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The New Orleans Saints were outplayed, outcoached, and are out of excuses following their 27-21 overtime loss to the New York Giants. A tumultuous season continues to pose more questions than answers for a team that started cultivating a decisive identity just one week prior. Daniel Jones threw a career-high 402 yards and two touchdowns, and his 47 rushing yards both gained a first down and scored a crucial two-point conversion.
The Saints’ vision for themselves, a previously staunch defense expected to uphold the status quo while the offense found its rhythm, was flat out embarrassed by a winless team.
More unbelievable is that Winston’s 17 completions on 23 attempts for 226 yards are his highest season tally through Week 4. Even stranger were three pass attempts by Taysom Hill (a career-high outside of his four-game stretch as a starter last year), and a career-low zero receiving targets for Alvin Kamara. He’s had just one other game without a catch – due to a dropped pass.
Several concerning trends emerged in this ugly loss that are nothing short of confusing in contrast to the formidable team we saw last week. Let’s dig in:
Defense: Bend turned to break
Oct 3, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) attempts to tackle New York Giants wide receiver C.J. Board (18) during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
In a perhaps premature endorsement of the Saints defense last week, I broke down last season’s early losses regarding penalties, third down conversions, and red zone attempts. A second analysis illuminates an alarming potential reversion.
Last season the Saints lost to the Las Vegas Raiders, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs. Two of those were easy to analyze. The first two were as perplexing to watch as Sunday’s overtime defeat. A clear trend emerged in these types of losses: a concerning mix of big plays, untimely penalties, and a player with over 100 receiving yards. The Week 2 loss to the Carolina Panthers near-mirrored this in exact – Christian McCaffrey didn’t record that much in receptions, but he got there with 72 rushing yards and 65 receiving yards.
Explosive plays are typically defined as 20 yards or more, but I find 15-plus yard receptions just as deafening for the New Orleans defense. In the 34-24 loss to the Raiders, Las Vegas scored four touchdowns and two field goals. The Saints allowed three plays of 20 or more yards – two of which happened in touchdown drives, and four over 15 yards that all led to touchdowns. The Raiders’ initial scoring drive had no explosive play, but a defensive holding penalty on C.J. Gardner-Johnson led to two subsequent 13-yard receptions. A pass interference penalty on Marshon Lattimore on 3rd and 6 extended the only other touchdown drive free of big plays.
In their 37-30 loss to Green Bay, the Packers had three plays each of 20 or more yards and over 15 yards – all of which New Orleans allowed in four touchdown drives. Their third touchdown was aided by a pass interference call on Marcus Williams, and Janoris Jenkins had two in Green Bay’s final scoring drive – on 3rd & 3 and later in red zone.
Their Week 2 loss to Carolina read concerningly similar. The Panthers had three plays of 20 or more yards – all in touchdown drives, and four of their seven plays over 15 yards led to the endzone. Two scoring drives had defensive penalties by New Orleans. The defense vehemently bounced back just one week later, but it’s impossible to ignore the tally of long completions now through both losses.
Oddly enough, the number of explosive plays in Sunday’s loss didn’t incur as many consequences as it should’ve. The Saints allowed eight plays of 20 yards or more – three of which were in touchdown drives, and two were the sole play of the drive. Two of the six plays that went over 15 yards were involved in the only touchdown that wasn’t a singular 50-plus yard pass.
Tackles were frequently missed, communication and coverage broke down in a puzzling amount of zone defense, and the secondary at times frankly looked clueless. Rookie Paulson Adebo finally had a rough NFL initiation, a fumble recovery-turned-touchdown saw defensive players blankly stare at it like a hot potato, and their bend-don’t-break composure in New England dissipated entirely. One can only blame the defensive backs so much when the pass rush failed to generate an eon of pressure in the pocket. Daniel Jones may as well have knitted a sweater behind his offensive line that is certainly not touted as an elite one.
Alvin Kamara: Overworked and misutilized
Oct 3, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) is stopped by a New York Giants defender during the second half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Early in the offseason, I noticed Alvin Kamara’s training routine curiously transform into what appeared much more power focused. Rather than juggling three-sided objects on one foot on a medicine ball, his workout videos emphasized strength and backfield work alongside linebackers. I’ve quietly expected an increased workload for the team’s most dynamic offensive player – not nearly to this high a degree.
