Monday, December 7, 2009

Week 13 Review: The Beltway Miracle

The story: a lackluster Washington Redskins team faces off against a New Orleans Saints squad coming off of a major win against one of the top teams in the league. That same day, the Saints’ primary rival for their division faces off against a team from Pennsylvania. Either a Saints win or a loss by the second ranked team would allow the Black and Gold to clinch their division.

Two years ago I stood inside owner Tom Benson’s suite and watched a flat Saints team bumbled their way to a loss against the Washington yet won their first NFC South title when the Carolina Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers that same afternoon. The Saints’ owner, fuming over his team’s poor performance, was not reveling in the big picture.

It seemed like history was about to repeat itself as the Saints once again struggled against the Redskins. Before the game was over, New Orleans had secured their division when the Atlanta Falcons were defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles in Michael Vick’s return to the Georgia Dome.

And though things looked bleak as Redskins’ quarterback Jason Campbell picked the Saints defense apart while the Saints’ running game was all but contained by one of the league’s worst run defense.

However, the New Orleans Saints showed resilience and an uncharacteristic lucky streak on Sunday on the outskirts of our nation’s capital defeating the Redskins for the first time in the Sean Payton era. Most importantly the win helped expand their lead over the Minnesota Vikings, who lost to the Arizona Cardinals, for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

What I Liked

Payton’s Time Out The Saints’ head coach is not known for having the best luck when it comes to throwing the red flag though he showed excellent judgment in calling a time out for the McAlister fumble recovery to be reviewed, which iced the Redskins’ offense in overtime and put the Saints in great position for Hartley to drive the final nail in the coffin.

Welcome Back Hartley If Saints kicker John Carney’s kicking problems had an upside, it resulted in Payton benching the veteran and starting Garrett Hartley for the first time in regular season play. Hartley ended up sitting out longer than his league punishment provided for violating drug policy when Payton chose to stick with Carney, who had been signed as a temporary replacement for the suspended Hartley. Whether Carney’s recent misses or simply the fact that the Saints were playing in an outdoor stadium late in the season motivated Payton to make the switch but it paid dividends: Hartley was 4 for 5 in field goal attempts, his only miss being a 58-yard attempt at the end of regulation. Hartley more than made up for unsuccessful attempt booting in the game winner in overtime.

The Meachem Haters Have Left the Dome The sports blogs were thick with mocking and insults for the Saints’ 2007 first round draft pick. The wide receiver sat out his first season with an injury and didn’t establish himself in 2008. In 2009, Meachem has silenced his wisecracking critics with his play throughout this season. The Tennessee product put the exclamation point on his value to the team against the Redskins, catching 8 passes for 142 yards and an offensive touchdown. Meachem’s most remarkable play was on “sudden defense” when he stripped the ball that Redskins safety Kareem Moore had intercepted and ran it back for a touchdown. Meachem single-handedly pulled off the best Saints’ play since the River City Relay.

Brees Shows Why He’s THE Best The Redskins had a top rated pass defense going into the game; after Brees was done, Washington had the 4th best pass defense. Not getting anything done on the ground, Brees unleashed the air circus connecting on 35 of his 49 pass attempts for 419 yards, two touchdowns and what is perhaps the best interception the Saints’ franchise player has ever thrown.

The Big Play Defense Shows Up In addition to Meachem’s act of grand larceny, linebacker Jonathan Vilma had a key interception when the Redskins were driving to field goal range. Late free agent addition Chris McAlister, signed to supplement the team’s three injured starting cornerbacks, forced and recovered a fumble on a Jason Campbell pass to fullback Mike Sellers to put the Black and Gold in good position to win in overtime.

What I Didn’t Like

Didn’t Like But Did Respect The Redskins should get credit for playing better than their record would indicate they were. While the Skins are out of the playoffs and will finish the season with a losing record, that the team kept many of their losses close at a time when many of their key offensive and defensive players are on the shelf should say something. That embattled coach Jim Zorn’s team gave the undefeated Saints their closest brush with mortality this season says far more.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder would be foolish to sack a coach who has produced one of the top defenses in the league. Bear in mind that the Saints organization offered Sean Payton a contract extension after the Saints posted a losing record in 2007.

Also quarterback Jason Campbell, far from being a pro-bowler, played the Saints’ defense better than Super Bowl veteran Tom Brady did the week before. With some better luck with injuries next year and some added firepower on the offensive side of the ball, the Redskins should be able to compete next season, though this task will be easier said than done with new leadership when the right team leadership is already present.

Snyder was guilty of bad judgment for not picking Gregg Williams as his head coach and then firing him. Firing the man he chose over Williams won’t make matters any better. Fortunately for Washington’s NFC East rivals, Snyder is not known for being a patient man.

What Running Game? The Saints had one of the best running games in the league but you wouldn’t have known it on Sunday. The Saints had 55 yards on the ground, the equivalent of a single Steven Jackson run.

What Me Worry? Pass Rush The Saints defense did not sack Redskins quarterback once despite their offensive line having given up 32 sacks this season. The lack of pressure against opposing quarterbacks further tests the abilities of our substitute cornerbacks and our 1st round draft pick, ability to stop the pass.

Game Ball: Missing
I would have presented the game ball to Robert Meachem, but he stole it and took it back to the house. Though I have been beating the drum for Meachem since the Saints picked him in 2007, there is no question that this was wide-out’s best game of his young career. Not bad for a player who was considered the 4th best receiver on the roster at the start of the season.

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