In an NFL season in which we’re down to just one undefeated team after the better part of 10 weeks, just about everyone has laid an egg. Even the league’s most competitive teams have floundered in a disappointing loss this season, often with no explanation or notice. The Saints made their way to that list Sunday after shockingly falling to the 1-7 Falcons, who were 14-point underdogs heading into the Superdome.
Let’s see whether we can learn anything from the worst of the best. I went through each team with six wins or more and identified their worst performance, leaving out the 49ers and Seahawks in advance of their game Monday night (8:15 ET on ESPN and the ESPN App). From there, I tried to figure out if there was something meaningful to take away from that disastrous performance and if there were opponents who could exploit those weaknesses in a similar way later on this season.
I mentioned the Saints, but I’ll start with another team that lost a shocker Sunday afternoon …
The disaster game: Losing 35-32 to the Titans on Sunday
While the Chiefs have four losses in their past six games, this was the first time they lost a game in which Patrick Mahomes went a full 60 minutes without clearly aggravating his ankle injury. He nearly had an ill-advised pass intercepted on the opening snap of the game, but the reigning MVP quickly settled down and finished 36-of-50 for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. He certainly wasn’t the issue.
Problem 1: The Chiefs still can’t stop the run.
Kansas City came into Week 10 ranked 28th in rush defense DVOA. It won’t be climbing the charts when those numbers get updated Tuesday. The combination of Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill ran the ball 26 times for 225 yards with nine first downs and two touchdowns. Tennessee didn’t control the clock — it held the ball for only just over 22 minutes — because it was too effective running the ball to stay on the field for long.
The biggest play of the day, of course, was Henry’s 68-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. There’s no way it should have gone for 68 yards. The Chiefs had eight men in the box. This is the league’s 23rd-ranked rushing offense by DVOA. It probably should have been a loss or a small gain at best.
Instead, when we look at NFL Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs lose their gap integrity. It looks like Reggie Ragland (59) overpursues what appears to be an outside zone play and ends up one gap over from where he’s supposed to be. Alternatively, it could be that defensive tackle Joey Ivie (93) ends up getting blocked out of his gap. Either way, Henry has a huge cutback lane and turns upfield at the line of scrimmage. Rookie safety Juan Thornhill (22) is the last line of defense, but he whiffs badly on the tackle attempt and only momentarily slows Henry, who proceeds to outrun the Kansas City defense to the house.
Later in the fourth quarter, with Tannehill scrambling on third-and-10 and bracing for contact 5 yards short of the sticks while surrounded by four Chiefs players, he manages to drag Rashad Fenton several yards forward for a conversion. That drive ended with Henry plunging in the end zone from a yard out.
Tannehill would get Fenton for the winning touchdown, when the Titans ran four verticals and Adam Humphries saw the Chiefs were playing with two deep safeties. Humphries faked an out, juked Fenton to the point in which the young defensive back fell down and then brought in Tannehill’s pass for the leading score. The former Dolphins starter finished the drive by running through Thornhill on a zone-read keeper for a 2-pointer.
Problem 2: The Chiefs beat themselves.
Even given their defensive woes, the Chiefs still should have won this game. They held a 98.2% win expectancy with the ball in their hands on the Titans’ 24-yard line with 1:36 to go. By ESPN’s model, the Titans had been favorites in-game for a grand total of only one play up to that point, back when they had a 13-10 lead in the second quarter.
A first down on a third-and-2 would have sealed things up for the Chiefs, while a field goal would have given them an eight-point lead and forced the Titans to drive the length of the field, score a touchdown, convert a 2-pointer and then win in overtime. The only thing they couldn’t do was turn the ball over without converting or scoring. Instead, the Chiefs called a slow-developing downfield pass, and a scrambling Mahomes gave himself up to keep the clock running.
On the ensuing field goal try, a bad snap led holder James Winchester to throw the ball away, which ended the drive and resulted in an intentional grounding call. After the Titans scored to take the lead, Mahomes completed two passes to set up a 52-yard field goal try, only for the Titans to block Harrison Butker‘s would-be tying kick and seal a Titans win.
