SAINTS 20, BROWNS 18

Saints vs Browns: Observations from Jermaine Every

Michael Thomas had another big game. Michael C. Hebert, team website

Another week, another wild and crazy Saints game. This time they were able to pull off a win and avoid going 0-2 for the first time since the 2013 season. Winning at home 21-18 over the hapless Cleveland Browns should feel like a loss, especially since they needed help from the opposing team’s kicker to do so. More on that later. Let’s take a look at some observations from the game:

The Good

- Alvin Kamara is the weapon Sean Payton has been looking for since Darren Sproles left town. He’s the type of running back that makes Payton’s offense tick. Kamara is not only catches the ball and runs routes like a wide receiver, but he breaks tackles as if he’s much larger than his 215-pound frame. Quarterbacks are always labeled as dual-threat. It’s time running backs use the label. He had a total of 99 yards on 19 touches today.

-Michael Thomas now has 28 catches on the season after totaling 12 today. “On Pace Guy” would say he’s on pace for 224 catches for 2,152 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that teams know Drew Brees is looking for him. He and Kamara will make regular appearances in this section for years to come.

- Brees is slowly closing in on several all-time passing records. He’s now 814 yards away from the career passing yards mark, and 47 touchdowns away from that career mark. He’ll most likely reach the yardage mark within the next few weeks and the touchdown mark possibly next season. Oh…and his completion percentage this year sits at a whopping 81.25% after going 28 for 35 today.

The Bad

-Fumbling is an issue. Thomas fumbled for ther second game in a row while the team was mounting a drive. Tedd Ginn Jr also fumbled. His came on a third down catch that was five yards short of the first down marker.

- Manti Te’o is a solid tackler and appears to have a good grasp on the defensive calls. However, he is painfully slow. He read and reacted to Carlos Hyde’s touchdown run properly, but was too slow getting there. Athletic playmaking linebackers are something this defense needs. Hopefully Alex Anzalone and Demario Davis can fill that need.

- Ken Crawley got burned for a 47-yard touchdown on fourth and five. The Saints were up 18-12 after gaining control following a Marcus Williams interception and another Thomas touchdown catch. He was too busy looking into the backfield and Antonio Callaway ran right by him. The fact that there was no safety help over the top doesn’t matter. This has been two games in a row he’s been burned deep.

The Ugly

-Three times Brees was sacked from Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi (although one was wiped out because of illegal contact). Pressure up the middle is a quarterback’s worst nightmare. With Brees, it’s even more critical because of his height. This offensive line had its hands full and will continue to do so if this continues.

-Tyler Lutz missed a 44-yard field goal when the game was tied at three. This came on the heels of stopping the Browns on a fourth down conversion. The Saints continue to compound their issues by not capitalizing on advantageous plays and situations. This was something they did last year when they went on a run to make playoffs.

-Browns kicker Zaine Gonzalez missed two extra points and two field goals, including the potential game-tying 52-yarder. With all of that going on, the Saints still only won by a measly three points when they entered the game as 10-point favorites.  

This victory was ugly. A win is a win in the NFL. This isn’t like that weird hockey stat that counts overtime/shootout losses. However, the Saints avoided going 0-2 which bodes well for their playoff hopes. There are several things they need to fix. The defense looked marginally better, but still has issues. There is talent on that side of the ball and Dennis Allen will get it figured out. The offense looked discombobulated. Payton will have to go back to the drawing board, but he has to figure out how to protect Brees better than they did today. Ugly wins should be a tiebreaker stat when determining playoff teams and seeding. Embrace the weird stats.

 

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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