good idea at the time to re-try a play that failed you earlier in the contest?  Instead of putting in the seasoned veteran in Thomas, or even running the play-action, or heck, just simply pitching it out to the speedy Darren Sproles (who was as great as advertised, may I add), they decided to stick the rookie back in there and thought, “Eh, we might get it this time.”  In 2009, the last year Thomas was healthy, he scored three TDs (two rushing, one receiving) when inside the opponent’s ten yard line.  But it’s O.K.  We can pretend like Ingram was the better option there.  If there were a million things I could take from this game, this was probably the biggest. 

Finally, let’s finish with a topic that is a true “head scratcher.”  Throughout the first half, a matchup existed on the field that truly perplexed me.  As fans watched from both their respective television sets/ stadium seats, one of the better wide receivers in the NFC, let alone in all of football, was seen torching second-year corner Patrick Robinson whenever possible.  No, I’m not here wondering why he was getting torched, as I think that is fairly obvious.  I’m here to discuss why the matchup was ever created in the first place.  Look, I understand that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his exotic blitz packages, strange coverage schemes, and aggressive play calls.  But let’s be logical here:  There is no way that Robinson was better suited for that matchup than fellow defensive backs Jabari Greer or Tracy Porter.  And if so, then the Saints may want to go back to the drawing board the next time they have to face a stellar QB-WR combo. 

In order to truly affect Aaron Rodgers’ efficiency, an opposing defense must put him under pressure.  The Saints failed to do so, leaving him with enough time to make decisions, and leaving even more time for the Packers’ solid core of receivers to get open.  With Jennings getting easy separation early in his routes, Rodgers was able to make even quicker decisions, ultimately not allowing the front four to create penetration and get into the backfield.  The result?  The Packers put on an offensive spectacle, making the Saints have to play catch-up for four quarters of football.  And we all know how that ended up.

Now, could Greer or Porter have better covered Jennings?  That remains to be seen.  However, I sure trust them over a second-year, unproven corner trying to match up against the Super Bowl Champion’s number one receiver.  Maybe I’m right; maybe I’m wrong.  I just thought that I should put in my two cents.

Regardless of the outcome, I think everyone can agree that the game was truly a wonderful way to start off the 2011 season.  When it came down to a battle of passing games, special teams, and coaching decisions, the Packers came out on top.  It’s as simple as that.

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