Butker also missed an extra point in the third quarter. I wouldn’t count on Kansas City’s special teams playing the team out of close games on a regular basis, given that Dave Toub is regarded as one of the best special-teams coaches in football. The Chiefs also ranked ninth in special-teams DVOA heading into the week, so this hasn’t been a consistent problem for them.
What is a concern, though, is the other way the Chiefs cost themselves the game. They benched Shady McCoy after a Week 8 fumble before naming him as a healthy scratch on Sunday, claiming that they needed to rest the 31-year-old. (McCoy played just 36% of Kansas City’s snaps before the benching.) Damien Williams regained the starting job at McCoy’s expense, but he fumbled on a second-quarter run against the Titans, with Rashaan Evans recovering and taking the ball to the house for a 53-yard score.
The Chiefs have now fumbled 17 times this season, the third-highest total in the league. They fumbled 18 times in 16 games last season. Fumbles won’t always result in touchdowns, but the Chiefs need to do a better job of protecting the football. A less self-destructive team would have beaten the Titans on Sunday.
The disaster game: Losing 26-11 to the Chargers in Week 9
Problem 1: The interior of the offensive line struggles against excellent pass-rushers.
The Chargers had a defined game plan against the Packers in Los Angeles: win with the front four. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley sent just three blitzes against 38 Aaron Rodgers dropbacks on Nov. 3, producing a blitz rate of just 2.6%. That’s the lowest blitz rate for any defense in any single game this season. The Chargers stayed in their sub packages with five or more defensive backs on 45 of 49 snaps and relied on their front four to control the game.
It worked. They were able to control the running game, didn’t give up big plays and turned things over to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on third downs. Bradley’s strategy was to line up Bosa and Ingram next to each other on third downs and obvious passing situations, and it gave the Packers fits. I saw nine plays in which Bosa and Ingram were lined up next to each other during the game, and those plays resulted in two sacks, two hurries and just two completions for 18 yards, one of which resulted in a first down.
While rookie Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins has impressed since taking over for the injured Lane Taylor, he naturally struggled against two of the league’s best pass-rushers. Right guard Billy Turner has graded out reasonably well by ESPN’s pass block win rate metric, but he hasn’t looked as effective on tape and was repeatedly targeted by Bradley as the weak link of the line. By the end of the game, Bradley was using both Bosa and Ingram as interior rushers against the two guards, totally bypassing Green Bay’s star tackles, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.
The good news for the Packers is that most teams won’t have the sort of fourth-quarter lead that will allow them to line up their star edge rushers on the interior and pin their ears back as pass-rushers. Most defenses also don’t have a pair of pass-rushers as good as Bosa and Ingram, who are capable of taking over games against just about any team.
Unfortunately for the Packers, though, there are several NFC teams with star duos lurking on their schedule. After the bye, Green Bay will go up against the 49ers, who have Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to go with stud defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. The Bears have Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd. The Vikings have Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Looking into the playoffs, the Cowboys could call on DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and frequent interior rusher Michael Bennett. The Eagles can kick Brandon Graham or Derek Barnett inside next to Fletcher Cox. The Rams have Aaron Donald, who is a one-man wrecking crew. After watching the Chargers, I suspect many of them will try to move their star rushers inside more frequently and dare Green Bay’s guards to keep up.
Problem 2: The Packers couldn’t get off the field on defense.
While Green Bay was able to come up with a fourth-and-goal stop of Christian McCaffrey to seal a victory against the Panthers in the snow on Sunday, its defense has slipped badly since a hot start to the season. Since Week 4, the Packers have allowed opposing offenses to convert on 43.8% of their third-down tries, as well as a 3-for-4 performance on fourth down. The former figure ranks 25th in the NFL and is up from 34.9% over the first three weeks of the season, when the Packers ranked 10th.
In the Chargers game, Philip Rivers & Co. were 5-of-11 (45.5%) on third down and converted their only fourth-down attempt. That’s how you end up launching a 15-play drive to start the game and pick up at least one first down on each of your eight meaningful drives on offense.
While Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith continue to produce sacks, the Packers aren’t getting functional pressure on a regular basis. Mike Pettine’s defense ranked second in the league in pressure rate after three weeks at 36.9%. Since the Eagles game, though, the Packers have the third-worst pressure rate in football, all the way down at 22.6%. This was actually down even further before the Packers pressured Kyle Allen on 35.4% of his dropbacks Sunday.
The Packers will hope that the pass rush from September is back, but if it’s not, they could run into problems during their stretch run. Kirk Cousins leads the league in passer rating (127.0) and is sixth in Total QBR (82.7) when he’s not pressured; those marks fall to 16th and 25th, respectively, when the former Washington starter is pressured by the opposing defense. This seems like a good time to bring up …
The disaster game: Losing 16-6 to the Bears in Week 4
Problem 1: Cousins is a totally different quarterback when he’s under siege.
Every quarterback is going to play worse under heavy pass pressure, but this Bears game was a reminder of just how sensitive Cousins can be to waves of pass-rushers. He has faced pressure on more than 30% of his dropbacks in just three games this season, each of which took place in September; the opening win against the Falcons (in which he threw just 10 times), the 21-16 loss to the Packers and the 16-6 brutalization by the Bears.
The difference between how Cousins played in those three games versus his performances across the other seven Minnesota games this season is stark:
While the Packers posted the highest pressure rate of the season against Cousins, it was the Bears who made him look the worst. He threw for just three first downs and averaged just 3.1 yards per dropback on 23 tries through the first three quarters, only to pad his stats with some relatively meaningless yardage in the fourth quarter. It didn’t seem as if the Vikings trusted their protection long enough to try play fakes often, given that he attempted only five play-action passes for a total of 18 yards during the game.
Cousins will finish out the season with games against the Packers and Bears, with the former game plausibly serving as the NFC North championship game. Before that, he’ll face a Broncos team that ranks eighth in pressure rate, as well as the aforementioned Chargers, who are a different team when both Bosa and Ingram are healthy.
Problem 2: There’s nobody to cover top receivers.
Mike Zimmer placed a serious emphasis on drafting and developing corners during his time in Cincinnati and has kept it up after taking over the Vikings. Minnesota has three former first-round picks (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes) and a former second-rounder (Mackensie Alexander) at corner. Zimmer inherited Rhodes and former first-round safety Harrison Smith, but he drafted the other three players and retained Rhodes and Smith on expensive deals.
Cornerback has typically been a source of strength for the Vikings, but it has been a major weakness this season. Rhodes has been a shell of his former self. He has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 84.3% of their passes when he has been the closest defender in coverage, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s nearly 17 percentage points ahead of what NGS estimates as the expected completion percentage (67.4%) on those passes. Among players who have been targeted 50 times or more, Rhodes ranks last in both completion percentage and completion percentage above expectation.
Waynes hasn’t been much better; he ranks third in completion percentage above expectation and has the sixth-worst passer rating as the nearest defender in coverage this season. He missed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday with an ankle injury, which turned a starting job over to Hughes, who looked impressive as a rookie last season before tearing his ACL. The Cowboys ruthlessly targeted Hughes throughout the night, including repeated attempts on what was to be the ill-fated failed drive in the fourth quarter. Nobody in the stadium was more relieved that the Cowboys ran the ball twice in a row on the final series of that drive than Hughes, who was targeted on five straight attempts for four completions and 39 yards.
A limited Amari Cooper finished with 11 catches on 14 targets for 147 yards and a touchdown, and it wasn’t the first time the Vikings have struggled against the opposing team’s top wideout. There just isn’t anybody on this roster who can cover top-tier wideouts at this point. Last week, even with Matt Moore at quarterback for the Chiefs, Tyreek Hill had six catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Minnesota quieted Lions wideout Kenny Golladay, but Marvin Jones had 10 catches for 93 yards and four touchdowns. Alshon Jeffery had 10 catches on 12 targets for 76 yards and a score for the Eagles. Davante Adams had seven catches for 106 yards for the Packers.
