It’s preseason, and there’s work to be done.
You don’t need much more of an introduction than that, so let’s get on to some of the meat of the New Orleans Saints’ preseason opener Friday night, a 34-25 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
OFFENSE: There were areas that really were likable, starting with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the work he did with the No. 1 offense. He looked composed, confident and made wise decisions while completing 14 of 19 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, without an interception. Bridgewater looks capable of running the Saints’ offense if he’s called upon to do so. Of course, we don’t want to make too much of his preseason debut with the Saints (he didn’t play in the preseason with the team last year), but we also don’t want to downplay that he was a two-year starter before a knee injury interrupted his career, and he showed the arm strength and precision that teammates said he has. And we saw improvement from quarterback Taysom Hill (8 of 14 for 80 yards and a touchdown passing, with an unfortunate interception, and six carries for a team-leading 45 yards, mostly off scrambles rather than designed runs). The Saints have a deep quarterback room. Twenty-nine carries for 141 rushing yards also was impressive; even if Hill’s production is subtracted, the per-carry average (4.2) was passable considering the offensive line rotation. Running back Latavious Murray looks capable of helping in the passing game.
DEFENSE: You can’t allow 213 rushing yards, on 7.9 yards per carry, and 460 total yards and be all that pleased. The Saints appeared to over-pursue on more than a few occasions, and missed tackles were an issue. Coach Sean Payton said he wasn’t particularly happy with pad level, and you figure that’s a mental error that can be corrected. New Orleans didn’t generate a ton of pressure, either; defensive end Trey Hendrickson produced the lone quarterback hit. The absence of All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan (he didn’t play) probably contributed to that lack of pressure, but second-year end Marcus Davenport and the rest of the line likely will find lots to tweak after the film review. If there isn’t much pressure, then the coverage in the secondary likely is going to suffer, too, and the coverage wasn’t noticeably special. Again, it’s correctable that cornerback Eli Apple didn’t track the ball on a 34-yard completion to Adam Thielen; he was in position, just didn’t locate quickly enough. And Kayvon Webster’s defensive pass interference penalty – a 21-yarder in the third quarter – looked a lot like good coverage. Those instances can be coached and fixed. But vanilla defense or not, the Saints allowed a 64-yard touchdown run, a 42-yard run, two 34-yard completions and two 20-yard completions, which helped the Vikings average 8.5 yards per play. Whether starters or subs, the explosive plays have to be shaved down.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Most of this, we knew what to expect coming in and we got exactly what was expected. The Saints cover well (25.8-yard average on five kickoff returns). Punter Thomas Morstead is as good as they come (a 45.5-yard average on two punts, and neither was returnable). Kicker Wil Lutz continues to impress (he made four field goals, including a 52-yarder that had plenty more on it). The potential eye-opener was the kickoff return game, where undrafted rookie Deonte Harris returned three for 90 yards and obviously has some pop. He hasn’t been healthy for most of training camp, but he’s the all-time leading return man in college football, and he appears to be healthy now. Cyril Grayson returned a couple of kickoffs for 61 yards, including a 40-yarder. Harris and Grayson are speedsters and if they get in a seam, it’ll be fun to watch. This could be a spirited competition, including Marcus Sherels, who didn’t play Friday night.