December 11, 2011

Escape from Nashville: Saints Win 22-17, Overcome Locker's Heroics

The Saints survived a scare from impressive rookie QB Jake Locker as both teams exploded in the second half.  Drew Brees and the offense blew three straight red zone possessions and led only 9-3 midway through the third quarter before he connected with Marques Colston on back-to-back drives to help overcome Locker's two second half touchdowns.

The Saints defense survived one final drive fueled by Locker's heroics as a poor day for the Saints secondary was won by big plays from the Saints young stars - Malcolm Jenkins, Tracy Porter and Jo-Lonn Dunbar all made big plays to help decide the game in the end.  It ended when a scrambling Locker was sacked by Dunbar near the goal line as time expired.

With rookie Mark Ingram out with a turf toe injury, the Saints showed off their depth at runningback on the first drive.  Starter Pierre Thomas, fourth stringer Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles all had run plays of 10 yards or more, each in their style.  Thomas' slashing, gliding, never-tackled-easy style picked up 10 on the first play of the game.  Ivory ripped off a 25-yarder off left side, untouched into the secondary and then blasting into three tacklers with momentum.  Sproles was harassed in the backfield but sped towards the sideline, cut upfield and fought to stay upright for an impressive 14 yard gain.

The Saints' first drive, powered by the running game, stalled at the red zone.  A quick out to Lance Moore and an underneath route to limping Graham set up third and short, but a screen pass to Sproles was dropped.  Kasay's short field goal made it 3-0.

The Titans split RB Chris Johnson out on their first drive, hitting him once for a pair of broken tackles and a 14-yard gain.  After Will Smith dropped Johnson for a loss, Hasselbeck tried it the quick out again and Malcolm Jenkins dropped Johnson after only a two yard gain.  An encroachment penalty on Cam Jordan made a 3rd and long into 3rd and short, but Hasselbeck's pass over the middle was incomplete.  Jenkins may have gotten away with an early hit before the ball arrived on the play, drawing boos from the crowd.

On the punt, Darren Sproles made the early highlight play, a wicked spinning sideline-racing 80-yard return touchdown.  But a holding penalty on Jo-Lonn Dunbar negated the play.  Problem was, Dunbar's #56 wasn't on the field, leaving the call by the refs a disappointing mystery.  Instead, the Saints were pinned back at their own 9.  The penalty appeared to be committed by rookie LB Martez Wilson.

The Saints dug out of that hole with a 7-yard pass to Colston and a 6-yard strike to Graham, who was playing through painful back spasms.  Another 8-yard strike to Graham set up 3rd and short, and Chris Ivory shot like a cannon out of the backfield for the conversion and a three-yard gain.  The Saints picked up a another third down conversion with a tough, impact-absorbing catch over the middle by Lance Moore for a gain of six on 3rd and 5.

Sproles on a swing pass picked up a great blocks from Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, and turned upfield for a 12 yard gain, but Meachem was flagged for holding on to a spinning receiver.  On 2nd and 15, Brees was nearly picked by Cortland Finnegan on a pass into no man's land.  That set up 3rd and 15, and a dumpoff underneath to Sproles got the Saints a short gain only to midfield.  Morstead punted to end the three-first down drive, but a pair of holding penalties had killed a Saint return touchdown and instead made it Titans ball at their own 10.

The Saints had controlled the ball for 12 minutes, with seven first downs and 127 yards, just in the first quarter, but had only 3 points to show for it.

WR Nate Washington picked up 12 against Jabari Greer to get the Titans out of their deep field position on the first play of the Titan's second drive.  Two plays later Greer submarined Chris Johnson and Vilma hit him high, flipping him near the sideline after only a short gain.  On the next play, Dunbar enveloped Johnson in the open field, only a six yard gain.

That set up 3rd and long, but a personal foul roughing the passer call on Roman Harper was called when Matt Hasselbeck's pass over the middle was incomplete.  It was the same 3rd down play that they tried on the first drive, each falling incomplete with Jenkins defending. But Harper's crown-leading blow to Hasselbeck's facemask gave the Titans a first down at their own 45.  Sean Payton, coaching without crutches, was harshly verbal with the officials.

Much like last week, the Saints' opponent began to hurt themselves with penalties.  The Titans were called for false start, holding and clipping on back to back to back plays, setting up 1st and 35 from their 20.  The Titans actually picked up 25 yards on a screen to Javon Ringer, but the big play was erased by penalty.