The Bears don’t have much on offense besides their No. 1 receiver, and Allen Robinson helped win them the game in Week 4 after Mitchell Trubisky went down in the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Robinson caught all seven of the passes thrown in his direction for 77 yards, although he was whistled for pass interference to wipe away an eighth completion for 42 yards. Five of Chase Daniel‘s 11 first downs through the air came through Robinson.
Pass interference also has been a concern for Zimmer’s team. The Vikings have racked up 147 yards across six pass interference penalties this season, including four penalties of 25 yards or more. The 147-yard figure ranks as the third-worst in the NFL and already tops the 115 yards on pass interference calls the Vikings allowed last season. Teams have multiple paths toward creating big plays against the Vikings, who still have to face the likes of Courtland Sutton, Tyler Lockett, Golladay, Jones, Keenan Allen, Adams and Robinson over the remainder of their season.
The disaster game: Losing 16-10 to the Patriots in Week 4
Problem 1: Josh Allen struggles against disciplined blitzes.
The Patriots were able to easily bottle up Allen before knocking him out of the game in Buffalo, with the second-year starter producing one of the ugliest lines of the season. He went 13-of-28 passing for 153 yards with four sacks, three interceptions and a fumble, although he did run the ball five times for 26 yards and Buffalo’s lone touchdown of the day. I wrote at length about Allen’s performance back when it happened, but the short version is that the Patriots contained Allen in the pocket and then collapsed on him when he tried to escape.
Other teams don’t have the Patriots’ defensive backs, so they can’t be quite as effective with the blitz as the Pats were, but extra pressure continues to give Allen fits. When teams don’t blitz the second-year quarterback, he averages 7.2 yards per attempt and posts a passer rating of 86.0 to go with a Total QBR of 44.8. The latter mark ranks 24th in the NFL. Blitz Allen, though, and he averages just 6.2 yards per attempt, with a passer rating of 76.1 and a QBR of 34.1. He ranks 30th among the 32 starting quarterbacks in QBR against the blitz, ahead of only Sam Darnold and Mitchell Trubisky. The Browns, perhaps coincidentally, blitzed Allen a season-high 23 times during Sunday’s win, allowing a QBR of just 26.9 on those plays.
Total QBR includes rushing and scrambles by quarterbacks, and when teams don’t get home with their blitzes, Allen can make them pay with his arm and his legs. When they do get home, though, he really struggles. Five of his final seven games come against teams that rank in the top 10 in terms of blitz rate, including the top-ranked Ravens and the sixth-ranked Patriots.
Problem 2: Special-teams woes.
The Bills might very well have handed the Patriots their first loss of the season in Week 4 if it weren’t for an early mistake on special teams. J.C. Jackson was able to make his way through and block a Corey Bojorquez punt, with Matthew Slater recovering it for a 14-yard touchdown. The Bills outscored the Patriots on offense and defense 10-9, but the score off the blocked punt was enough to give the Patriots a 16-10 win.
More special-teams problems reared their head during Sunday’s narrow loss to Cleveland. This time, it was kicker Stephen Hauschka, who missed field goals from 34 and 53 yards out in a game that was eventually decided by three points. A Bojorquez punt downed inside the 10-yard line led to a safety against Baker Mayfield, but the missed field goals were enough to turn the day into a net negative for Buffalo’s special teams.
The Bills ranked 24th in special-teams DVOA heading into this week, up from 30th. They’ll be heading back toward 30th this time around. Buffalo can win games with its great defense, but it needs Heath Farwell’s special-teams units to come along for the ride.
The disaster game: Losing 37-20 to the Ravens in Week 9
Problem 1: The offensive line isn’t very good.
The Patriots have a Hall of Fame-caliber offensive line coach in Dante Scarnecchia and a habit of eventually figuring out their best offensive line combination as the season goes along. By the time the postseason rolls around, they are usually firing on all cylinders in terms of creating holes in the running game, as we saw last season.
