In the opening preseason game, there are three distinctly different phases to the game. One is where the first groups are competing against each other. This gives you an indication of the relative strengths of the two groups as there is little scheming involved. After the first groups exit, an evaluation segment begins where competition for individual positions is highlighted. When the third units are on the field, you are looking for individual players to stand out.
It is especially true in the preseason that how you play the game is more important than the final result. That is much different than the regular season where the only important thing is the W or L. In golf we say, "It is not how, but how many." In preseason the "how" is the main thing.
Post-game, the two head coaches had very different reactions. The Saints were disappointed, evidenced by Sean Payton's press conference immediately after the game. On the other hand, the headline for the Chiefs was "Andy Reid Era Begins Strong Despite Loss."
It is all in your perspective. Payton is concerned because his team played sloppily, while Reid felt that Friday's loss was "something to build on."
Coaching points from the game:
The Chiefs may have hit on the ideal quarterback for implementing their system in Alex Smith. Head Coach Andy Reid is known for his work with QBs in his version of the West Coast Offense. Smith has thrived with the excellent coaching of Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner and later Head Coach Jim Harbaugh while in San Francisco. The relationship of Reid and Smith may provide a similar environment.
Smith's management of the opening drive, his only drive of the game, was outstanding in leading the Chiefs on a 14-play touchdown drive.
On that same possession, the New Orleans defense provided an eerily similar performance to last season's struggles. They were often a step slow and could not get off the field on third down. Roman Harper still has trouble covering in space, and we know Will Smith is ill-equipped as an outside linebacker dropping into pass coverage.
The initial drive was a vivid illustration of a lack of opponent specific game planning for an exhibition game. Several times during that drive the Saints were in position groups ill equipped to handle the Chiefs' offense. During the regular season, we will seldom see base personnel (three linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs) against 11 personnel – one back, one tight end and three receivers. That offensive grouping calls for at least five defensive backs to matchup.
That matchup created the situation where Will Smith was chasing a back in the flat. I honestly believe that that confrontation will not occur in the regular season where Smith will be used as a rush defender.
What was disconcerting to me was that in two third down situations, the Saints could not stop KC even in Dime (6 DB) defenses. Also, expect other teams to attack the flat areas throughout the season. Every defense has a weakness, and traditionally that is an area of concern for Rob Ryan defenses.
New Orleans Head Coach Sean Payton did something unusual with the opening coin toss. He deferred the option until the second half giving Kansas City the ball to open the game. Payton either wanted to see his defense first to judge their progress or he learned something strategically during his year "sabbatical." While there is some statistical evidence that it is better to kick than to receive, for an offensive minded coach, I found the decision interesting.
Luke McCown has now moved ahead of Senaca Wallace for the backup position to Drew Brees. It is true that the first ability of any player is availability, and Wallace has not been available with a groin pull. McCown's performance against the Chiefs demonstrated that he can get the team in and out of the huddle and off the ball. He showed surprising accuracy while on the move, better than he has shown in camp from the pocket. While he may have won the job anyway, Wallace's absence may have made the position decision academic.
One other point: McCown is the holder for Garrett Hartley's place kicks.
In the opening offensive series, Drew Brees showed some arm strength in getting the ball over the top to Kenny Stills 44 yards downfield from the left hash marker to three yards from the sideline. The throw actually covered 51 yards (remember a2+b2=c2?). Though the pass was dropped, the play demonstrated that Stills has enough speed to get open deep in sync with Brees, and that Drew still has the ability to get the ball beyond the coverage if he can release it on time.
The special teams fell well short in their ability to cover kicks. This is hugely disappointing since the Saints spend a lot of time in practice on all phases of the kicking game. Three periods per day are spent on the installation, techniques and teamwork involved in special teams' play. Some players may have played themselves down the roster due to poor coverage execution.
Payton was also introspective in his criticism. "As I came in off the field... first impression, and that's frustration, it just shows there is a lot of work to do. There are a lot of new faces and certainly as a play caller and getting the call in on offense I wasn't very good. It was slow and I've got to improve in that area."
We have to remember that it has been almost 19 months since Payton has been on an NFL sideline. Just like everyone, it is also preseason for him.
It is easy to fall into the trap of getting too concerned with the result of the game. Yes, the Saints won, the first defense had some issues and the specials teams play was poor. But it is just the beginning of preseason and the evaluation and improvement continues.
It will be back to the training camp grind Sunday afternoon.
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