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The Saints’ Offensive Nirvana and Week 10’s Game-Changing Plays

New Orleans is using every last bit of its offensive talent to destroy defenses. Plus: Dante Fowler has made the Rams a boom-or-bust defense, Eric Ebron had a prolific day, and the Cardinals have finally remembered they employ David Johnson.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Another wild NFL Sunday is in the books. The Week 10 slate was packed with blowouts: The Chiefs dispatched the Cardinals with ease, the Saints grabbed a dominant 37-point win over the Bengals, and the Chargers kept pace in the AFC West by toppling the Raiders. The Titans rolled over the Patriots, the Redskins dismissed the Bucs, the Bears controlled the Lions, the Browns overwhelmed the Falcons, the Packers ran away from the Dolphins, and the Bills—yes, those Bills—exploded for 41 points while dismantling the Jets. There were a few close games, too, with the Colts outlasting the Jaguars, the Rams narrowly beating the Seahawks, and the Cowboys eking by the Eagles.

Despite the mostly uneven matchups, a few moments Sunday stood out as pivotal or illuminating. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.

Mark Ingram’s Screen-Pass Touchdown

The Saints-Bengals tilt got off to a relatively quiet start—the game was knotted at 7 after one quarter—but New Orleans poured it on in the second frame, unleashing the full force of its offensive scheme on a hapless Cincinnati defense. Drew Brees and Co. got the blowout ball rolling on this play, a perfectly executed screen from the Bengals’ 28-yard line that Mark Ingram took to the house.

That catch-and-run score pushed the Saints’ lead to 14-7 and their win probability to 75 percent. It was emblematic of how unstoppable this New Orleans offense can be when it’s firing on all cylinders. The Saints came out of the huddle with Ingram in the backfield and Alvin Kamara out on the wing, running Kamara in a sweep motion to the right just before the snap. Instead of handing it off on the sweep, though, Brees kept the ball, faked the play-action handoff to Ingram, then looked right again to Kamara out on the wing. These two quick fakes neutralized six Cincy box defenders, who stepped forward and to their left in anticipation of a play in that direction, leaving weak-side linebacker Jordan Evans on an island.

Screenshot with a circle around Jordan Evans, who is isolated far from the action

Brees avoided the rush and dumped off the ball to Ingram, who took advantage of a brutal block by left guard Andrus Peat. Peat pancaked Evans, clearing the way for Ingram to escape upfield, break a tackle, and get into the end zone.

This score made use of every component of the team’s offensive apparatus: Head coach Sean Payton drew up a brilliant play design, Brees executed a perfect fake, Kamara’s speed (and reputation) drew the Bengals’ attention, the offensive line laid out devastating blocks, and Ingram made a nice move at the end to spin and power forward to pay dirt. Top pass catcher Michael Thomas, who lined up on the left and drew a defender away from the action with a slant route to the right, played his part as a decoy.

From there, the Saints rolled, racking up another 21 second-quarter points to put the game away before the half. New Orleans ended with 509 yards of offense, averaged 6.9 yards per play, held the ball nearly twice as long (39:46 minutes) as its opponent (20:14), and scored on all nine of its meaningful possessions. The Saints offense was nearly flawless, and, combined with a quietly improving defense, makes New Orleans the team to beat in the NFC.

Dante Fowler’s Fourth-Quarter Strip Sack

The Rams offense carried most of the weight during the team’s 8-0 start. So on October 30, Los Angeles general manager Les Snead traded for pass rusher Fowler in the hopes that the former Jaguar could give the struggling defense a boost down the stretch. Sunday, the results of that trade seemed mixed: On the one hand, Fowler racked up 29 yards of penalties, including a third-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct flag that gave Seattle a new set of downs and eventually led to a go-ahead touchdown pass. On the other hand, Fowler made what might’ve been the defensive play of the game, rushing off the edge on third-and-3 to strip-sack Russell Wilson with 6:08 to go in the fourth quarter. The Rams recovered the ball and set up a Brandin Cooks touchdown on the next play.

That pivotal play pushed L.A.’s win probability to 95 percent even before Cooks’s touchdown, which put the Rams up 12. This is why Snead gave up third- and fifth-round picks for Fowler: By adding the 6-foot-3 255-pounder to a group that already featured stalwarts Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, the Rams were able to harass Wilson all day, sacking him on four crucial third-down plays and making the QB uncomfortable on nearly every one of his late-game dropbacks.

The team’s winning formula for the second half of the year was on display Sunday: First, get the lead with Sean McVay’s juggernaut offense. Then, release its multipronged pass rush, letting Suh, Donald, and Fowler pin their ears back and get after opposing quarterbacks with reckless abandon. If Fowler can cut out the penalties, his acquisition could pay big dividends for L.A.

Eric Ebron’s Rushing Touchdown

Jack Doyle’s return to the Colts lineup two weeks ago seemed to portend the end of a major role for Ebron, who played just 17 snaps—fourth among tight ends on the roster—in Indianapolis’s Week 8 win over the Raiders. But the former Lion, an afterthought free-agent addition this offseason, returned to the spotlight Sunday with a vengeance: Ebron caught three passes for 69 yards with two touchdowns and added a jet-sweep touchdown run in the Colts’ 29-26 win over the Jaguars.

