What went right, what went wrong for the Saints in 2022

There’s plenty to criticize about a 7-10 football team, but it wasn’t all bad for the New Orleans Saints. They exited the 2022 season with plenty to think about, work with, and maybe put behind them as the calendar turns towards 2023.

From lowlights like Andy Dalton and Dennis Allen’s performance on top of the program to a surprisingly-fraught special teams unit to bright up-and-comers in Chris Olave, Juwan Johnson, and Rashid Shaheed, there’s plenty to discuss. And that doesn’t even get into the front office decisions that put this team together.

So let’s break it down. We’re recapping what went right and what went wrong for the Saints in 2022:

What went wrong: Dennis Allen's instincts on fourth down

There’s plenty that could be said about Allen’s decisions as head coach, but we’ll focus on this area in particular. It’s his call to go for a conversion on fourth down or kick the ball away, and he routinely got burned for playing those moments too cautiously. No team attempted fewer fourth down conversions than the Saints (11), and only the Cincinnati Bengals successfully converted fewer of them (3, against New Orleans’ 4). You can’t coach scared and expect to win many games.

The Saints faced fourth-and-short (needing 1 to 3 yards to convert) inside opposing territory 18 times this season and wound up kicking 9 field goals and 3 punts. When they did actually go for it on 6 plays (3 runs, 3 passes) they only came away with 3 first down conversions; 1 of those was thanks to a defensive penalty on an incomplete pass. For years they were one of the NFL’s most aggressive teams on fourth down, which gave the Saints a competitive edge. But that edge left with Sean Payton.

What went right: The new kids

There’s plenty to like about the Saints’ rookie class. 2022 draft picks like Chris Olave and Alontae Taylor made plays throughout the season, while youngers like Trevor Penning, Rashid Shaheed, and Lewis Kidd gained valuable experience as they worked their way into the offense. Olave came close to resetting the team’s rookie receiving records, while Taylor made it tough for New Orleans to keep him off the field once they got healthier late in the season.

And it’s important to see young blockers like Penning and Kidd getting a taste of NFL competition. They made the jump from lower levels of college play at Northern Iowa and Montana State and didn’t embarrass themselves, which is a good first step towards becoming someone the team can count on.

What went wrong: Pete Carmichael's offense

The Saints wanted to be a run-first offense, but they struggled to get going on the ground throughout the season — Alvin Kamara only had a couple of 100-yard games as a rusher, and Carmichael was reluctant to turn to Taysom Hill as a regular piece of the running game. Hill only had 5 games with 9 or more rushing attempts despite averaging 6.0 yards a pop on the ground, the highest of his career. Few teams logged as many rushing attempts on second-and-long while averaging so few years gained per carry.

And the passing game was out of sorts all season. There was no screen element with Kamara, which is really odd given how productive a history he has in that role. Whether Carmichael didn’t trust his offensive line to execute those blocking assignments or his quarterbacks to hit the timing-based throws is unclear. Maybe he just didn’t see the value in designed screens like that and preferred random shot plays to practice squad receivers instead.

At the end of the day the Saints offense was held to 200 or fewer passing yards in 7 games, going 2-5 in those contests. That’s brutal, especially given how much talent they’ve stacked up at the skills positions. Finding a new quarterback is key, but so is finding a play caller who can maximize what’s available to them.

What went right: Juwan Johnson and Kaden Elliss making a big leap

We’ll single out Johnson here because he went from being the team’s third-best tight end in training camp to tying for the third-most touchdown catches among tight ends across the league (7). He has emerged as a big-time scoring threat in the red zone and a consistent source of big plays with 14 receptions of 15 or more yards (second-most on the team behind Chris Olave’s 24). Johnson is a restricted free agent in March and re-signing him should be an easy decision. Adam Trautman is a competent No. 2 option at tight end, but Johnson should be in the driver’s seat for that position group moving forward.

As for Elliss: he’s toiled on special teams for years before playing defensive snaps extensively for the first time in his career this season, and he made the most of that opportunity by standing out in run defense and making plays as a pass rusher (his 7 sacks are the second-most on the team). Big props to him for stepping up when the team needed him after injuries to Pete Werner and Zack Baun. He’s also a free agent in the spring, but his unrestricted status might make it hard for New Orleans to re-sign him.

What went wrong: The special teams units

We’ll start with Wil Lutz. The former Pro Bowl kicker had nearly as many missed field goals in 2022 (8) as he had in his previous two seasons combined (9), posting the lowest conversion rate of his career (74.2%). He hasn’t been the same after a core muscle injury knocked him out for the entire 2021 season. Now he’s looking like a salary cap cut candidate. That’s bad news for him and the Saints after New Orleans struggled to replace him in 2021. It’s disappointing for all involved.

What about Blake Gillikin? The second-year punter took a step back this season, but it’s not clear how much of that is on him. New Orleans’ coverage team was inconsistent all year long, leading to more touchbacks (7 over last year’s 4) and a slightly lower average of yards per punt (46.4 against last season’s 47.7). But Gillikin placed more punts inside the opposing 20-yard line (41.6% against 34.9% last year) while allowing far fewer punts to be returned (26, compared to 43 of them a year ago). We’ll give him a mulligan and hope for cleaner play in 2023.

Special teams penalties were a problem. The Saints were fouled 15 times for fouls in the kicking game, tied for 10th-most around the league. And it didn’t really get cleaned up — five of those penalties came in November and December, when teams should have had enough time in practice to break bad habits. They’ve got to buckle down on this moving forward.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire