Same jerseys different team

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Same jerseys, different team. If it seems as if you New Orleans Saints fans are watching a dissimilar football squad these last few weeks, well, you are.

These new Saints still win, mind you, they just do it differently.

With future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees on the shelf with a sprained throwing thumb, the Saints no longer just zoom up and down the field with Brees' laser-like passes providing most of the transportation. No, they depend on a don't-beat-yourself offense, a terrific defense and, for my money, the best kicking game in football. New Orleans special teams are really special.

These Saints are reminding us of why we call it FOOT-ball. Punter Thomas Morstead and placekicker Wil Lutz have been critical to all victories in the Saints' 5-1 start.

That was certainly the case Sunday when the Saints went to Jacksonville and returned with a 13-6 victory that was won with superb defense, an equally superb kicking game and an offense that did not turn the ball over. That combination will win nearly every time.

Lutz provided two field goals and more than half the Saints points, hitting from 47 and 22 yards. NFL goal posts are 18 feet, 6 inches wide. Lutz, a three-year veteran, seems to use on the middle yard on every kick. For the season, the former Georgia State kicker has hit 13 of 14 field goal tries. His lone miss was a 56-yarder in the opener against Houston, but he came back to hit a 58-yarder (right down the middle) to win the game. He's a perfect 11 for 11 from under 50 yards, and two of three from beyond 50.

Morstead has been equally good. In fact, he has been the Saints defense's best friend. Sunday's victory was a perfect illustration. When Gardner Minshew and the Jacksonville offense got the ball, they were often staring at more than 90 yards of striped real estate because of Morstead's booming, well-placed punts.

In the first quarter, the Jaguars started from their first two possessions from their own 9-yard line and their own 2-yard line after Morstead punts. In the second quarter, Morstead's punts had them starting from their own 14 and own 15. His last punt in the fourth quarter, made the Jags start from their own 11-yard line.

For the entire game, the average Jacksonville drive started at the Jaguars' 18-yard line. The average Saints drive started at their own 34. Let's put it this way, when the field is 82 yards long for one team and 66 yards long for the other, the result is predictable.

Morstead has been doing this now for 10-plus seasons. For much of that time, he often has been, because of Brees' excellence, like the fabled Maytag repairman. That is, he has often been taken for granted because he was so seldom called upon to do his thing. That's probably why he has been selected for only one Pro Bowl when he has so obviously been one of the best at his craft.

With Morstead, it's not just about the distance of his punts, although he so provides plenty of that as his 46.9 career punting average will attest. It's more about the height, the hang-time and the fact that opponents so rarely return his booming punts.

Often, you would swear Morstead puts backspin on his punts the way a golfer puts spin on his wedge shots. His punts seem to bounce backward or straight up in the air most of the time.

Morstead laughed at that idea during an interview last week.

“Any punter who tell you he puts backspin on his kicks just isn't being honest,” Morstead said, grinning. “You can't suck a punt back the way you can a golf ball. The truth is most of my punts are caught and never get a chance to bounce. When they do bounce, sometimes I get lucky.”

It seems like far more than “sometimes.”

Again, he's been doing this for years. We just notice it more now that the Saints need it more than ever.

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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