November 28, 2011

Monday Night Shootout: Manning, Brees Light Up Dome but Saints Cruise, 49-24

The Saints scored seven touchdowns and outsprinted the Giants in the Superdome on Monday Night Football, demoralizing the visitors and potentially crushing their playoff hopes.  After a scoreless first quarter, both quarterbacks ignited, combining for 769 passing yards and six passing touchdowns.  But it was the Saints' dynamic runningbacks and touchdowns after two Giant turnovers that made the big difference in a Monday Night shootout.

The Saints have won 11 straight in the month of November, completing the sweep this season as well and moving to 8-3 and in control of the NFC South.  Sean Payton's offense has now scored 127 points in three games against the Giants, the last two blowout wins in the Superdome.

But there were still unsightly blemishes on the Saints' big win.  Poor play in the secondary including numerous missed tackles and 11 penalties for 104 yards could be improved.  But the Saints kept Brees fairly well protected against the league leaders in quarterback sacks and managed 205 yards rushing.  Each of the Saints' big three runningbacks, rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles had more than 80 total yards, with the the rookie leading the way with 80 yards rushing and 14 receiving.  Ingram returned healthy to the starting lineup, and the Saints put the runningback rotation to work.

After two incompletes and a false start by Jermon Bushrod, the Saints converted a long 3rd down with an 18-yard strike to Jimmy Graham. But a delay of game on the Saints and an offensive pass interference called by Jimmy Graham on the pick play snuffed out the drive, setting up 4th and 11 from the Giant 19.

In field goal formation, holder Chase Daniel stood up and fired to Graham in the flat.  Daniel's pass was tipped at the line but Graham hauled it in, shook off one tackle but was dropped a yard down of the line.

The Giants took over inside their own 10 yard line.  LB Ramon Humber made his first start as a Saint and on the first defensive play blasted Louisiana native RB Brandon Jacobs for a loss, losing his helmet in the process.   While the defense would limit the Giant rush attack all night, the Giants moved down the field quickly thanks to Eli Manning's arm.  They were quickly inside the Saints redzone with passes of 12 and 19 to Cruz, 26 yards to Ramses Barden and 7 to Hicks.

That's when an almost-forgotten Saint defender, LB Will Herring, made known his presence on the active roster by picking off Manning in the end zone.  The pass was slightly underthrown for TE Jake Ballard, but Herring made an amazing catch, bowling head over feet at the back of the end zone to come up with the interception touchback.  It was Herring's first interception as a Saint and only the second of his career.

Both teams had driven easily into the red zone and emerged with no points, taking up over 10 minutes of the game.

The Saints took over and Brees moved quickly to the goal line thanks to a 23-yard strike to Graham and a 23-yard lightning-speed rush by Sproles.  Two plays into the second quarter, Brees broke the tie with a Super Bowl XLIV-style quick hit to Lance Moore, who dove for the front right pylon and the score from four yards out.  Moore is already 6th on the Saints' all-time receiving touchdown list with 26.

Manning would response with a field goal, aided by a defensive holding penalty on DT Tom Johnson and first down passes to FB Henry Hynoski and WR Hakeem Nicks.  The drive stalled at the Saint 24 after LB Scott Shanle made a great play to fight off a block and stop a screen to Danny Ware short of the line.  Lawrence Tynes, would hit a 42-yard field goal to make it 7-3.

Ingram picked up a first down on a dump off, blasting into and over LB Mark Herzlich at the sideline in a great play showing the rookie had recovered from his foot injury.

But the drive stalled after Brees fired just out of the reach of a streaking open Graham down the right sideline.  The Saints punted from their own 36.  CB Aaron Ross fielded it but was immediately swarmed by Isa Abdul-Quddus and Courtney Roby.  Abdul-Quddus forced the ball free but Prince Amukamara jumped on it, the first of many fumble recoveries for the Giants.

