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Analysis: Saints offense trends critically down in Week 7 win vs. Seattle

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The New Orleans Saints’ 13-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks was their lowest number of points scored in a victory since 2018. Six games have proved a lot for this team: adaptability in spades; a Super Bowl contending defense; rookies expected to be rotating contributors arguably fought starting spots away from proven veterans; and when all else fails, Alvin Kamara is always the answer — his acrobatic style of play finally properly utilized by a patient Jameis Winston.

Yet, the sluggish road win officially slammed open Pandora’s Box and solidified now-critical concerns. Prior to the bye week, New Orleans had found beauty in winning ugly. Monday night affirmed this status quo. But it wasn’t exactly supposed to. The offensive line had starters in every position since the opening series in Week 1. Tre’Quan Smith returned for the first time this season poised to exploit Seattle’s woeful secondary.

How little they mattered to the New Orleans offense is nothing short of alarming. It’s hard to imagine the team felt this win held more promise. It’s hard to imagine these wins are sustainable. And it’s hard to imagine how that gets fixed with the tools at their disposal. Much like the tumultuous victory, the continuing trends fall into two stark camps through Week 7. Here’s the good and bad news:

Defense bent quite a bit – but proved unbreakable

Oct 25, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) reacts after a tackle against the Seattle Seahawks during the first quarter at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of this matchup spelled trouble. After New Orleans held Seattle to three-and-out their opening series, DK Metcalf was suddenly sprinting down the sidelines into the endzone two plays later. While he got away with pass interference against Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams still miffed on the tackle; the 84-yard touchdown the dagger of big plays this season.

The following defensive series opened with Lattimore incurring a personal foul for shoving Metcalf after he hit him first. The refs always see the second hit. Emotions seemed untethered – what happened to the steadfast discipline? By the end of the night, the team’s four unnecessary roughness penalties were the highest committed since 2013 against the St. Louis Rams. And yet, not one of them mattered even once all game.

That same penalty drive quickly went three-and-out. Tanoh Kpassagnon and Marcus Davenport emerged as a formidable duo; after stuffing a run for 3 yards, Kpassagnon got in Geno Smith’s face alongside Davenport to force a third down incompletion. The play prior, Lattimore forced an incompletion to Penny Hart. The offense, respectively, had punted three times.

Rookies Paulson Adebo and Pete Werner dominated the team’s next stop. Initially weak as a tackler, Adebo staunchly wrapped up Rashaad Penny for a loss. The second unnecessary roughness penalty transpired. In response, Adebo held Tyler Lockett to a deep incompletion. Werner sticks out in his immediate diagnostics and attack on the ball – he flew straight to Penny the next play to stuff a one-yard gain. Not only does the defense not have to worry about these rookies, but they’re straight up playmakers. Per PFF, Adebo was the highest graded run defender – followed by Pete Werner. Adebo was second only to Demario Davis in tackling. Despite missing a tackle – his first of the season – Werner slightly edged out Kwon Alexander in his coverage grade.

The two season losses mirrored previous defensive trends: conversions on third down and in red zone, explosive big plays, and awarding downs by penalty. Explosive plays can be team kryptonite; 14 plays by the New York Giants and 10 by the Carolina Panthers quickly spelled losses. Last week’s game got testy with nine explosive plays. This week, the defense allowed only two plays over 20 yards – one aided by Metcalf’s interference.

Seattle didn’t convert on third down until midway through the fourth quarter. And it was due to an absurd unnecessary roughness call on Davenport. Geno Smith finally ran in Seattle’s first legit third down on a 1-yard scramble the following series. The next third down was stuffed for no gain. While the next series allowed a field goal, the only culpable party in those points was Adam Trautman in his untimely fumble. Defense otherwise held three-and-out.

By the subsequent missed field goal, the statement on defense was deafening. They may bend – particularly when the offense struggles to sustain drives – but they simply refuse to break. The sense of calm and composure throughout the unit, quite frankly, feels nothing short of unprecedented in the Sean Payton era.

Can’t Guard Alvin Kamara?

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) passes to running back Alvin Kamara (41) for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Alvin Kamara might be making one of the strongest cases ever for a jack of all trades, master of all. His chameleonic season has seen his career-high in carries and career-low in targets. After failing to rush into the end zone for four games, Kamara recorded a rushing and receiving touchdown in last week’s win. His 51 receiving yards against Washington were his most since Week 10 of last season. His employment best illustrates the malleability of this new Saints team.

A dominant training camp headline centered on the quarterback competition and their respective ability to involve Kamara in the passing game. Last week finally showed a glimpse of that necessary barometer. Monday night’s victory blew any lingering concerns out of the water. Before last night, Kamara had over 100 receiving yards just three times since joining the league. His 128 receiving yards were his highest since Week 3 of last season against Green Bay.

With his 51 rushing yards, Kamara totaled 179 of the team’s net 304 offensive yards. He led both categories by a landslide. His 10 of 11 receptions were more than half of the 19 total by the team. Seattle’s first and only game plan was to shut down Kamara. It’s almost incredible how much they failed considering the remaining weapons on New Orleans’ offense.

