Defense Dominates; Offense Hits Stride Late in Narrow Week 1 Saints Victory
The Dome was rocking Sunday afternoon in the first game of the Derek Carr era in New Orleans. The Saints drew an unorthodox interconference matchup to open the season in the Tennessee Titans. The game projected as a defensive slugfest going in – and that’s exactly what it was throughout most of the day.
For an offseason that procured so much change, the season really could not have had a worse first play from scrimmage for the home team – as Rasheed Shahid had the ball ripped out of his hands by Amani Hooker on the opening kickoff on the Titans’ sideline. This set up the Titans on the edge of the red zone seconds into the game, and the Saints defense, with some help from the home crowd, responded by backing up the offense to set up a 50 yard field goal from Nick Folk.
The first drive for the Saints offense was very strong, with Carr finding Michael Thomas multiple times – including a perfectly placed 25 yard ball over the shoulder connection on the opening play. However, it stalled out inside the opponent’s ten after breakdowns in protection, which would be a theme for the first half for the Saints.
One thing was clear from the beginning though, the Saints secondary came to play, and the defense as a whole had the Titans bottled for nearly the entire game. The obvious emphasis in any game Tennessee is involved in is how to contain Derrick Henry and prevent him from going down hill because no running back still can eat up yards as fast as Henry. The Saints started the game in their usual nickel sets where the extra defensive back can make boxes lighter which resulted in an effective Henry rushing attack early on. However, once the Saints brought in an extra linebacker (Zach Baun), they began to force Ryan Tannehill to make throws – and the secondary had him second guessing himself for the entire first half.
Tannehill obviously was emphasizing getting the ball to his new star receiver, Deandre Hopkins, early, but he had little to no success in doing so throughout the first half when he was matched up with Saints star corner, Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore held Hopkins to one catch in the first half, and grabbed his 15th career interception in the process, which led to Tennessee moving Hopkins away from him in later stages of the game.
Even with the stout defense from the Saints, the offense was held in check throughout the half, punting three times after the first half. The only points the team got after the first drive was due to the short field set up by a blocked punt by Zach Baun – with Steve Gleason in attendance which is always so awesome – but the redzone offense for the team struggled because of their inability to run the ball as well as protect Carr.
In their final drive of the half, Carr and company started to find success, with completions to Juwan Johnson, Rasheed Shahid, Chris Olave and Michael Thomas which set them up to get points going into the half. However, Derek Carr made an admittedly “stupid,” as he described it after the game, mistake by trying to force a ball to Johnson resulting in a pick to end the half at a score of 6-9 with the Titans out in front.
The second half started with another takeaway by the defense after Isaac Yiadom made his first appearance in the game with Tannehill going after him right way. Yiadom batted an underthrown ball right into the hands of Marcus Maye to set the Saints up at their own one yard line. The ensuing possession began a turnaround from Carr and company getting points on a drive that was elevated by a 45 yard Chris Olave reception. A Blake Groupe 51-yard field goal knotted the game up at nine a piece midway through the third.
After punts on the next drives from both teams, Tannehill tossed his third interception of the game deep in the Saints territory – attempting a back should fade to Hopkins that Paulson Adebo jumped all over. This led to Carr finally tossing his first touchdown on a 19-yard touchdown to Rasheed Shaheed, who ran a filthy double move on the right sideline late in the third frame.
The next drive for the Titans was the first sequence of breakdowns in the Saints secondary, after Dennis Allen elected to send blitzes on third downs that led to a completion and a defensive holding that set Nick Folk up for his fourth field goal of the day.
The score stood at 16-12 with about eleven minutes to go and an opportunity for the Saints to put the Titans away with a long scoring drive. However, running four minute offense when you are trying to kill time is tough when the run game is as sparse as it was on Sunday afternoon. A pair of Chris Olave first down completions helped the team kill some clock, but on a third and eight, Carr looked back to Olave deep to put the Titans away – but a questionable no call on Elijah Molden – who clearly grabbed Olave’s shoulder pads early made it 4th down and another Lou Hedley punt at midfield.
The Titans took advantage of this break, and got right down the field getting inside the Saints 15. However, the defense came up big when it mattered most – forcing a field goal to make the score 16-15 with 2:17 left in the game.
Now with the two minute warning and three timeouts for Tennessee, it was up to Carr and the offense to do what good teams do and put the game away. After a 12-yard Rasheed Shahid jet sweep was called back due to an unnecessary hold down the field by Keith Kirkwood, the team was behind the chains and was forced into a third and six. On that very play, Derek Carr did what the Saints quarterbacks of the post-Brees era couldn’t have dreamt of doing and hit Rasheed Shahid on a 41 yard pass down the left sideline with just under two minutes left.
The Saints were able to find one more first down, and knee out the game for an opening week victory and move to over .500 for the first time in an entire season.
The circumstances for Carr and the performance by the entire defense should give the team great confidence going into next week. In 2022, the Titans were the leagues top rushing defense, giving up a mere 77 yards per game, which meant that the Saints were in for a long day on the ground with the current Alvin Kamara suspension as well as the injury to rookie running back Kendre Miller. After a tough first half where Carr had an interception and was sacked four times, Pete Carmichael decided to spread the formation out and trust Carr to get his playmakers the ball. They also made sure to help out their essentially rookie left tackle Trevor Penning – who gave up three sacks in the first half by chipping Arden Key and giving him running back support.
This resulted in cleaner pockets and production from the entire receiving core. Olave, Thomas and Shaheed had over 60 yards receiving with Olave starring as many expected – catching eight of his ten targets for 112 yards. Seeing the unit figure things out and adjust as well as what Pete Carmichael can draw up as a play caller is a very encouraging sign after the rough entirety of 2022. The team felt much more buttoned up after the start they got off to last season.
Speaking of starts, how ’bout the defense as well? Through the first five or six weeks last year, the Saints were dead last in scoring defense, and it was clear the Dennis Allen combo with co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielson and Kris Richard was not the right move. Yes, they finished the season incredibly strong, but to see them hold Ryan Tannehill to under 50% completion and finish with a quarterback rating of 28.8 as well as keeping the running game at bay by stacking the box and making open field tackles after the start Derrick Henry got off too was incredibly encouraging.
At the end of the day, the greatest sign the Saints could have gotten, however, was grabbing three interceptions after that was such rarity last year. For reference, the Saints finished 2022 with a total of seven interceptions, and didn’t haul one in until week four in London last year.
The offense will predictably have to iron things out in the early season because all of the change that occurred over the offseason. However, this receiving core, when healthy, may be the most complete unit the Saints have had in decades – especially when Alvin Kamara returns from suspension. It is clear that the pieces are in place for the unit to be very strong in 2023, but until they begin to reach that potential – they will have one of the leagues top defenses to back them up, and that will keep them in a lot of games.