“We really talked before the game about finishing.” Jimmy GRAHAM, Saints tight end
As a long-time college and NFL assistant coach whose background is on the offensive side of the ball, Bruce Arians knew the chances of the New Orleans Saints continuing to struggle in the red zone were slim.
Arians was just hoping the Saints wouldn’t get well against his Arizona Cardinals during Sunday’s game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Arians knew what the Saints were capable of despite scoring just one touchdown in seven red-zone opportunities in their first two games to rank at the bottom of the NFL stats at a mere 14.3 percent.
He knew that had to go up sometime and his worst fears were realized when the Saints scored three times in their first four trips inside the Cardinals’ 20-yard line in a 31-7 victory.
“You’re always afraid of that,” Arians said of having the Saints break out at the wrong time.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, the Saints’ final chance in the red zone resulted in a couple of merciful clock-killing plays at the end of the game.
But it came much too late after Drew Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham for touchdowns of 16 and 7 yards and added a 7-yard TD run in curing, for the time being anyway, their early-season red-zone blues.
After emphasizing improved red-zone play during the week, the Saints found a way to beat it when Brees threw a 27-yard touchdown to wide receiver Robert Meachem on their first possession.
Later, Brees made the Cardinals pay when he lofted a pass to the 6-foot-7, 263-pound Graham, who easily out-leaped safety Yeremiah Bell for the 16-yard TD late in the second quarter and then strolled into the end zone with 14:42 remaining in the game.
Brees’ rare scoring dash helped the Saints turn a 17-7 lead into a more comfortable 17-point cushion, putting even more pressure on the Cardinals’ sputtering offense.
“It’s funny because that play happened exactly like that in practice this week,” Brees said. “It was a critical point in the game because it gave us a three-touchdown distance from our opponent. It was a big momentum shift to get that one in the red zone to start the fourth quarter.”
Brees then iced the game with his second touchdown shot to Graham with 5:25 to play as he caught the ball on a little slant pattern and fell into the end zone for the score.
“He knows how to maneuver his body well,” said Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former LSU star. “He did a good job of boxing us out and going up and getting the ball. All Drew has to do is pretty much throw it in his vicinity, and he’s pretty much going to come down with it.”
“We really talked before the game about finishing,” said Graham, who caught nine passes for 134 yards. “We haven’t been finishing games in the fourth quarter, offensively. Today, in the fourth quarter, we were able to finish.”
That was mainly because of the improved red-zone efficiency. Besides the kneel-down at the end of the game, their only other opportunity resulted in a 31-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.
Their 3 for 5 performance, which was close to their percentage of 64.8 percent last season which ranked second in the league, came after they were 0 for 4 in last week’s 16-14 win against Tampa Bay.
“We said it during the week: we will never be OK with an 0 for 4 red-zone performance,” said right tackle Zach Strief. “You put a little extra time into it and you focus on it.
“We talked about it during the week. There’s always a sense of urgency when you get down there and sometimes you need a wake-up and say, ‘Hey, everything down here is closer and things happen faster.’”
Like Arians, Saints center Brian de la Puente said their red-zone woes would eventually be fixed.
“When you all these weapons and a great coaching staff, it’s just a matter of time,” he said. “We knew it … we knew we missed a lot of opportunities in the first two games and left a lot of meat on the bone. When you get down there, you have to score points.”
And as Arians feared, they did Sunday.