Their sole touchdown drive goes nowhere with Kamara – and his growing connection with Winston. Several games early on this season saw a bit of frustration with Winston seemingly missing Kamara wide open on screens. In the scoring drive, a 14-yd completion to Kamara was followed by an incompletion to Stills. The two-minute drill kicked in right after, and it was surgical. A 6-yd scramble by Winston was bookmarked by two short completions to Kamara. The only other receiver to catch a pass that drive was Adam Trautman.

Despite fumbling the snap the following play, Winston wasn’t even rattled. Just like Drew Brees quickly looked up and dumped off to Latavius Murray in the midst of pressure in last year’s NFC Wild Card Game, Winston promptly picked up the football and chucked a touchdown to his ole’ reliable. Their chemistry is palpable – and a primary factor in Monday night’s win. The future of the Saints is still being painted, but there’s one player at the forefront. And the quarterback knows just how to use him.

Winning ugly can turn hideous and unsustainable

Seattle Seahawks defensive back Jamal Adams pressures New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

While oftentimes in jest, there’s no way around it: Monday night’s contest sorely missed Taysom Hill. The personification of winning ugly, Hill has proved a keen safety valve for a team struggling with health and identity on offense. He’s been the second-leading rusher in three games; Hill has more receiving yards than Kenny Stills, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Tre’Quan Smith. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns with three this season.

Hill’s absence pointed out glaring weaknesses – in more than one unit. The preseason began with a crowded backfield of Alvin Kamara, Tony Jones Jr., Latavius Murray, and Devonta Freeman; frequent employment of fullbacks through camp implied heavy emphasis on the running game. Instead, an injury to Jones Jr. has left the position group alarmingly vulnerable. Kamara was never meant to be an every down back. And yet, the team has no answer past a duo of quarterbacks. Kamara, Winston, and Hill account for 622 of the team’s total 723 rushing yards.

A survey of the receiving corps concludes much worse. Adam Trautman has been an utter disappointment. Even with an ill-timed fumble, he quickly became the next-best answer at receiver past Kamara on Monday night. If you take out the production at tight end and running back – at receiver – just 50 yards recorded between 6 pass catchers.

Kenny Stills was brought in to be a reliable option while players like Smith and Thomas nursed back health. He’s caught 3 of 12 targets – and dropped all 3 against Seattle. Tre’Quan Smith was an absolute failure in his awaited return. After spending the offseason training with Winston and cultivating chemistry, he caught a whopping 1 of 3 targets while looking lost on the field. So much so, he incurred an earful from both head coach Sean Payton and typically jovial Winston.

Who could blame Winston at this point? He certainly has culpability in several short, inaccurate throws. A deeper look at film is required to analyze whether he missed reads or took sacks when he shouldn’t. But it’s not as if Drew Brees was impermeable to error. It was always his response to adversity that made Brees great. If we’re fairly evaluating Winston on the same metrics, it’s hard to say he’s done anything but emulate Brees as best he can while retaining his own identity.

Early in the game, Winston ran the offense we’re used to seeing in New Orleans. One series saw him smartly throw a quick screen for a big gain by Trautman. After missing two similarly open plays that same drive, he checked it down decisively to Kamara. There wasn’t a throw that made me wince. Several sacks he appeared to be looking around to make a play; he showed growth in his willingness to take these sacks and live for another down. After catching flak just last week for an ill-thrown attempt to Chris Hogan on third down – rather than tucking it and running free – Winston never tried to be the savior.

Instead, he ran quite impressively, even faking out defenders with finesse twice. The lopsided 10-minute drive that nearly took the entire second quarter wouldn’t have sustained but for two fourth-down runs by Winston. In fact, Winston is making his way up the leaderboard as a legitimate mobile quarterback. He’s ranked 11th in the league with 126 rushing yards – ahead of Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott, Tua Tagovailoa, and Joe Burrow. He’s 9th in yards per game – ahead of Justin Fields and Kyler Murray. He’s done everything he can to win a football game past revert into his old ways.

Unfortunately, patience has yet to pay off for Winston and it’s hard to see a clear path to success. Michael Thomas still has no definitive timetable to return; it’s debatable he makes a Super Bowl berth difference. Even with the addition of Deonte Harris. On a primetime stage, New Orleans showed its cards – or lack thereof. The Saints have a serious problem at receiver. This would remain no matter the quarterback. Winston showed clear heeding of Brees’ advice in his play Monday night. Several passes thrown in the dirt when there were no options with situational awareness to stop the clock. Several sacks taken without spinning out and chucking it up.

The coaching in Winston is clear and noticeable through six games. He hasn’t regressed to old habits since Week 2. He’s passed up several opportunities to play hero ball for quick check downs and deliberate incompletions into the dirt. Winston is ready to command and lead this team at quarterback. He won’t get anywhere close to his potential with this receiving cast. And what a shame of stunted development that would be, and a year of promise with ultimately no long-term answers. This receiving group is unfair and unfit for a starting quarterback. It’s time to recognize this before a critical evaluation year is lost along with Super Bowl aspirations.

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