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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Saints' Sean Payton outcoached conservative Pat Shurmur

Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints

Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sep. 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Credit: Mike Stobe

Forget the 33-18 final score for a moment and go back to what turned out to be one of the early turning points in the Giants-Saints game.

It’s midway through the first quarter, and MetLife Stadium is filled with optimism from a promising start against a quality opponent. Eli Manning had led a 10-play, 75-yard drive on the Giants’ first possession, throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard in the right corner of the end zone.

The Giants’ defense, which bottled up Drew Brees on his first possession, again stops the ageless All-Pro quarterback on a three-and-out. Forced to punt on fourth-and-2 from their 33, the Saints are surrounded by a rollicking crowd hoping for a positive result after last week’s impressive road win against the Texans.

But then Sean Payton did something right out of his Super Bowl XLIV playbook. Sensing the need to change the momentum, Payton signed off on special-teams coach Mike Westhoff’s suggestion of a fake punt. Up-back Taysom Hill, the Saints’ backup quarterback, took the snap, rolled to his right and completed a 10-yard pass to Justin Hardee, a defensive back who plays gunner on the punt team.

Instantly, the crowd quieted down, and the Giants’ momentum was silenced as well. The Saints wound up kicking a field goal after a demoralizing drive that lasted nearly nine minutes.

It was the first of many smart decisions by Payton, whose onside kick to start the second half against the Colts changed the momentum of that Super Bowl and helped pave the way for the Saints’ only championship after the 2009 season. Payton again got the better of his coaching adversary, outdueling overmatched Pat Shurmur as the Saints (3-1) dropped the Giants to 1-3 and searching for answers.

Shurmur should closely examine his moves against Payton, who outwitted him at almost every turn. The fake punt was just the first of many critical junctures that brought down a Giants team that is off to a dismal start after coming into 2018 with such high hopes.

“Certainly, the fake was good,” Shurmur said. “They kept the drive going and went down and scored. That was good.”

Shurmur’s offense again closely resembled the one left behind by Ben McAdoo. Shurmur was unwilling to have Manning take deep shots to counter the Saints’ conservative Cover 2 and Cover 3 alignments — a similar refrain we heard from McAdoo when his quarterback turned into a checkdown machine. Manning was 31-for-41 for 255 yards, a TD and no interceptions. His average yards per attempt was only 6.2.

Odell Beckham Jr., who had spoken of having a breakout game, had seven catches for only 60 yards. Through four games, he hasn’t scored a touchdown.

“I called a lot of play-actions to get the ball down the field,” Shurmur said, “and those became checkdowns because of that soft zone.”

Shurmur’s offense has failed to produce 20 points in three of his first four games, and the idea that Manning still has championship-quality football in him continues to defy reality. Aside from last week’s solid effort against a Texans team that isn’t very good, these Giants aren’t much better than last year’s.

Yes, things beyond the Giants’ control went wrong, including a botched penalty call on Janoris Jenkins for a horse-collar tackle and a fortunate bounce on a muffed punt by the Saints’ Brandon Tate in which he recovered the ball. But there were enough opportunities to win, and the Giants didn’t seize them.

Shurmur said there’s only one way the results will change.

“You just keep working and you play your way out of it and you coach your way out of it, period,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. That’s what I trust we’ll do.”

With upcoming games at Carolina, against the defending champion Eagles and at Atlanta, Shurmur’s trust will be tested. And unless things change quickly, the misery will continue. It’s on Shurmur to change the narrative. Playing it safe simply won’t do.

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