In part owing to injuries, Scarnecchia has his work cut out for him this season. The line has been a problem since Week 1. Center David Andrews went down for the year with blood clots in his lungs. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who missed all of 2018 with a torn Achilles, suffered a toe injury against the Dolphins in Week 2 and is on injured reserve. He’s due to return shortly and should be an upgrade on Marshall Newhouse, whom the Patriots signed out of free agency in September and immediately inserted into the starting lineup.
The offensive line woes have affected Tom Brady. When opposing teams blitz, he ranks 25th in Total QBR at 46.8, down from eighth in the NFL (at 88.1) from 2016-18. It was no surprise that the Ravens, who are the only team in the league to blitz more than 50% of the time on defense, gave Brady fits. He simply hasn’t been good under pressure this season, as the future Hall of Famer has posted a passer rating of 29.9 and a QBR of just 3.1 under pressure this season. All of those numbers rank among the bottom four in their respective categories. I don’t need to tell you that Brady typically ranks much higher than the bottom four in anything.
The good news for the Patriots, at least in the short term, is that only two defenses that rank in the top 10 in pressure rate remain on their schedule: the fifth-placed Eagles and a rematch against the 10th-placed Bills. Wynn should help solidify the most important part on their line, although we’ve still seen the Georgia product play only 78 offensive snaps as a pro, and there’s no guarantee he will stay healthy after returning. The susceptibility to pressure makes me think the Pats might be better off facing the Chiefs in the playoffs than the Ravens.
Problem 2: There’s no go-to guy in the red zone.
In years past, the Patriots had one obvious target inside the 20-yard line in Rob Gronkowski. When Brady wasn’t throwing the ball to Gronk, he was taking advantage of the attention Gronk drew from opposing defenses by exploiting a one-on-one matchup elsewhere on the field. The legendary tight end was also a battering ram as a blocker, which meant that he could block overmatched linebackers as an in-line tight end or motion out and make run-first defenders look foolish in space. Gronkowski dictated — and then exploited — opposing defensive packages.
With Gronk retired, Josh Gordon mostly missing before being cut and N’Keal Harry on injured reserve to start the season, there hasn’t been that sort of tall, dominant weapon in the red zone to use this season. As a result, the Pats have struggled. Even after taking their bye this week, they lead the league in trips to the red zone, with 40 in nine games. What happens next isn’t impressive; the Pats are scoring touchdowns only 50% of the time and rank 22nd in the NFL in points per trip. Against the Ravens, the Patriots scored two touchdowns and kicked two short field goals from 19 and 22 yards. The math is in favor of going for it in both of those situations, especially given that the Patriots were trailing throughout this game. Bill Belichick had such little faith in his red zone offense that he kicked anyway.
Maybe Harry, a first-round pick, can be that guy. Gronk could come back. My suspicion is that the Patriots expected Sony Michel to become that force, and he has been disappointing in the red zone, scoring five times on 12 touches inside the 5. With a better line, Michel could regain the form he showed near the goal line during the 2018 playoffs. Maybe the Patriots turn to more Brady sneaks. Red zone inefficiency cost them against the Ravens and nearly cost the Pats against the Bills in Week 4.
The disaster game: Losing 16-10 to the Panthers in Week 4
Problem: The offense struggles when defenses get pressure and take away big plays.
The idea of anybody stopping Deshaun Watson seems quaint and naive given his past month, but the Panthers unquestionably shut down the Watson juggernaut in September. Ron Rivera’s defense held Watson to a line of 21-of-33 passing for 160 yards and no touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins caught just five passes for 41 yards, with the star wideout also throwing an interception on an ill-advised trick play.
There’s no way to totally stop Watson. The best thing teams can realistically do, as Rivera & Co. seemed to think, is try to take away his big plays and force him to slowly march down the field. Watson didn’t complete a single pass for more than 14 yards in the Panthers game. While he completed nearly 64% of his passes, he averaged less than 5 yards per throw.
This isn’t a new thing for the Panthers, who are great at keeping teams from creating big plays. On deep passes — throws traveling 16 or more yards in the air — the Panthers rank second in passer rating allowed (42.0) and third in QBR allowed (47.2) this season. Only the Patriots are better in both categories.