DT Shaun Rogers batted Hasselbeck's next play high into the air, but somehow it fell incomplete at the line.  Hasselbeck couldn't get off the field after that play, when he jumped to try and catch the errant deflection he appeared to pull a muscle in his left leg, untouched.  That sent rookie QB Jake Locker into the game.

Locker to Hawkins for 9 set up 3rd and 26.  Surprisingly, Gregg Williams didn't blitz the rookie on 3rd and forever, rushing only four and dropping Ringer for an 11 yard gain up to the Titan 40.  Kern punted, ending a bizarre, back-and-forth drive with a fair catch by Sproles at the 20.  The Saints defense had won that drive and put the rookie quarterback in.

The Saints took over at their own 20 with just under ten minutes left in the half. Brees was flagged for a false start, a really questionable call when Brees emphatically hard-counted the defenders, drawing the nose tackle offsides.  Chris Ivory lost two on a toss wide right, and Brees' pass over the middle was incomplete for Graham, triple covered and broken up.  That set up 3rd and 17 from the Saint 13, and Graham bobbled a pass short left that was nearly intercepted.

Standing on his goal line, Morstead punted driving Marc Mariani to his own 35.  Courtney Roby made the tackle at the Titan 43, and Locker took the field again for the Titans as trainers worked on Hasselbeck's left calf.

Locker's first pass was a deep crossing route, a la Jimmy Graham, beating Will Herring to hit 270-pound tight end Craig Stevens for a 31-yard gain.  After two short runs by Johnson, one a solid tackle for loss by Harper, on 3rd and 11 Locker scrambled right and fired to the end zone.  Two Titans got in eachother's way as the ball fell incomplete in traffic.  Rob Bironas' 43-yard field goal tied it with 6:42 left in the half.

Brees faced a 3rd and 4 on the next drive, dropped back and was hit as he threw incomplete.  An illegal contact penalty on S Chris Hope against half-speed Jimmy Graham gave the Saints a first down, preventing a second straight three-and-out.  A tremendous full-speed cut by Chris Ivory gained 12 yards, but the officials intervened again, flagging FB Jed Collins for holding.

On 1st and 20, Brees aborted a screen pass by spiking at the feet of Pierre Thomas.  A flag thrown was picked up by Mike Carey, who said that "all the action was legal."  Toss right to Chris Ivory was dropped for no gain, setting up 3rd and 19 for Brees on a cold, windy day.  Brees dropped back, had plenty of time but no targets, and dropped it off to Pierre Thomas for a short gain.

Morstead's punt was somehow not blocked, and Mariani was tackled short of the Titan 30 with 3:34 left in the half. The rookie Locker stayed in the game, one-hopping his first pass, and harassed very deep into the backfield for an incomplete on second down.  After a false start, on 3rd and 15 Locker in shotgun scrambled and dumped off to Chris Johnson, who was blasted by Junior Galette after a 12-yard gain.  Galette smashed Johnson into CB Tracy Porter, who hit the ground hard and was slow to get up.

After a punt return to the Saint 31 by Sproles, FOX announcer Joe Buck commented "unbelievably there are no flags," a commentary on the flag-happy officiating.  On first down, Brees dumped off quickly to Sproles who was alone in the vacated middle, gaining 20 yards across midfield.  In the hurry up, Brees hit Colston underneath for 8, then Sproles for a wide open big gainer.

But that last big gain was nullified by holding on Jermon Bushrod, a terrible call as Bushrod had forced his pass rusher to a kneel.  Once again, officials had seen a defender on the ground and instinctively thrown a holding flag.

On second down and long, Brees fired deep - a rare sight today - underthrowing Lance Moore who had beaten CB Chris Hawkins.  On 3rd and 11, the Saints offense finally caught fire - Brees with time hit Marques Colston on a hook route at the sticks for the first down.  On the quick hurry up, Jimmy Graham ran by SS Jordan Babineaux's zone in the seam, hurdling past two defenders and dragged down at the Titan five yard line.  During the first half, Graham's back seemed to loosen up progressively and he looked great on that gain.  The Saints called a timeout and prepped for a touchdown.

