Column: Return of NFL, Saints brought comfort rare in 2020

Drew Brees

We needed that.

Or at the very least, I know I did. ‘That,’ in this case, refers to the return of football, and not a second too soon.

We’ve suffered through months of social and economic upheaval. We’ve had to question our minute to minute activities in the name of protecting not just our own health, but also that of those around us. There’s division, violence, worry and anger … storms, fires and earthquakes that leap out of nowhere … and many days it may feel like the world we live in is a completely different entity than the one we lived in seven months ago.

But for one day, life finally felt normal for this football fan.

Well, fine … almost.

After all, we all enjoyed that hurricane red alert in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Nothing like a dose of panic to jolt you from your peaceful slumber. And certainly, the news of evacuation orders and a strengthening storm did what it could to keep me at least somewhat tethered to the reality of 2020.

But the pigskin commanded the bulk of my attention, and with no preseason to gauge, the Saints/Bucs game gave us our first glimpse of what the Black and Gold can do this season. New Orleans rolled to victory and kept control of the score for all but the game’s very early stages. Some thoughts …

The Good

 The secondary has improved. Janoris Jenkins made perhaps the most important play of the day with his Pick 6 of Tom Brady, and it shined light on one of the team’s most important upgrades from last season. Jenkins was a very good cornerback with the New York Giants, but he clashed with the coaching staff and actually joined the Saints at the end of last season. Paired with Marshon Lattimore, the two could represent the most talented pair of Saints cornerbacks since Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis. Malcolm Jenkins is back in the mix and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is more seasoned after a strong rookie year. While Tampa had a healthy point total, the Saints’ defense made critical stops throughout the game to keep the Bucs from truly threatening.

 Weapons galore. New Orleans has had a simple formula offensively over the past three seasons. Maul teams up front and establish the run, while focusing the lion’s share of the passing attack through Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. It was very successful, though against some better defenses the team’s lack of secondary receivers sometimes limited production.

Last season, however, Jared Cook began to really click with Drew Brees around midseason. Now the team has added another serious weapon to the mix in Emmanuel Sanders. And Taysom Hill is becoming more and more of an X-Factor. Covering all will be a serious challenge for anyone.

The pass rush. Tom Brady hit the deck three times and was intercepted twice. Pressure busts pipes.

 The Worries

 Let’s not panic on Drew Brees … but … He’s arguably the most accurate passer the NFL has ever seen, after all. It’s just that Sunday provided no evidence of that.

That signature marksmanship was as scattershot as I can ever remember Sunday, be it overshooting a swing pass, throwing behind a crossing receiver or leaving a ball too short of the 1st down marker. It’s usually notable when you see one such mistake from Brees in a game, let alone several. He stepped up and led his team to a win regardless, and it’s hard to argue anyone has earned more benefit of the doubt than Brees has.

 That said, were this the 28-year-old Brees, this isn’t even a concern. Bad game, bounce back next week. But it’ll bear watching as we move forward, because Brees in his 40s is going to have to overcome diminishing arm strength more and more. His experience, his mind and his pinpoint touch has enabled him to remain elite as this process has gone on. But one day, he won’t be. The Saints will need more from Brees moving forward.

 A struggling line. Down a starter with rookie Cesar Ruiz injured, the Saints had a lot of difficulty running the ball and averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. Brees was sacked just once, but he had to get rid of the ball early several times, particularly in the second half once Tampa began dialing up pressure. This is a talented group capable of dominating, but it’ll have to play like it going forward.


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