The Vikings’ victory over the Saints on Sunday was aided in part by the Saints’ misuse of their timeouts, which forced the Saints to settle for field goals at the end of both halves when, with better clock management, they might have scored touchdowns.
Late in the fourth quarter the Saints’ timeout usage was incredibly costly: With the Vikings facing third-and-19 with 2:54 remaining, New Orleans had two timeouts. They used one of them, which was a sensible thing to do — but only if they were prepared to use another one after the play, which they didn’t.
Instead, after stopping the Vikings on third-and-19, the Saints allowed the Vikings to run the play clock all the way down before punting. By the time the Saints’ punt return was done, it was after two minutes. The Saints had just wasted the two-minute warning, because it passed on a punt, and the clock stops after punts anyway.
If the Saints had used their third and final timeout immediately after sacking Kirk Cousins on third-and-19, they would have forced the Vikings to punt with about 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter. They could have run multiple offensive plays before the two-minute warning. Instead, the Saints saved that final timeout.
And what were they saving it for? Nothing. Amazingly, even after foolishly saving that final timeout, the Saints never used it. On their first offensive play after the two-minute warning, Alvin Kamara had an opportunity to step out of bounds but decided to cut back inside to pick up a few extra yards. That was a mistake, but that’s what the Saints saved the timeout for, right? Nope. They let the clock keep running. Two plays later, Kamara again went down in bounds. Now they’ll use the timeout, right? Wrong. The clock kept running. The next play, Michael Thomas was tackled in bounds. Again, the clock kept running. On the next play Jared Cook was tackled in bounds and the clock was still running. Now the Saints were getting nervous about running out of time, so they lined up to spike the ball with 21 seconds left, but they weren’t lined up properly so they were penalized and got a 10-second runoff. At this point, surely they’ll use their timeout to avoid the 10-second runoff, right? Nope. They opted for the runoff. They then ran one more play, an incomplete pass, before kicking the game-tying field goal with that last timeout still in hand.
If the Saints had managed the clock better, they could have taken multiple shots at the end zone and tried to win the game in regulation. Instead they tied the game and lost in overtime.
The Saints also mismanaged their timeouts late in the first half: When the Vikings got first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with a minute left in the first half, the Saints should have called timeout to save themselves time for their next possession. Instead they allowed Minnesota to bleed the clock before scoring a touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. That meant that when the Saints got the ball on the ensuing kickoff, they had very little time and ended up missing a field goal on first-and-10 as time expired in the first half. With more time, the Saints might have driven down the field for a touchdown, or at least driven further down the field for an easier field goal.
With better timeout usage, the Saints might have scored a touchdown at the end of either half. Instead they missed a field goal at the end of the first half, made a field goal at the end of the second half, and cost themselves good opportunities to score in a game they would lose in overtime.