Finding some positives in the Saints' loss

The New Orleans Saints lost to a better team yesterday. The Ravens have been better all season, and were certainly better on the field yesterday. There’s no shame in losing to a better team on the road.

Coaches will tell you they don’t believe in moral victories, and that’s fine. Coaches don’t get paid for moral victories. As fans, though, we tend to watch games for signs of hope (or despair!), looking for something–anything!–that might convince us that everything will work out, and that this year just might be our year. Each game is an exercise in tea leaf reading, and we hope that fortune will favor us in the future.

So, what signs can we take from yesterday’s game? Well, most of the signs confirm what I already suspected: the Saints are not part of the “cream of the cream” in the NFL. However, there were a few things that got me excited. Look for them after the jump for a few positives from the game.

The Saints can play with the best teams in the NFL. The Saints have played a bunch of terrible teams this year, but they’ve played three teams that rank somewhere among the NFL’s best: the Falcons, the Steelers, and the Ravens. While the Saints only won one of those games (a fairly handy victory over the Steelers), they were competitive in all of them, coming within a field goal of tying the Falcons game and having a chance to drive to victory in the Ravens game.

The Saints’ competitiveness against good teams is a good sign for the playoffs, because it means they’ll have a chance to win any game. The Saints may not be the best team this year, but nobody will want to play them. They aren’t an easy “out”. If the Saints can string together a couple of excellent games, they could very easily wind up in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta, which would be both an insane experience and a total crapshoot for the NFC crown.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 19: Fans of the New Orleans Saints cheer against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Saints 30-24. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

The Saints’ offensive diversity is trouble for defenses, even good defenses. The Saints did not have a good day, offensively. Drew Brees was harassed by the Ravens’ pass rush (a troubling sign’because the Ravens’ pass rush hasn’t been that good for most of the year), Marques Colston dropped some key passes, Robert Meachem dropped some key passes, and the running game was nonexistent. Still, because the Saints have so many offensive weapons, they were able to score 24 points against a team that was only giving up about 18 points per game. This Ravens defense isn’t the 2000 Ravens defense, but it’s still a good group.

Going Forward: Areas for improvement

So, while the Saints got outplayed by a better team yesterday, their performance showed that you can’t count them out this year. What could they have done to have won yesterday? There are a couple things that jumped out at me:

Field position was a big factor in this game. The Saints’ average drive started on their own 27, the Ravens’ started on their own 34. While 7 yards might not seem like much, the [expected value][2] of starting at your own 27 is roughly 0.75 points*. The expected value of starting on your own 34 is roughly 1 point. When you consider that each team had 12 drives, that’s a (12*0.25 = 3) 3-point difference just based on field position. In a 6-point game, that’s huge.

*That is, if you start every drive on your 27 yard line, you can expect to average about 0.75 points per drive. Obviously, you won’t score on some drives, will score on others, etc., but you’ll likely average about 0.75 points per drive.

The field position battle turns on offense, defense, and special teams, and the Saints didn’t excel in any of those phases. However, special teams is a time when a team can make up for offensive or defensive deficiencies and turn field position around, and they failed to do that. In fact, the Ravens’ average punt return was about twice as long as the Saints’ average. That hurts.

Pass protection breakdowns hindered the Saints’ offense all day. The Saints are a team that is built similar to the Colts: they’re designed to jump to an early lead and let their defense play to create turnovers. The Saints’ defense generally won’t be able to stand up to a grind-em-out type of game against a good team, and it showed yesterday. And while it’s easy to pin blame on the defense (they did yield WAY TOO MANY RUSHING YARDS), it’s like trying to blame a thoroughbred for not being able to pull a heavy load. They just aren’t made to do it.

Yesterday, the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Brees was under constant pressure, had trouble finding lanes against the Ravens’ huge defensive lines (did you see the batted balls yesterday?), and wasn’t able to pass the ball effectively (don’t let the high passer rating fool you). The lack of running game didn’t help, either. The Saints have to keep Brees clean if they’re going to beat good teams. They didn’t yesterday, and the offense wasn’t able to get the lead they need to allow the defense to perform.

I would probably put left tackle high on my list of offseason needs if I were in charge of the Saints. Drew Brees has made several people on the offensive line look a lot better than they actually are, and that isn’t a sustainable plan.

Regardless, I emerge from yesterday’s game feeling pretty good, but that’s because I thought the Saints would lose by 2 touchdowns. If you thought the Saints were a top-5 team in the NFL, then you were probably upset by yesterday’s game. I think the team is starting to show its colors as a good team, not elite, but one that’s capable of beating any one on any day. That may or may not a recipe for a trip to Dallas, but it sure makes for a nice Super Bowl title defense season.