Christian McCaffrey is frequently compared to Kamara for good reason: dual threats known for their elusiveness and power despite lacking size. After an early injury sidelined McCaffrey most of last season, Carolina wasn’t mindful enough to weight longevity over his enticing return, and his unfortunate injury was the consequence.
Halfway through Sunday’s game, I pulled up McCaffrey’s season numbers; alarming was the rate Kamara eclipsed his carries by the quarter. McCaffrey had 52 carries before his Week 3 injury. Kamara now has 78 carries through four games. He had 15 carries by Week 4 his rookie season, 56 carries in 2018, 59 in 2019, and 50 last season through four games. Prior to this season, Kamara had one regular season game with 20 or more carries. His career-high 26 carries on Sunday are the third time he’s surpassed that this season.
While somewhat in line with his offseason regimen, and notable improvement in the offensive line Sunday, Kamara’s durability is being dangerously tested. It’s even harder to explain in tandem with the complete lack of receiving targets he’s best known for. Kamara frequented the leader board in receptions for the Saints the past few seasons as inarguably the most reliable receiver in the backfield absent Michael Thomas. For the first time in his storied career, Kamara’s role – or lack thereof – in New Orleans’ offense is perhaps the most confusing trend of all.
The conundrum of Taysom Hill
New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) celebrates his second touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
A further mystifying stat on Alvin Kamara is his zero rushing touchdowns this season. Exponentially weirder is this duty bestowed on Taysom Hill. Barring last season where he frequently found the endzone with his legs in his four-game stretch at quarterback, Hill’s three rushing touchdowns this season are quickly gaining on his career-high. In Sunday’s loss, the only two rushing touchdowns came from Hill. If the idea is perhaps to preserve Kamara, which the injury to Tony Jones Jr. reaffirms, Hill’s employment would be much more palatable. It was the passing plays – both in amount and timing – by Hill that were perplexing.
Jameis Winston has had a rough assimilation into the Saints offense – really by no fault of his own. I’ve admittedly criticized several of his ill-fated decisions in the last three games and maintain that scrutiny over certain throws. Sunday’s performance made a lot of things clear. Winston is improving, capable of commanding an offense and finding rhythm, and has earned the right to be the one under center to win or lose games. Isn’t that the paramount responsibility of quarterbacks?
While I advocated for Taysom Hill this offseason, I now see him as a football player – not a quarterback – first and foremost. All jokes aside, Hill is a legitimate threat as a runner, receiver, and frankly more positions than one should be capable of. The depleted New Orleans offense needs his versatility as a safety valve to survive.
What the offense doesn’t need is a confusing message at a position freshly in flux for the first time in 15 years. It was one thing when Brees was taken out in the red zone for Hill’s mobility; Brees’ unwavering composure was one of his best traits. To expect the same from Winston at this stage is simply unfair and unreasonable. Which is why the decision to put Hill in after Winston threw an impeccable touchdown that was called back felt so jarring. Winston had finally found a rhythm with a frankly mediocre supporting cast, and not only did he not regain that momentum, but he was barely even given the chance to do so.
Winston threw one pass following Hill’s turnover – ironically to Hill – and didn’t throw another pass until three possessions later with 6:11 left in the fourth quarter. In that same time frame, Hill threw a third pass to Adam Trautman on third down. A glaring contrast from the crucial third downs Winston was trusted to convert against New England. It honestly felt like he was the one that threw the interception instead of Hill.
Hill’s amount of passing attempts has a simple explanation: bolster credibility of Hill as a passing threat under center for his packages moving forward. The two short throws he completed were the right idea and perfectly sufficed this notion. Unnecessarily taking out Winston who was finally on a hot streak and in rhythm for a deep shot Hill’s never had the touch on in the first place is tough to rationalize. Nor is it subsequently fair to scrutinize that poor turnover – he’s not the starting quarterback for a reason.
Intentional or not, Sunday’s game plan gave the impression that Sean Payton isn’t entirely decided on which quarterback gives him the best chance to win, or which one he ultimately trusts with the game on the line. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Winston throws that same interception and is subsequently ramped up as a receiver, runner, and given additional pass attempts.
The trust may not be all the way there with Winston, but when it’s this palpable, it’s an issue. Winston won’t learn to sink or swim if he’s never taken out of the kiddie pool in the first place. There’s a nuanced confidence element of this that makes things different when Hill is in this often in favor of Winston than there was with Drew Brees. Brees certainly never felt like he was losing his starting role to the backup. Quite unfairly, Winston would be naïve to not look twice over his shoulder at the bench at this point.