On 1st and goal, Brees sat back in the pocket, pumped, waited, pumped again.  DT Karl Klug disengaged with LG Carl Nicks and sacked Brees back at the Titan 12, forcing the Saints to use their second timeout.  On second down, Brees threw underneath again for Sproles who was immediately uprooted for a short gain, firing up the crowd and the defense.

The Saints used their last timeout with :22 left and faced 3rd and goal from the Titan 11.  In the shotgun, Brees fired into the end zone for Lance Moore, who couldn't adjust for a low outside ball and dropped the touchdown with a defender driving him into the ground.

The Titans defense beat Brees on both red zone possessions, keeping the best 3rd down offense in the league out of the end zone with seven snaps inside the red zone.  Kasay's field goal made it 6-3 with :15 left in the half.  Locker kneeled and the teams hit the locker room.

Brees was 19/27 for 149 yards passing in the first half, but the Titans covered up the deep ball, only six of those receptions were to wide receivers.  Ivory, Sproles and Thomas combined for 61 yards rushing.  The Saints defense held RB Chris Johnson to five yards on five carries, though he had 34 yards receiving.  The Titans had 98 yards passing between Hasselbeck and Locker at the half.  It was Locker's 31-yard strike to backup TE Stevens that set up the Titans' only scoring opportunity of the half.

While Pete Carmichael, Jr. made the play calls in the first half, Sean Payton took over the play calling at half time.

Johnson tripled the Titans' rushing total with his first carry of the second half, a nine yard gain, then converted the second and short with a hard-fighting two yard gain, stopped hard by Jo-Lonn Dunbar.  Locker picked up another first down on a quick hit to WR Lavelle Hawkins underneath and a bad missed tackle by Tracy Porter.  Hawkins turned and ran to midfield for a 15-yard gain.

Then facing 3rd and six, Locker threw deep for Williams, broken up well by Patrick Robinson whose back was to the ball.  That was five third down conversions for the Titans, no first downs.

Kern's punt was - no surprise - marred by flags on the field.  Both Jed Collins and Scott Shanle were flagged for two separate holding penalties on the touchback punt.  Brees took over at his own 10 and soon faced 3rd and 3 from the 17. The situation begged for Colston over the middle and it worked, picking up four to the Saint 21.  Brees picked up another first down with a 11-yard strike to Colston.

After two short runs, Brees faced 3rd and 9 and as he has done so often this season - he completed a pass over the middle to Henderson for a 19-yard gain and the first down.  Two plays later on 2nd and 10, Pierre Thomas made a vintage play, catching a short dumpoff, then powering through numerous tackles, fighting the sideline and tumbling for a 23-yard gain to the Titan 23.

Sproles ripped off a 13-yard run for another first down, and the Saints were back in the red zone.  Two plays later, the Saints faced 3rd and goal from the 4.  A fade to the back spasm-slowed TE Jimmy Graham to the right sideline of the end zone was caught by Graham, who came down on his knee and hips at the sideline.  It was ruled out of bounds side judges who were right on top of the play, but replays showed that Graham's left hip and knee were clearly inbounds with control of the ball.  Graham's right foot was near the sideline and it was ruled that it was the second point of contact, out of bounds.

Kasay's field goal attempt made it 9-3 as Mike Carey's ref crew had once again directly influenced the outcome of the game with questionable judgments on the field.  The Saints weren't without guilt however, firing pass after pass underneath against a solid-tackling Titans defense, and rarely challenging downfield.

Locker converted a first down with a designed bootleg run up the left sideline for a 12 yard gain, but soon found himself at 3rd and 10 again.  That's when Locker found his team's first 3rd down conversion in a big way.  A missed tackle by Patrick Robinson sprung Damian Williams, who raced down the right sideline, evaded Jabari Greer and was in the end tackled by Roman Harper by the facemask at the Saint 11.  The obvious penalty put the ball at the Saint 5.  

A rollout scramble by Locker was turned up the right sideline, with Cameron Jordan was in pursuit.  Roman Harper slammed into him at the goal line, but the athletic Locker extended the ball in midair over the pylon. It was called a touchdown after a short delay, and a quick replay review confirmed the play.

Bironas' extra point gave the Titans a 10-9 lead with 2:12 left in the third quarter, mostly on the strength of the Saints being 0-3 on red zone touchdowns, the Titans 1-1.