Rivera also was able to rely on rotating through a deep defensive line to keep fresh pass-rushers on the field against an exhausting quarterback in Watson. The Panthers sacked Watson six times, including at least three I would characterize as coverage sacks. It was a roughly similar formula to what the Jaguars did in Week 2 with their own deep line, when they limited Watson to nothing longer than 31 yards, sacked him four times on 33 dropbacks and nearly won the game with a late touchdown, only to fail on the 2-point try and lose 13-12.
The Jaguars just applied that same formula in London during Houston’s last game, and it kept things close deep into the second half. The Texans were narrowly ahead at 12-3 before Carlos Hyde broke a 48-yard run, and after going down 19-3 with 30 seconds left to go in the third quarter, Gardner Minshew and the Jacksonville offense melted down. The Jags were happy to let the Texans run the ball, but Watson didn’t complete a single pass for more than 21 yards.
Some teams capable of limiting big plays remain on the Texans’ schedule. The Patriots have the league’s best deep-ball defense by a significant margin. The Broncos have allowed just 18 such completions this season. The Titans (10th in passer rating allowed on deep throws) have been up for the challenge on deep passes, but the Buccaneers (30th) certainly have not. Watson faces Tampa in the traditional fantasy football championship week of Week 16 if you’re looking for a reason to try to trade for the MVP candidate now.
The disaster game: Losing 40-25 to the Browns in Week 4
Problem: Teams can exploit this run defense.
For a team that has to practice against Lamar Jackson and the league’s most devastating rushing attack during the week, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Ravens struggle when other teams run the ball. Baltimore ranked 24th in rush defense DVOA heading into Sunday’s blowout victory over the Bengals, and while the result wasn’t in doubt for most of the game, the Bengals did run the ball 40 times for 157 yards and 11 first downs.
Against the Browns in late September, though, Baltimore’s difficulties against the run actually mattered. Nick Chubb and Dontrell Hilliard combined to carry the ball 26 times for 192 yards and four touchdowns, including an 88-yard highlight-reel score from Chubb in the second half when the Ravens overpursued on a pitch. The long run matters, but it’s not the only time the Ravens have struggled; they rank 24th in first-down rate against the run throughout the season.
Baltimore’s best run-defense performance of the season might also be an aberration. In Week 2, it held Kyler Murray and the Arizona rushing attack to just 20 rushing yards in a 23-17 victory, but that was really before the Cardinals got their rushing offense going. Murray and the Cards rank third in rush offense DVOA, and most of their success has come in recent weeks; they would have more success against the Ravens with a second try.
One isn’t coming for several years given the vagaries of the NFL schedule, but I want to see how the Ravens do when faced with an impressive rushing attack. We’ll get a variety of different looks against them in weeks to come, including the hyper volume of the 49ers, a rematch against the Browns, and a taste of Jackson’s own medicine when the Ravens face the Bills and Josh Allen, Jackson’s draft classmate from the opening round in 2018.
The disaster game: Losing 26-9 to the Falcons on Sunday
Problem 1: The Saints struggled with … the Falcons’ pass rush?
I can’t believe what I saw. Even the Falcons themselves seemed surprised. A pass rush that has been downright appalling all season and had gone five games without a sack nearly matched its season-long total against one of the league’s most slippery quarterbacks. After racking up seven sacks across their first eight games, the Falcons’ defense working under new coordinator Jeff Ulbrich sacked Drew Brees six times during Sunday’s upset victory.
It’s scary to say, but there really wasn’t much in the way of fluky pressure on those six sacks. One was a coverage sack off a three-man rush on third-and-long. Fullback Zach Line wasn’t able to come up with a blitz pickup against linebacker De’Vondre Campbell on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, leading the Saints to instead kick a field goal from the 11-yard line in a place where they probably would have simply gone for it if Brees had thrown an incomplete pass on third down.
