In their 28-20 win against the Oakland Raiders on Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints’ special teams improved when it came to covering kickoff returns.
The Raiders didn’t make it past their 20 on five returns all night.
But the Saints couldn’t get too excited about that improvement because they committed five penalties on special teams for a loss of 55 yards, most of them in a second half in which the Saints jeopardized a 16-point lead.
“There’s this hidden yardage that equates to points,” coach Sean Payton said. “In the hidden yardage in the second half, we didn’t do too well.”
The Saints’ special teams were deplorable against the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 9, surrendering 136 yards on three kickoffs, 79 yards of which came on a single return.
They also gave up 106 yards on six punts, 55 of them coming on one play.
After emphasizing special teams coverage in the days leading up to the Oakland game, things seemed much more promising Friday.
In the first half, there was no punt return coverage to speak of — the Saints blasted their way to a 23-7 lead on five scoring drives capped by touchdowns from wide receiver Kenny Stills and running back Mark Ingram as well as three field goals from kicker Garrett Hartley.
Raiders kickoff return specialist Josh Cribbs brought back the kicks following four of those drives. But he couldn’t get past Oakland’s 16 and 20 on two occasions and failed to get beyond the 18 on the other pair.
Safety Rafael Bush, tight end Josh Hill, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus and linebacker Kevin Reddick split the coverage tackles on Cribbs in the first half. Punter Thomas Morstead and Hartley had touchbacks on the other two first-half kickoffs.
Faced with long fields the entire first half, the Raiders turned the ball over on downs on one drive and were forced to punt on the four others. Oakland’s only score of the half came with 37 seconds left in the second quarter, when Matt Flynn hit wideout Denarius Moore for an 18-yard TD.
The only special teams miscue in the first two quarters was an illegal block by A.J. Davis on a Saints punt return, a 10-yard penalty that left the ball at New Orleans’ 22.
“I think we progressed a lot this week,” Abdul-Quddus said. “We went back to the basics at practice to get fundamentally sound. Everybody played hard, but I think a lot of (last week’s special teams issues) was first-game jitters.”
But in the second half, much like its second-team offense, the Saints’ special teams faltered. Linebacker Rufus Johnson and defensive end Glenn Foster were flagged on kickoff returns for holding, 10-yard penalties that set up New Orleans at its 10- and 12-yard lines.
Those drives ended in an interception from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace and a Morstead punt.
Wide receiver Jarred Fayson drew a 10-yard holding flag on a free kick to the Saints following a Raiders safety with 8:02 left in the fourth quarter, and wide receiver Saalim Hakim was called for a 15-yard face mask on a Morstead punt.
Five plays after Hakim’s penalty, Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski hit a field goal to make it 23-20 with 12:29 left in the fourth quarter.
Earlier, the Raiders had scored 13 unanswered points after Moore’s TD, buoyed by Wallace’s interception as well as a fumble from him.
The only highlight on coverage in the second half came when safety Jim Leonhard, who had an interception on defense, stopped the Raiders’ Greg Jenkins at Oakland’s 19 on the kickoff following a field goal from Hartley to make it 28-20 with 2:57 left in the game.
Whether some players land on or fall short of the Saints’ 53-man roster often depends on their special teams performances in the preseason. Bush, Abdul-Quddus, Hill, Reddick and Leonhard likely helped themselves with their stops as they compete for spots in crowded position groups.
Those who committed penalties did the opposite.
“There will be a lot of things we can correct off this tape,” Payton said after the game. “And we’ll do that.”