A seven yard pass to backpedaling Lance Moore and a never-stop-fighting run by Pierre Thomas up the middle set up 3rd and an inch at the Saint 38.  A Drew Brees quick keeper picked up two yards and the first.  On the next play, WR Devery Henderson and Alterraun Verner made a simultaneous catch of a pass over the middle, with the refs ruling Henderson with the reception past the first down marker.

As the fourth quarter began, TE John Gilmore, Jr. turned upfield for a nine yard gain, and Pierre Thomas picked up a quick yard and the first down up the middle to the Titan 39.  Two plays later, the Saints faced 3rd and 6 from the Titan 35.

Out of the shotgun and with all day to view the field, Brees fired deep to Marques Colston, who was all alone down the middle of the field, having been passed off by CB Cortland Finnegan and left alone by LB Colin McCarthy and S Chris Hope.  Colston skied to bring in the catch, turned, and fell over the goal line to put the Saints back on top with a quick response.  The 35-yard touchdown pass was Brees' 40th straight game with a scoring thrown, as he closes in on Johnny Unitas' all-time longest streak.  The nine play drive put the Saints up 16-10 with 12:47 left in the game.

After dropping Chris Johnson for no gain on first down, the Saints' blitzing pass rush got to Locker on second down, with Will Smith finally falling on the rookie for a nine yard loss, the first Saint sack of the day.  Dropping back to his goal line and with Will Smith at this ankles, Locker overthrew everyone deep down the field on 3rd and 19.  Kern punted from his end zone, and Sproles shuffled to midfield on the return.

With great field position, the Saints took over at midfield and the refs took control of the game.  FB Jed Collins was flagged for a push off and offensive pass interference on first down.  On 1st and 20 with empty backfield shotgun, Brees hit Sproles for 12 and then hit Thomas for 3, setting up 3rd and 4.  Devery Henderson made a great catch on a low pass on a quick out right for the first down with nine minutes left in the game.

Pierre Thomas ran for five up the middle, then Brees picked up four and a half yards on a scramble up the right sideline, setting up 3rd and inches.  Chris Ivory, in only his third game of the season, proved himself so valuable by converting another short yardage play, picking up two down to the Titan 28.

On the next play, Brees climbed the pocket and stepped forward into his best throw of the day, hitting Marques Colston in stride behind Finnegan at the goal line.  Instead of turning and backpedaling as usual, Colston made a great adjustment and an over-the-shoulder catch for the score.

Up by 12, the Saints went for the two-point conversion.  Pierre Thomas, despite a great cut and push, was denied just short of the goal line off left tackle.

With Payton taking over the play calling at halftime, Brees completed 16 of his first 17 passes in the second half as the Saints exploded for 17 second half points in the first 23 minutes of the second half.  But the fireworks in this game were not over with.

Locker responded to Brees' heroics, taking only three plays to move 65 yards for a fast score.  Locker hit Williams for 8 and showed great speed up the middle when he scrambled for 17 yards on the next play.  Locker then fired a powerful strike deep over the middle, the ball beating Malcolm Jenkins to Nate Washington a the five.  Washington was way ahead of LB Will Herring, who was outmatched in coverage. Washington fell into the end zone and completed the score from 40 yards out, bringing Tennessee back to within five points.

Brees got the ball back and third and four after a second down pass to Henderson was ruled incomplete.  Henderson appeared to have the ball pinned to his left shoulderpad as he hit the ground, but Payton didn't challenge.  Brees was sacked a stunting Karl Klug on 3rd and 4, a rare win for the Titans defense on third down and a seven yard loss.

Morstead's punt put the Titans at their own 35, and a 2nd down crossing route completion to Nate Washington evaded Jo-Lonn Dunbar and picked up the first down to the Saint 45.  A batted pass on first down and great bump and run coverage by Patrick Robinson on second down to for an incomplete pass set up 3rd and 10.  A missed tackle by Tracy Porter underneath to Nate Washington allowed him to get almost nine yards, stopped inches short of the line at the Saint 35.

On the fourth down conversion, Locker flipped wide left to Johnson, who gave ground, beat Patrick Robinson in the back field and picked up three yards with Malcolm Jenkins escorting him out of bounds.