Grady Jarrett, one of the few Falcons defenders who could watch his tape this season without needing to draft an apology letter, was arguably the best player on the field. The defensive tackle finished the day with 2.5 sacks and five knockdowns of Brees. He mostly picked on backup left guard Will Clapp, who came in for an injured Andrus Peat and played just over 71% of the Saints’ offensive snaps. Jarrett threatened Brees on his own and took away places for Brees to step up in the pocket as others created pressure, too.
The presence of Clapp on the field is in itself interesting. The Saints have been healthy up front in 2019, with four of their five offensive linemen playing at least 98% of the offensive snaps. Peat, who missed half of the Week 2 game against the Rams, was the only lineman who hadn’t been on the field for virtually every single play before Sunday. He left with an arm injury and did not return. Star left tackle Terron Armstead played through an illness but didn’t look like his usual self. The stability on the offensive line has obviously been a cornerstone for this offense as players such as Brees and Alvin Kamara have gone down with injuries.
Every quarterback plays worse under pressure, and as good as he has been, Brees is no exception. Going through history, though, it’s hard to find any split where he has been worse than 2019. In what is admittedly a small sample, a pressured Brees is 10-of-22 passing for 71 yards with an interception and seven sacks. Brees’ passer rating is 34.5 when pressured, while his Total QBR is just 0.8, which is microscopic and 40th among passers with 50 attempts or more. His QBR when pressured in 2019 is just between that of Ben Roethlisberger and Luke Falk.
While the Saints are obviously ecstatic to get him back, QBR hasn’t been especially impressed with the future Hall of Famer this season. Brees’ raw numbers look like typical Brees — a 74.3% completion percentage, 7.9 yards per attempt — but he has thrown three interceptions in four starts, has played a remarkably easy slate of opposing defenses and has a pick and two sacks across 22 plays in the red zone, where his QBR is just 2.4.
Brees’ overall mark is at 46.2, which ranks 28th in the league. I don’t think he’s really the league’s 28th-best quarterback, and I wouldn’t dream to suggest that the Saints should think about putting Teddy Bridgewater in, but it’s worth monitoring how Brees plays to see whether he can hit the lofty heights of 2018. After facing the Cardinals (28th in pass defense DVOA) and Falcons (30th), Brees gets the Buccaneers (26th) this upcoming week. A performance like the 373-yard, three-touchdown day Brees racked up against the Cardinals would seem to be in order against the dismal Tampa secondary.
The schedule does get tougher afterward. Brees still has a home-and-home against the Panthers and their third-ranked pass defense. In between, he gets the league-leading 49ers pass defense and the 11th-ranked Colts, as well as a rematch against the suddenly spry Falcons. I’m inclined to chalk up Sunday to a weird game with poorly timed big plays for the Falcons and some mental mistakes from the Saints. If Peat misses time and Brees continues to struggle under pressure, though, the Saints could be a less imposing matchup in the playoffs than they were a year ago.
Problem 2: Injuries.
After they went 5-0 without Brees, you would forgive the Saints for feeling just a little bit untouchable when it came to being affected by injuries. They have great coaches and one of the deepest rosters in football. Lose Brees? Kamara? Next guy up.
Sunday was a reminder that injuries can still hurt the Saints, even if it’s not an issue with their most famous player. Peat went down with an arm injury, and the Falcons beat up his replacement. Armstead looked less than his usually excellent self after missing practice Friday with an illness, committing two penalties. The Saints’ offensive line should have been a huge mismatch against what has been a wildly disappointing defensive line. Instead, the Falcons won in the trenches.
The most concerning injury, though, is the thigh of star corner Marshon Lattimore. The 23-year-old left the game in the second quarter and did not return, leaving the Saints with Eli Apple, P.J. Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson as their primary cornerbacks. Patrick Robinson is likely close to returning from his hamstring injury, but there’s nobody on the team who can do what Lattimore does. With the Saints still heavy favorites to make the postseason — the ESPN Football Power Index pegs them with a 93.8% chance of making the playoffs after the Atlanta loss — the Saints need to make sure Lattimore is fully healed before returning him to the lineup. The former first-round pick is simply too valuable to the Saints’ chances of winning once Sean Payton & Co. actually get to January.