The New Orleans Saints have lost any realistic shot at making a playoff run this season because of special-teams gaffes. Plain and simple — painful, game-changing, hair-pulling mistakes that have come out at the worst times.
There was the ridiculous punt-return interference that killed momentum in the Week 2 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
The next week, a blocked field-goal try that was run back in a loss to the New York Giants as the Saints fell to 0-3.
And right after the Saints evened their record at 4-4 and looked to be back in the race, last week happened — the first-ever game-winning blocked extra-point return in NFL history — in a crushing loss to the Denver Broncos.
On Thursday, it happened again — it being a full-scale breakdown on special teams in a 23-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Both teams are now 4-6.
You can have Drew Brees and three terrific receivers, and you can have an improved defense that has strung a few really respectable performances together and was far from the problem in either of the two losses the past five days.
You can have all that, but if you have crummy special teams you’re bound to get burned by it. And the crushing irony is that the Saints have had so many memorable special-teams plays — the Az Hakim fumble, Steve Gleason block, Garrett Hartley’s game winner in the NFC title game, the Super Bowl onsides kick, the Michael Mauti block and so on — that have helped define their history. This team is marring that reputation quickly.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has been so upset with his special-teams units this season, that he cut a former starting defensive tackle (John Jenkins) in order to sign Chris Banjo, who rarely plays on defense. Michael Mauti, the special-teams captain, is out for the season, and two of the Saints’ better special-teamers, Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar, are now starting linebackers. Also, Payton’s loyalty to coordinator Greg McMahon has come into question.
That’s why plays like the one at the end of the first half happen to teams such as the Saints.
Down 13-3 late in the second quarter, they had a chance to make it a one-score game before halftime. Knowing that Cam Newton and the Panthers would get the ball first to start the second half made it all the more important. The Saints drove to the Carolina 15 with 43 seconds left but had to settle for a Will Lutz field-goal try.
And … oh no. It happened again.
Panthers rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler blocked the 38-yard try — eerily similar to the Broncos extra point — and Luke Kuechly picked it up and would have scored had it not been for a pointless block in the back by rookie DB James Bradberry.
No matter. Newton made them pay with a brilliant strike to Ginn (covered by Robertson) to the post on a 40-yard touchdown on the next snap. Initially called incomplete, it was clear that Ginn had made a terrific catch and had gotten both feet inbounds. Bradberry was redeemed, and the Saints were toast, down 20-3 on a 10-point swing in a seven-second span.
That’s what special-teams gaffes will do to a team. This season, Lutz — as good as he has been — now has had three kicks blocked and two more deflected that found their way through the uprights.
Other errors on those units, such as Marcus Murphy muffing a kickoff out of bounds at his own 1-yard line, also cost the Saints in this game. The Panthers got the ball back quickly on a short field and kicked a field goal that made it a 10-point lead.
Prior to that, the Saints were lucky not to have had a major error on a Panthers field-goal try cost them points. They held the Panthers on a nice goal-line stand on the opening possession on defense, but Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro was called for roughing the kicker, so the Panthers took the ball back on offense. But once more they were held down. After losing 11 yards on their first try from the New Orleans 1-yard line, the Panthers this time lost 8 yards after regaining it at the New Orleans 6.
Panthers kicker Graham Gano came back out, and the field goal made it 3-0 — just your garden-variety 11-play, 18-yard scoring drive. The Panthers clearly blew a chance for more, as Newton had two passes batted down and was sacked twice in the red zone.
Actually, that’s the sad part: The Saints’ defense played very well, all things considered, once again. But with Brees having an ordinary night, rookie receiver Michael Thomas quiet and the run game dormant the first three quarters of the game, the Saints couldn’t afford to have so many awful mistakes on special teams.
The Saints actually flipped momentum with two methodical drives in the third and fourth quarters and ripped off 10 unanswered points. But when they had a chance to atone for their earlier special-teams mistakes — falling on a Ginn muffed punt at his own 8-yard line — they could not.
Adding insult to injury, on the ensuing punt, the Saints might have been in decent shape … had Nathan Stupar not been guilty of a block in the back on Murphy’s return.
The Saints made it a three-point score with just under three minutes left but got the ball back with barely clock left. It was too late by that point. That blocked field goal loomed pretty large, eh? Too bad it was not the only error of the game, but it certainly was the most notable.
The reason the Saints beat the Seattle Seahawks was because it was their most complete performance of the season in all phases. They haven’t had a complete game like that against a quality opponent since then. The remaining schedule isn’t the most daunting thing ever, but every team on it right now remains in contention and it features three road games in December.
Going from 0-3 to start the season to 5-4 five days ago to 4-6 now can be directly attributed to the special-teams breakdowns. This is a talented team but one that only has two of the three units working on any kind of functional level right now.
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