Saints opener was a success even before the miraculous end
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints preseason opener began with a lot of good stuff.
It ended with some crazy but good stuff.
And in between was a lot of not-so-good stuff.
The final score showed the Saints defeating the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs 26-24 on Sunday afternoon in the Caesars Superdome.
But what’s unique to the preseason is that the final score is not the bottom line.
The final point totals – as well as the final statistics – are a reflection of 60 minutes of action, much of which is controlled by players who won’t be on either team when games that count are played.
Essentially half of the players who participated in Sunday’s game won’t make the regular season roster of the Saints or the Chiefs, and many of those who will make a roster were playing alongside players they won’t be playing alongside in the fall.
So evaluating the three-hour evaluation exercise had less to do with who was on the field when the Chiefs scored 24 points in a row to take a seven-point lead or who was on the field when the Saints scored nine points in the final 80 seconds than it does with who was on the field when the Saints raced to a 17-0 lead.
That made the game a success for New Orleans before halftime arrived.
The game marked the eagerly awaited debut of Derek Carr as the Saints’ new starting quarterback. One series and 12 plays don’t provide a huge sample size, but nothing that happened while the former Raider was in the game was inconsistent with the optimistic projections for Carr this season.
He was in command of his new offense from the start. He was decisive, accurate and efficient.
“Exactly what you hoped to see,” head coach Dennis Allen said.
Carr’s first throw was a bit off the mark and Chris Olave was unable to make a one-handed catch. The quarterback also missed on a pass from the Kansas City four-yard line into the end zone that was doomed from the start because Michael Thomas was covered perfectly.
But Carr hit on his other six throws, which produced 70 yards and a four-yard touchdown to Keith Kirkwood.
Along the way the offense displayed a few elements that will be essential to it improving from its middle-of-the-pack performance during a 7-10 season in 2022.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has said it’s important to get running back Alvin Kamara more involved as a pass catcher. In his first four seasons Kamara caught 81, 81, 81 and 84 passes. He caught 47 two years ago and 57 last year.
On the opening drive Carr found Kamara, who rushed three times for 14 yards on the drive, for completions of four and 17 yards. The numbers don’t mean as much as the demonstration of an enhanced commitment to taking advantage of Kamara’s ability as a receiver.
And speaking of turning back the clock, another key factor in the team’s success will be whether Thomas can overcome three seasons of very limited activity due to injury and regain the form that made him the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2019.
A continuation of bad luck with injuries could emerge at any time, but Thomas’ 16-yard reception to the Kansas City 22 reinforced a training-camp demonstration that a healthy Thomas can again be one of the better wide receivers in the NFL.
The Saints rewarded tight end Juwan Johnson with a new contract during the offseason after his receptions jumped from 13 in 2021 to 42 last season in his second season as a converted wide receiver.
The expectation is that Johnson, who led the team with seven touchdown catches last season, is on the fast track to becoming one of the better tight ends in the league, especially as a red-zone receiver.
He caught passes of 18 and 11 yards during the Carr drive.
The Saints defense also started extremely well, though reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes played just one series. Still New Orleans forced Kansas City into a turnover on downs after six plays on the Mahomes possession and into three-and-outs on their next two possessions.
The primary defenders’ pursuit to the ball against the run and the coverage against the pass were exceptional.
Meanwhile Jameis Winston took over for Carr and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to rookie A.T. Perry and guided a drive to Wil Lutz’s 36-yard field goal that produced a 17-0 lead just 75 seconds into the second quarter.
“I thought our first units, both offense and defense, came out strong and played really well,” Allen said.
But, he added, “I think it went downhill from there.”
Kansas City scored a second-quarter touchdown to get within 17-7 at halftime, scored 14 points in the third quarter and added a field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
By that time the game had long been placed in the hands of many of those aforementioned seasonal employees.
A 2-yard touchdown pass from rookie Jake Haener to undrafted rookie Ellis Merriweather (which was followed by a botched two-point conversion), an improbable interception by defensive end Kyle Phillips at the Kansas City 22 with barely a minute left and undrafted rookie Blake Grupe’s subsequent 31-yard field goal as time expired sent the Saints home as miraculous winners.
But the final score was merely lagniappe.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…