Will Smith was flagged for a marginal roughing the passer call to help extend the Giants' next drive.  Smith led with his hands and shoved Manning down but was flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact.  The drive stalled when Manning fired for an open Hakeem Nicks, but he dragged his feet down out of bounds.  Steve Weatherford, who broke into the league with the Saints, punted from the New Orleans 46.

Brees made short work of the touchback, hitting Devery Henderson for a 21 yard gain, on first down, and three plays later hitting Sproles quickly for 22.  Brees went back to Henderson for 24, hitting the receiver on an underneath crossing route after Graham cleared out the middle by streaking deep.  Two plays later, Graham walked into the end zone, faking the fade but walking inside on the slant for a wide open score over the middle.

Down 14-3 with just over two minutes to go in the half, Manning hit Cruz for a 10 yard gain.  On 3rd and 6,  Roman Harper blitzed up the middle but ran into a dropping linebacker, giving Manning enough time to hit Nicks for the first down.  Nicks then dragged Tracy Porter and Patrick Robinson out of bounds, with Porter dropping him well after the play was blown dead and drawing a stupid personal foul.

hat put Manning at the Saint 37, but the drive stalled at the Saint 42 after a false start on Kareem McKenzie helped put the Giants at 3rd and 15. Three separate drops by Giant receivers hurt that drive, and backup DT Tom Johnson killed it when rolled off of his block and pursued Manning, forcing a hurried incomplete throw to the sideline. The Giants punted again from inside Saint territory with 1:17 left in the half, hoping to contain Brees and preventing a late score.  Tom Coughlin's plan was well intended but not successful.

Brees from his own 12 fired to the left sideline for Marques Colston, who shook loose and raced down the sideline for a 50-yard gain, picking up 39 of those yards after contact and stepping out of bounds at the Giant 38.  Brees-to-Colston remained just as hot on this drive as it was 15 days ago in Atlanta, connecting on gains of 10 and 15 yards to the Giant 10.

Lance Moore scored his second touchdown of the day with a quick out to the right that he turned upfield. Moore dove through traffic across the goal line and in with :27 left.  That was probably the back-breaking score for the Giants, who went into the locker room down 21-3 and having no answer for Brees' arm.

Brees finished the first half 17/25 for 265 yards and three scores as the Saints passed twice as many times as they ran the ball.

Manning got the ball back in the third quarter, firing quickly for Ballard for 14.  A holding penalty on TE Bear Pascoe set up 1st and 20 when Abdul-Quddus delivered a knockout hit on Nicks deep over the middle.  Yet another bad flag on the secondary, Abdul-Quddus was immediately penalized for a blow to the head of a defenseless receiver, and Nicks had to leave the game.

Moved to near midfield, Manning hit Ballard for 24, then Danny Ware and Brandon Jacobs closed the distance and gave the Giants their first score.  Jacobs flattened Roman Harper at the goal line from eight yards out, then danced towards the defenders as the Saints gathered for the extra point, nearly starting a fight.  How that was not called for excessive celebration remains a mystery.

Brees' first pass of the second half was behind and nearly picked by Aaron Ross, but he made up for it with a surprisingly show of elusiveness, ducking and evading Justin Tuck in the pocket, scrambling madly to the right, then backing away from Linval Joseph to throw a duck to Pierre Thomas, who was buried at the first down marker for a 15-yard gain.  The Giants challenged that Brees had crossed the line, but replay showed Brees was in the air and not across the line of scrimmage when he threw.

Mark Ingram picked up seven on flip left then a classic Pierre Thomas netted 24 down inside the ten yard line, with great downfield blocking and the always-elusive Thomas in the open field.  Brees did it again on the next play, seeing the middle of the field open to him and taking off, showing uncommon wiggle and shaking past S Deon Grant at the goal line for an eight yard scoring run.

It was Brees' fourth rushing touchdown as a Saint and only the 8th in his career, the first since his magical 2009 comeback win in Miami.  Then like now, Brees spiked the ball over the goal post crossbars to celebrate.

Up 28-10, the Saints would strike quickly again.  RB Da'Rel Scott was submarined by CB Tracy Porter, who went low and upturned Scott short of the line on 3rd and 1.  Scott knocked the ball free from his right hand with his left, and Roman Harper recovered.

