September 12, 1999

SAINTS SACK PANTHERS 19-10: SEASON STARTS WITH WIN AND GOOD OMEN, RICKY QUESTIONABLE

The Saints scored the NFL's first touchdown this season on the opening kickoff. But the Saints kicked off.

When Carolina Michael Bates (#24) fielded the ball, he was hit by Fred Weary who forced loose the ball, and Tyronne Drakeford picked it up and returned it 20 yards for the season's first touchdown.


Said Michael Bates, "It looked like [Weary] got his head in there pretty good, but no excuse. I should hold onto the ball. It's my fault. Now teams are going to come after me and try to go for the ball. They'll think I'm a fumbler."

On the last play of the first quarter Ricky Williams limped off the field after twisting anew his left ankle.
Had he broken that injuring tackle, he would have had 6 points.

Mike Ditka: "Ricky has a sprained ankle. It is not the same sprain he had the last time. He will probably be listed as questionable. He wanted to go back in the game. There was no reason to go back in the game."

Such was the story of the Saints vs. Carolina game. Almost, coulda, woulda... shoulda.

Mike Ditka: "We didn't do a great job, believe me. Early in the game, we went into a coma on offense. I think we can be a lot better. I think our line is a lot better. Some people played well, I can't fault everybody. There were breakdowns that shouldn't have happened, because those are breakdowns that we covered that we don't even have happen in practice anymore. So all of a sudden to kind of go brain dead, it's not good to see."

The offenses of both teams were for the most part terrible. The Saints outyardaged the Panthers 255 to 246. Both QB's had lousy days, although Hobert's day was considerably better. Hobert connected again with Keith Poole for a TD bomb, this time a 67-yarder that Poole really danced for. Ricky Williams finished the first quarter with 10 carries for 40 yards, impressive numbers especially for running with a sprained ankle. But another individual spain lower down in the ankle would take Ricky off the field but only to the sidelines. He was in the locker room taking x-rays (that showed no bone damage) for about 15 minutes; but, remained the rest of the game on the sidelines in full dressed with a taped ankle, begging coaches consistently to play. Had the game called for a critical drive, he probably would have gone in.

Backup runningbacks Lamar Smith and Troy Davis took up in Ricky's place adequately. Lamar Smith had 66 yards on 13 carries including a 24 yard run. Davis had 18 yards on 9 carries. FB Aaron Craver had 16 yards on 5 carries, and 23 yards on 4 catches. He proved ineffectual for the most part against a Carolina defense that became fairly solid against the run.

BJ Hobert played the entire game, (yay!), and led the offense in a virtually mistake-free game. Although Hobert didn't look exceptionally in form, and the offense had long periods of nonproduction.
"He was rusty. That's evident." said Ditka, who has started the same quarterback on opening day for the past two years.

P Tommy Barnhardt punted 10 times and Carolina punted 8 times in a game where both offenses were dominated by inconsistent defenses. 5 different Saints sacked Steve Buerlein 9 times and BJ Hobert was sacked (only) 4 times. Hobert passed for 132 yards and a touchdown, and Buerlein passed for 207 yards, a touchdown to former Saints TE Wesley Walls and an interception that LB Keith Mitchell grabbed and returned 18 yards.

The absence of injured TE Cameron Cleeland was well noted. His backup Scott Slutzker played the entire game in his place. Slutzker dropped a notably well-thrown pass on a 2nd down and 10 late in the first half.
Mike Ditka:

"Well, it's unfortunate that Scott dropped the ball. If Cam comes back, it will certainly help us. He's played very well for us last year. He's a good football player, but I expected Scott to perform a little better in catching the ball area. He blocked pretty well for the game. He did some pretty good things, but he can't drop the ball like that. That's a perfectly designed play. People say, they're not innovative. That was a pretty innovative play that we ran there, a pretty good play. It worked perfectly, and actually it worked again later when we had to get rid of the ball real quick, when we hit Aaron Craver for the first down when he stretched, but it's just unfortunate. Those plays, you like them to work when you design them that way. When there's one guy wide open that drops it, it's never good, but he didn't want to drop it. He took his eyes off the ball. You could see what happened."

Some surpises occured. The first and foremost being the touchdown after only 12 seconds of play Drakeford scored. Another was K Doug Brien's field goals from 21 and 46 yards out... and then his missed PAT attempt wide left that left the game at a strange 19-10 score. This in addition to his missed FG in preseason, and his unusually shallow kickoffs is convincingly telltale of a kicking slump. Perhaps the only excuse that can be offered is his new ballholder Tommy Barnhardt.

Overall a morally boosting season opener for the Saints, for several reasons. First of all, Hobert played the entire game, without any turnovers. No interceptions, no lost fumbles. It's been a while since we've had a game like that. Secondly, when Ricky Williams DID play, he looked good. Very good. Especially with a sprained ankle. Just imagine what this guy would be doing to tacklers if he was 100% now. Numerous times the Saint's only draft pick ran right over defensive backs. Third, when Ricky did go out, he came back on at his own request. Instead of icing and taping the ankle, early in the third quarter Ricky had the medical team wrap up his ankle and strap on his shoe again. Mike Ditka refused to let him go in though the victory was far from sure.

Said Williams: "It felt pretty good. It wasn't that painful, but it got fallen on again and the trainers thought it best to keep me out because we're on grass the next two games and it would give my ankle more of a chance to heal. I was trying to beg him (Dean Kleinschmidt) to go back in, but at that point, the game hadn't been decided yet, then we went up by nine and then we took control of the game, so I didn't feel as much of a need to go back into the game."

Fourth, the defensive secondary looked very good. As far as pass defenses, Ashley Ambrose especially was very good. Most of the Panther pass yards came off of run yards after the catch. Alex Molden did not play.
And lastly, the special teams covered the numerous punts well, oftentimes preventing any returns whatsoever.
A good start. Next week will be a difficult game against the 49ers in San Fransisco. But considering their 41-3 slaughter at Jacksonville today, perhaps the game will present more of a contest than it usually is.

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