On the next play, Tracy Porter blitzed and devastated Locker with a clean, free hit to the chest as his arm raised for the pass.  Locker remained on the ground as the ball was ruled a fumble and bounced off of DT Tom Johnson's helmet. It fell incomplete if it was a pass, but the Ramon Humber picked up the ball for the recovery.

With 3:18 left in the game, the Titans challenged as Matt Hasselbeck put his helmet back on and worked on his left calf.  It was a classic Tom Brady tuck-rule play, and Mike Carey changed the ruling to a forward pass.

Locker was able to walk off the field, but Hasselbeck was in the huddle for 2nd and 10 from the Saint 33.

On his first play back in the game, Hasselbeck caught the Saints blitzing and threw the outlet to Chris Johnson immediately.  In the open field, Malcolm Jenkins stuck Johnson hard a yard short of the line, a fantastic open-field tackle by the Saints' young star safety.

Locker fired into the end zone on 3rd and 1, overthrowing Williams who had Greer beaten, and putting the balance of the game on a 4th and 1 attempt.  Mike Munchak called his first timeout with 2:32 left in the half, down by five.

The rookie quarterback snuck it and got very little movement in the pile as the Saints immediately celebrated. A chain measurement confirmed that Locker was spotted half a yard short and the Saints defense won a big battle with 2:18 left in the game.  Malcolm Jenkins helped win that series on second down with a great stop on Chris Johnson in the open field, dropping the star runningback short of the line that the Titans would not cross.

Ivory bounced outside, stiff-armed and fought upfield for a big gain, burning off the last seconds before the two minute warning.  That is exactly the kind of run that the Saints' drafted Mark Ingram for, and Chris Ivory delivered it with gusto.

Two more runs by Ivory and the Titans burned their last timeouts, bringing up 3rd and 7 with 1:51 left in the game.  On that third down, Brees fired to the left for Chris Ivory, where DT Jurrell Casey broke up.  Had Casey not been a 300-pound lineman, it might have been a pick six.  The clock stopped as well, and Morstead punted.

Locker went no huddle and threw big gainers to Hawkins for 25 and Washington for 10.  Then, inexplicably Locker handed off to Chris Johnson for no gain without any timeouts left.  Time clicked off, and Locker fired deep for Washington, who bounced off of Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins and held on to the ball at the five yard line.  Locker ran up and clocked the ball up with 7 seconds left.

Locker fired into the end zone and was expertly batted down by Tracy Porter, who had some pick plays as part of a horrible game for the Saints secondary.

On the final snap of the game, Locker dropped and was quickly forced up and out of the pocket by a hard-charging Junior Galette, who dismissed the right tackle immediately to harass Locker.  The rookie scrambled right, ran parallel to the line of scrimmage to the right sideline.  LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar saved the day, forcing the issue and running up, where he dropped the rookie back at the Saint 8 with time expired.  The Saints escaped with the win thanks to back-to-back huge plays by defenders Tracy Porter and Jo-Lonn Dunbar.

It was a relief that the crucial string of events that decided the game wasn't perturbed by officious referees, as most of the rest of the game was.

It was an ugly showing for the Saints defense, who allowed three big drives by the rookie Locker in the second half. But crucial plays at the right times for Gregg Williams' unit saved the day as the Saints escaped with the win, 22-17.

Brees finished 36/47 for 337 yards and two touchdowns, keeping his pace of beating Dan Marino's single-season yardage record alive.

Chris Ivory led the Saints' rushing attack with 13 carries for 53 yards.  Sproles had 5/33 and 7 catches for 58 yards, while Thomas had 6/22 and 6/35 in the air.

Nate Washington led all receivers with six catches for 130 yards and a touchdown, while Colston had 7 for 105 and two scores.  Despite looking very slow because of back spasms, TE Jimmy Graham finished with five catches for 55 yards and very nearly a touchdown reception.  Graham apparently suffered the injury during warmups.

The Saints had 11 flags for 95 yards accepted, while the Titans had 8 penalties for 54 yards.

Notes: Brees has 20+ completions in 33 straight games, an ongoing league record... The Falcons (8-5) beat the Panthers (4-9) in the same timeslot, meaning that the Saints (10-3) did not clinch the NFC South title... The Titans' loss handed the AFC South title to the Houston Texans... This is the first time ever the Saints have recorded 10+ wins in three straight seasons...

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