Late in the first quarter, on third-and-goal from the Jacksonville 2-yard line, Ebron motioned quickly from right to left prior to the snap. He took the handoff and ran into the end zone with the help of a nice lead block by fellow tight end Doyle.

With his hat trick of scores against the Jags, Ebron pushed his touchdown total for the season to 10, setting him on pace to finish the year with 18 and match Rob Gronkowski’s single-season record at the position. Sunday was not only the most impressive performance of the 2014 first-rounder’s surprising renaissance, but also a microcosm of the Colts’ shocking push into contention. It was easy to write off Indy after its 1-5 start, but the team has battled back and won three straight games.

Quarterback Andrew Luck has this offense humming. He’s thrown for three-plus touchdowns in six straight games and hasn’t been sacked in his past four contests—the longest streak for any starter since Eli Manning went five straight games without taking a sack in 2010. Indy’s run game has blossomed behind a much-improved offensive line, and its tight end group has scored six touchdowns in the past two games—four from Ebron, one from Doyle, and another from Mo Alie-Cox—while being used in many different ways. After T.Y. Hilton, the Colts don’t have much pass-catching star power. Over the past few weeks, that hasn’t seemed to hurt them. In fact, with Luck spreading the ball around and finding new ways to get role players like Ebron involved, this team’s pass-catching arsenal suddenly seems to be a strength.

Marcus Mariota’s Touchdown Throw

Tennessee went into its Week 8 bye desperately searching for answers on offense: During the team’s prior three-game losing streak—and really, for most of the season—Marcus Mariota had struggled, the run game had been all but nonexistent, and the scheme under new coordinator Matt LaFleur had lacked much rhythm or identity.

I don’t know whether the Titans magically fixed all their problems over the bye week, but in their past two games, they do appear to have turned the corner. Mariota and Co. came alive in last week’s 28-14 win over the Cowboys, and dominated the Patriots defense in Sunday’s 34-10 victory. Mariota threw confidently and with precision, finishing with a 125.0 rating. He completed 16 of 24 passes for 228 yards with two touchdowns, including this perfect throw to Davis. Mariota lofted it up and into the breadbasket of his receiver, who got open with the help of a nice double move out of the slot.

There’s finally some semblance of an offensive identity forming in Tennessee. Mariota was aggressive in the passing game, feeding Davis early and often Sunday. The second-year pass catcher is rounding into form as a go-to playmaker, catching seven passes for 125 yards with a score. And the team’s run game has finally found its footing. The combination of Dion Lewis (20 rushes, 57 yards) and Derrick Henry (11 rushes, 58 yards, two touchdowns) salted away the game. The Titans defense, which held Tom Brady and Co. to just 10 points, deserves a lot of credit for the win, but the resurgent performance by the offense might be more encouraging for this team’s chances in the AFC South.

David Johnson’s Receiving Touchdown

Interim Cardinals offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich hasn’t exactly fixed the broken unit he inherited from Mike McCoy just yet. Arizona’s offense managed just 260 yards on 69 plays in this week’s 26-14 loss to the Chiefs, and Josh Rosen was pressured on more than half of his 39 dropbacks. But no one expected the 38-year-old play-caller to be a miracle worker: Arizona has way too many holes. The hope was that Leftwich would pass a few benchmark tests, principal among them showing an understanding of how to get future Hall of Fame pass catcher Larry Fitzgerald more involved and use running back David Johnson as the versatile playmaker he is.

So far Leftwich is two-for-two. Fitzgerald has returned to his role as a focal point of the passing game, racking up 14 catches for 152 yards with a touchdown over the past two games. And Sunday, Leftwich helped make Johnson the foundation of Arizona’s offense: The fourth-year pro carried the ball 21 times for 98 yards and a touchdown and caught seven of nine passes for 85 yards and another score. This was the first week all season in which Johnson registered both a rushing and receiving touchdown.

After the game, Johnson said he felt like he was back to playing in the 2016 offense led by former head coach Bruce Arians, the one in which he scored a league-high 20 touchdowns from scrimmage. He was finally, thankfully, mercifully used as a mismatch receiving threat in the red zone too. That might sound like a simple idea, but it’s been noticeably absent from the Cardinals game plan this year.

These are baby steps, but the early returns from Leftwich’s tenure are encouraging.

Josh Doctson’s Touchdown Catch

Each of the Redskins’ six wins this season has followed the same basic blueprint for success: Never fall behind. Washington has now gone nine complete games this year without experiencing a lead change.

While that statistic may seem impossible, this trend makes sense. With Alex Smith leading the charge, Washington’s offense isn’t built to mount big comebacks, instead employing a conservative, ball-control style that leans heavily on running and high-percentage throws. Coupled with an effective defense, that’s been a surprisingly viable strategy, as evidenced in Sunday’s 16-3 win over the Buccaneers.

Through three quarters, a Washington win was anything but a certainty. The Redskins defense had kept Tampa Bay’s high-flying offense in check, carrying a slim 6-3 lead into the final frame. Then, with just more than 14 minutes to go, Smith delivered the knockout punch.

After Doctson’s touchdown grab, the Buccaneers went into come-from-behind mode, Washington’s pass rush turned up the pressure, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s mistakes mounted: He threw a pick on Tampa Bay’s next possession, then coughed up a fumble shortly thereafter.

Next week, Washington will host the 6-3 Texans. The Redskins could surpass the 1995 Packers by going their first 10 games without a lead change. Win or lose, at least they’d make history.