Saints’ deficiencies were hidden in plain sight

By Ed Daniels, Clarion Herald Sports

After a 26-20 overtime playoff loss to Minnesota, the reaction on social media was what you would have expected.

The gamut ran from “The referees ripped us off, again” to “It is time for the Saints to move on without Drew Brees.”

If you are among those who think it is time for a Brees departure, watch what you ask for.

So, why did the Saints lay an egg against Minnesota?

Well, the Saints had deficiencies that were often masked, even in a 13-win season.

When free agent wide receiver Antonio Brown arrived at the Saints facility for a workout, head coach Sean Payton was telling you what he thought of his wide receiver corps, excluding Michael Thomas.

If, somehow, Brown wound up in a Saints’ uniform for the playoffs, he would have made a huge difference against Minnesota.

With no legitimate deep threat to defend, the Vikings were able to rush four and drop seven to defend the pass. Brees’ longest completion in the loss to Minnesota was 20 yards.

With two stellar defensive ends – Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks) and Everson Griffen (8.0 sacks) – the Vikings were able to get enough pressure without having to risk blitzing often. Getting chunk plays on offense was a problem for the Saints all season.

In October, the 49ers traded third- and fourth-round picks for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had nine catches for 157 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in a 48-46 win. His play in that game was a big reason why the Saints were playing in the wild-card round.

Offensively against the Saints, Minnesota controlled the ball for almost 37 minutes. By running the ball 40 times in the game, they were able to keep the Saints offense on the sidelines and keep the crowd out of the game. For Minnesota, it was textbook stuff on how to win a playoff game in a hostile environment.

A big reason why the Vikings were able to stay on the field is because a pair of first-round picks, Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport, were not on it. Along with Cam Jordan, the Saints had a mix of solid veterans and hard-working undrafted free agents on the defensive line. But, you do not suddenly replace top draft picks.

So, as the Saints head to the offseason, there will be more than a few question marks:

Will Brees return?

Will free agents – guard Andrus Peat and safety Vonn Bell –  return?

How badly injured was running back Alvin Kamara in mid-season, and how much did those injuries affect his play?

Here’s one thing that isn’t a question.

The Saints will win a lot of games next season. They are still the chalk in the NFC South, by a mile. And, next year’s schedule includes the AFC West, where only Kansas City made the playoffs.

Next January, the Saints and city, collectively, will be back in the playoffs, wondering again if the Saints are good enough to make some magic happen.

Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26. He can be reached at edaniels@clarionherald.org.

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