Socci’s Notebook: First Things First, Third Down Is Critical For Pats And Saints

By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub

One scored on five of its eight series. The other produced 27 points by the end of the third quarter, practically matching its per game average from the previous season.

And yet, by the standards they and their quarterbacks have set in the last decade-plus, their outputs fell well short of expectations. Not to mention what their opponents were doing on offense.

Since 2006, when Drew Brees signed in New Orleans to play under head coach Sean Payton, the only offense more prolific in the NFL has been here in New England. While the Saints of Brees-Payton have averaged 27.5 points per game, the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick-led Patriots have generated 29.6 ppg.

But in Week 1 New Orleans lost at Minnesota, 29-19, and the Patriots stagnated in the final period of a 42-27 runaway by Kansas City.

The Saints, who ranked second in scoring last season (29.3), struggled through a 1-for-5 night in the so-called red zone. They enjoyed ‘goal-to-go’ three times, only to be turned aside on each series and forced to kick a field goal.

Meanwhile, the Patriots got into the end zone on just half of their six red-zone drives. The second of those series resulted in a run stuff by the Chiefs on 4th-and-inches at the 10-yard line.  A year ago, their conversion clip of .633 was the league’s eighth-best touchdown rate.

Uncharacteristically, both also failed too frequently on third down. Last season, New Orleans (48.6%) ranked first while New England (45.8%) was fourth in third-down efficiency.  However, they started the new campaign by converting 4-of-11 (36%) and 5-of-15 (33%) attempts, respectively.

Reasons why drives stalled were varied — starting with the talent at all three levels of the Vikings and Chiefs’ defenses. But undoubtedly among them was the absence of Brees’ and Brady’s most trusted stick-movers.  The latter lost Julian Edelman to injury in the preseason, after targeting him on third down a remarkable 38 times in 2016.

Regarding Brady’s counterpart, Brees is without Willie Snead, who was arrested in June on a DWI charge and is now serving a three-game suspension imposed by the NFL.  Last season, he caught 72 passes.

As a 5-foot-11 late-bloomer originally cut by Cleveland, Snead landed on Carolina’s practice squad and, eventually, secured a spot with the Saints.  More than a go-to guy for Brees, he’s a favorite of former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, whose post-playing career includes radio commentary delivered in a thick Cajun drawl.

“Put it this way, I’m a big Julian Edelman fan and I think Willie Snead is a poor man’s Julian Edelman,” Hebert said Wednesday on my www.patriots.com podcast.  “When it was 3rd-and-6, 3rd-and-7, (he) could move the chains and the Saints were able to have the most first downs last year and the (number-one) third-down (offense).”

Snead was overshadowed as he operated underneath by deeper threats Michael Thomas (92 receptions for 1,137 yards in 2016) and Brandin Cooks, who was traded to the Patriots following his second straight 1,000-yard season.

“Not on the highlight reel, but to sustain drives,” Hebert said, “Willie Snead was their guy.”

Was being the operative word.  A priority for both teams seeking their first win this Sunday is finding a new guy — or guys — to turn third downs into first downs into touchdowns.

Speaking of Cooks…

During his lengthy conference call this week with New England media, Payton shared some lasting impressions formed while coaching Cooks from 2014-16.

“He’s a great competitor. He comes to work every day with an intensity,” Payton said — interestingly, in present tense — of the Saints’ first-round selection and the 20th pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.  “There’s not really an off-speed rep for him, and so (by) the way he prepares I know he’s a good teammate, well respected.”

Nonetheless, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis dealt Cooks to the Patriots for this year’s 32nd overall draft choice.  That’s where New Orleans took offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin.

“For us, you’re constantly looking at how you can improve some of the areas where you feel like you’re lean,” Payton said.  “We just felt like (Cooks) was going to be one of the assets possibly that we could utilize.”

Hebert offered his insights into the Cooks trade, as bluntly as expected from someone Jerry Glanville once described as “tougher than a steak from Waffle House.”

“They thought he was too one-dimensional,” said Hebert, observing that Cooks rarely carried the ball on jet sweeps or made yards after the catch by making others miss.  “Nothing against Brandin Cooks, because I think going from Drew Brees to Tom Brady, he’ll have 1,000 to 1,200 yards receiving.

“I look at Brandin Cooks as a legit NFL receiver with a lot of speed.  But I just don’t see the underneath stuff that sustains drives.”

One of Hebert’s Crescent City media colleagues, Nick Underhill, used to cover the Patriots for www.masslive.com.  Now on the Saints beat for The Advocate, Underhill is intrigued by any attempts New England makes to develop Cooks into more than a home-run hitter.

“I kind of thought that was an interesting move right from the very beginning, just because Cooks wants to be more than a deep guy,” Underhill said, also on www.patriots.com.  “He’s got a lot more straight speed than elusive speed.  He didn’t really induce any missed tackles or anything like that.

“So I’m not sure what he’s going to find there (in New England).  (But) Belichick is a guy who knows how to maximize skill sets.”

New-look secondary, same old problems…

After reaching the playoffs four times in a five-year span, including their Super Bowl XLIV championship, the Saints have struggled to a 7-9 finish each of the past three seasons. During that stretch, New Orleans ranked no higher than 28th in scoring defense, surrendering more than 28 points a game.

Despite investing 14-of-21 draft picks since 2015 on that side of the ball, the Saints were no better in their 2017 debut in Minnesota.  Overall, the Vikings converted 9-of-14 (64%) third-down tries, totaled 470 yards and produced 29 points.

Especially alarming was the way Sam Bradford picked apart New Orleans’ young secondary, completing 27-of-32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

“Their zone coverages were really the Achilles heel of the game.  It was really a mess throughout the game,” said Underhill.  “You expect some of those mental errors because they have six or seven young guys starting on this defense, new guys or rookies.  And you expect mistakes, but it was so consistent throughout the whole game it’s a little concerning heading into Week 2.”

The Saints’ secondary includes cornerbacks P.J. Williams, who’s played three games in two-plus seasons, and rookie Marshon Lattimore, a first-rounder who appeared in only 20 contests at Ohio State.  Another rookie, Marcus Williams, was used extensively at safety against the Vikings.

“There’s so much to fix, and you’ve got to wonder if they can fix it,” Underhill said, before reports surfaced that New Orleans is shopping its most experienced defensive back, safety Kenny Vaccaro.  “There are probably major concerns for that coaching staff heading into this game.

“(Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen uses) a lot of disguise, and for new guys, young guys, it’s probably a lot to pick up on.”

Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

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