The New Orleans Saints lost their first regular season game against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 somewhat inexplicably. It’s a difficult ask for the defense to pitch a shutout against Brady twice—though they did so through the first half. While they’ve performed at Super Bowl caliber, the offense looked like a group of strangers. Despite the overwhelming weapons at wide receiver, New Orleans could not sustain drives or momentum past the opening series. The offense has been out of sync barring one quarter this season.
Head coach Dennis Allen in his postgame remarks referred to the turnover battle as the story of this matchup and noted it was the deciding factor in Sunday’s loss. It doesn’t explain everything, but the game was tied until the fourth quarter. Five turnovers are insurmountable. Mark Ingram has to be better at ball protection to remain the next man up in the absence of Alvin Kamara.
The focus, ultimately, was on Jameis Winston’s turnovers and inaccuracy on deep balls. I think the back injury took people off guard, myself included, and it was hard to evaluate that inside the game in real-time. That, in tandem with the deep throws that were leaned on perplexingly given how they failed, made me explore his play on film deeper. I also did some research on his specific spinal fractures. Here’s what I saw:
Instant reactions to the loss split the blame between Winston and the game plan, and some of that is fair. Quickly, the narrative of Winston and turnovers took the forefront; so did the play calling of what felt like mystifying deep shots he could not execute. If Winston was fully healthy, I think we’d see the offensive game plan differently.
Winston’s previous issues with interceptions had more to do with throwing across the middle and failing to see a player breaking in coverage, more so than an underthrown deep ball. In fact, that’s arguably Winston’s greatest strength; on the surface level, that game plan made sense. We’ve seen him win with those throws—it’s how he won the quarterback competition. His ability to launch a throw 70 yards downfield looks easy, and we’ve seen him be accurate on those often. Sure, some plays had easier targets open. One interception thrown in the fourth quarter should have been a Chris Olave touchdown, with him beating his coverage downfield. It wasn’t a poor decision. It was a poor throw.
This is ultimately speculative, but I think the context of his injury has been dismissed. If nothing else, it was his first game playing hurt, and if you’ve played a sport before, you’ll know sometimes you have to learn your limitations the hard way in real-time. I went through a few of his passing plays, and his lower body mechanics stuck out to me. I wasn’t exactly sure how his specific spinal fractures played a role. This runs somewhat heavy in medical jargon, so bear with me.
Winston has fractures in his L1 to L4 vertebrae, known as the lumbar part of his spine. It’s in the lower back, and those vertebrae control a lot, including the communication between your brain and lower body. It also has obvious physical limitations. Because of its location, the lumbar spine after the L2 vertebrae is no longer attached to spinal cord tissue. After that, nerve roots exit each remaining vertebrae.
Winston has four fractures, with two in that nerve root portion. It’s important to note here that we don’t know the specifics or extent of each fracture; the severity dictates the symptoms of injury. But here’s what to expect with each one.
The L1 and L2 vertebrae affect your hips and legs. Injuries there can reduce hip flexion and range of motion, and sometimes a feeling of numbness in your lower body. L3 is where it’s no longer connected to the spinal cord tissue. An injury here now involves nerve roots, leading to a sense of weakness in the lower extremities, and loss of flexibility in your hips, legs, and groin. Numbness and weakness might sound similar, but you retain strength with numbness—you just lose range of motion. Weakness means you actually lose strength; it’s no longer a superficial feeling.
Not only do you have a reduced range of motion, but within those confines, you lose flexibility in your stance. L4 injuries are typically less severe but are important here: it affects your ability to bend your feet as well in a particular direction. Those vertebrae can uniquely affect the play at quarterback.
Think about the passing stance for a quarterback and how it looks. Feet shoulder width apart, weight slightly more on your back foot to push off and transfer to your front foot to deliver the pass. Proper stance helps get that torque motion to rotate with your knees slightly bent. You have to be able to feel the weight of your body over the balls of your feet.
Again, this is lacking context of particular injuries to Winston, but it’s hard not to see how that can affect footwork. With the potential symptoms in the legs, hips, groin, and feet, you can see a bit of change in Winston’s mechanics. Looking at those deep shots, knowing the weight transfer that’s necessary to complete the throwing motion, something looked off. His feet weren’t set cleanly. His offseason work featured a lot of footwork drills. It also looked like he struggled to fully twist his body at times, putting a lot of upper body into it.
Winston’s footwork can look a bit frantic at times, but it feels deliberate to be aware of resetting his feet for each read. I think Winston’s growth can go back to his footwork—something I thought was underrated in Drew Brees’ game. If his injury made it hard to reset his stance and use full range of motion, it’s easy to see how it affects throws. The interceptions and some incompletions were too inside, underthrown, and that’s not typical for him. If you focus on his dropback, I think a lot makes sense about what went wrong Sunday.
My point isn’t to cause alarm, and the team has said there’s no further risk of damage to the already-injured vertebrae. It’s pain management. That’s present every given Sunday at nearly every position on every team. But at quarterback, knowing that Winston’s injuries can affect the nerves that extend to your lower body, it’s hard not to see a correlation to his inaccuracy on deep throws. Injuries are unavoidable in every sport. Every injured player has to have that first game figuring out how injuries affect movement.
That’s where I would place some issues with the game plan, and the inability to change gears. Moving forward, it’ll be curious to see the adjustments, as some shots he seemed unable to take. It might’ve been the best game plan for a healthy Winston against the Buccaneers. But against the Carolina Panthers, it feels like the offense needs to be designed around an injured quarterback, at least to a degree.
It was a shame that it overshadowed an elite defensive performance. New Orleans has one of the most ferocious run-stopping secondaries I’ve witnessed. And possibly the best linebacker duo the team has ever had. After Sunday’s performance, I think Pete Werner is currently the best defender on the team.
In Tampa Bay’s opening drive, the first two plays of the game were all Werner. The first was a rush for no gain, and he immediately diagnosed and shot through his gap. He sheds his blocks and tackles with power and surprising upper body strength for his size. Pound for pound, Werner’s tackling has been lethal. He then broke up a pass in coverage after dropping back patiently in his zone. He displays the ability to read routes, good timing to accelerate towards targets, eye discipline on the quarterback, and seems to tackle to strip the ball out deliberately. Werner had several back-to-back stops on rushing plays and has a lot of quickness to evade blockers. Between his athletic traits, mental processing, and toughness to make critical stops, he’s been nothing short of a game changer.
The moment was never too big for Werner. There was another player to point to in that same fashion: rookie Alontae Taylor. Marshon Lattimore’s erroneous ejection had a silver lining in evaluating Taylor’s play. He came in cold off the bench after missing much of camp with injury. One would think Tom Brady would look at him like he was lunch. Taylor took away his target on nearly every play. His experience at wide receiver clearly displayed in his ability to shade receivers and use his hands to disrupt their routes while not getting juked by their suddenness in cuts. Taylor’s anticipation shone. He shed blocks from tight ends with power, carried Breshad Perriman on a deep vertical route, and never lost a step. In the one play he did slip, he tackled so hard he knocked the ball out. His quick reaction due to play recognition and arm placement to strip the football was so similar to Werner’s, it seems intently coached. It was an incredible performance in limited snaps for rookie Taylor.
This is a defense that wins every given Sunday with competence on offense. It may be subject to Winston’s limitations for the near future, but the issues don’t seem insurmountable. The panic button shouldn’t be hit yet, and Winston should get some time to adjust to his pain management. There’s a path to victory, but figuring out the winning formula may be in flux for a while this season.