Two plays later, Brees hit Graham on the deep outside post, and he dove for the front pylon for the score.  It was Graham's second touchdown of the game and the eighth of his season.

Down 35-10, the third drive of the second half for the Giants was a series of near-disasters.  Jacobs ran for a short gain, fumbled into the pile forced by Jo-Lonn Dunbar, recovered it.  On the next snap, DE Will Smith hammered Manning, forcing another fumble that was recovered by David Diehl after a 14 yard loss.  Two plays later, punter Steve Weatherford faked and tried to run for it on 4th and 7, dropped for no gain by Humber at the Giant 33.  Courtney Roby would be flagged for taunting after that play, pushing the Saints back to midfield.

The Saints responded with a three and out, and a less than great aussie-style punt by Morstead put the Giants at their own 16.  Three plays later and at the top of the fourth quarter, Manning hit a wide open Victor Cruz at the Saint 34, and from the other side of the field Tracy Porter could catch up with Cruz in pursuit.  It was an ugly missed assignment on a blitz, with a clump of Saint defenders far behind in pursuit.   It was one of many lowlights for the Saint secondary on the night, a unit that a number of very visible mistakes.

While Gregg Williams' defense had shut down the Giant running game through three quarters, Cruz's 72-yard score put Eli Manning over 300 yards passing at the start of the fourth.

Manning opened the second half 8/8 for more than 150 yards as the second half opened up and seven touchdowns were scored by both teams.

On the Saints next drive, the runningbacks bled clock and pounded the ball until Brees threw to Jimmy Graham over the middle.  Graham was leveled by safety Kenny Phillips, who drew an unnecessary roughness penalty with a blow to the head on a defenseless receiver.  Graham, who waved off trainers, was pulled off the field by Saints trainers as a precaution, as they were in disbelief that he wasn't affected by the blow.

On the next play, Pierre Thomas ran inside then cut to the left, speeding away from a demoralized Giants defense from 12 yards out, breaking away from the containment at the Saint 5 and trotting into the end zone with 10:41 left and a 42-17 lead.

Manning would continue to stay hot, a stretch of 21 straight completions into the fourth quarter as he hit quick passes and the Saints' secondary fired and missed for heavy hits that resulted in more missed tackles.

Harper would draw a mindless personal foul with a late hit after what would have been a streak-breaking incompletion, moving the Giants into first and goal.  Two plays later, Cruz beat Tracy Porter for a four-yard touchdown at the back of the end zone, cheap yardage and points for the visitors that the defense shouldn't be proud of. Tynes' extra point with 5:12 left in the game made it 42-24.

Mark Ingram failed to convert on a short fourth down on their next drive, but Manning couldn't convert a passing fourth down of his own as the teams played out the end of a blowout just outside the two minute warning.

That didn't stop Ingram from racing 35 yards down the sideline inside the two minute warning when he was supposed to be bleeding clock.  WR Devery Henderson cleaned out the right defensive end with a pancake block at the snap, allowing Jermon Bushrod to block escort to the sideline.  Ingram scored from 35 yards out, the longest run of the rookie's young NFL career, pushing the score to 49-24.

The Saints return to the national spotlight next Sunday night in the Superdome, hosting the Detroit Lions on NBC Sunday Night Football.

Tracy Porter, despite multiple missed tackles, still led the Saints with 10 total tackles, eight solo, ahead of MLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar with five solo tackles among ten total, starting again in place of Jonathan Vilma.  Porter, Dunbar, Abdul-Quddus and Will Smith all forced fumbles, and Smith collected the Saints' only sack of Manning.  Brees was not sacked.

Notes: Sean Payton was on the sidelines for the game, on the crutches he expects to wear until at least March... The Saints did not activate seventh round pick Greg Romeus, so he will remain on the non-football injury/reserve list for the rest of the season... Giants DE Osi Umenyiora left the game in the first half with an ankle injury... Will Smith may have injured his left hand late in the ball game...

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