The New Orleans Saints haven’t played in front of their home crowd since Kirk Cousins connected with Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone on Jan. 5, 2020. The game was a Wild-Card matchup that ended in controversy, as the Saints lost 26-20 in overtime. On third-and-goal, Rudolph appeared to push off defensive back P.J. Williams as he high-pointed a Cousins pass to advance the Vikings in the playoffs.
Two years before the Rudolph touchdown was the Minneapolis Miracle, where Stefon Diggs caught a pass over Marcus Williams, who misjudged the ball in flight, leading to a Vikings victory in the Divisional Round. The very next year was the defensive pass interference non-call in the NFC title game that propelled the Rams into the Super Bowl.
In recent years, there’s been some rough luck for the Saints, but now football is back in the Superdome. The Saints had to play week one in Jacksonville due to Hurricane Ida. They proceeded to beat down on the Packers and now sit at 2-1 after defeating the Patriots 28-13 in Foxborough. The Saints’ fans have been waiting, and they will be ready on Sunday.
The Saints’ offense is predicated on running the football. Quarterback Jameis Winston is winning football games with 14 completions and 20 passing attempts - they rely on a strong defensive game plan. Head coach Sean Payton wants to mitigate offensive mistakes and play efficient football. It’s worked two out of three weeks. They were missing most of their offensive coaching staff, due to a COVID-19 outbreak, in their Week 2 26-7 loss at Carolina.
The Saints average 120 yards per game on the ground - ranking in the top 10. They’re 31st in passing yards with 113 yards per game, and it would be dead last if Chicago weren’t so abysmal in Week 3. Nevertheless, New Orleans ranks 14th in points scored through three games with an average of 24.3. Here’s a breakdown of the Saints roster.
Winston is 2-1 on the season, and he has only 27 passing completions. Winston completed 14 passes in Week 1 and threw five touchdowns - that type of success isn’t typically sustainable. Winston has always been a gunslinger who’s prone to mistakes. He joined the 30 for 30 (30 touchdowns and interceptions) club in 2019. This led to Buccaneers head coach moving from Winston and bringing in Tom Brady to lead the offense.
Patrick Graham did a good job in 2020 of taking advantage of inexperienced or mistake-prone quarterbacks with his pre- to post-snap safety rotations. This hasn’t been the case in 2021. Sean Payton is going to do everything in his power to mitigate Winston’s mistakes. Still, bad tendencies can arise if Graham can put this defense into a position to force Winston to be careless with the football.
Winston isn’t the only quarterback to worry about on this roster. Swiss-Army knife Taysom Hill also plays quarterback for Payton. He’s dangerous in the red zone on zone/read type of run plays with running back Alvin Kamara. Hill has eight carries for 49-yards and a touchdown so far this season. He played eight of his 33 snaps at quarterback against the Patriots. Don’t be surprised to see Hill inserted into the game, specifically in short-yardage situations.
Alvin Kamara is one of the more electric athletes in the NFL. His dual-threat ability as a smoother than butter runner, combined with his adept receiving skills, make him a dangerous weapon. This season, Kamara has 177 yards on 55 carries and 10 catches on 13 targets for 62 yards and two touchdowns.
Payton is going to split Kamara all over the field. He’s going to motion him to create mismatches, and I’m sure he’ll attempt to isolate Kamara against Tae Crowder and Reggie Ragland. Expect a heavy dose of No. 41 next Sunday.
Tony Jones Jr. is the backup to Kamara after the team decided to release longtime backup Latavius Murray. Jones Jr. is a powerful back who runs behind his pads, low to the ground. He will spell Kamara now and then but is a distant second fiddle to Kamara.
The Saints don’t have any star receivers at the moment. Marquez Callaway caught his first touchdown pass of the season against the Patriots, but he’s failed to live up to the offseason hype. Michael Thomas remains on IR, and Tre’Quan Smith has yet to play. Callaway is an underrated receiving option who can create big plays downfield but is far from a true number one receiver.
The rest of the Saints receivers are either role players or older journeymen. Deonte Harris is an undersized (5’6, 190 lbs) speedster who can command safety help on the outside when he goes deep. Harris caught a long 55-yard touchdown in week one against the Packers. He’s exciting and explosive but a role player.
The rest of the receiving corps consists of Chris Hogan, Kenny Stills, and Ty Montgomery. Hogan had good years with the Patriots, but he’s pushing 33 years old. Stills has speed but was run out of Houston last season. He’s 29 and played 29 snaps against the Patriots. Montgomery used to be a running back with the Green Bay Packers, but he now operates more as a receiver. He’s 28 years old, hasn’t been relevant for a while, and played 13 offensive snaps against New England.
This position group is interesting. Sean Payton has always utilized tight ends heavily in his offensive approach. I like Adam Trautman, the 2020 third-round pick out of Dayton. He’s one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL - last year, Pro Football Focus had him ranked number one overall.
Trautman’s receiving skills haven’t been actualized in the NFL. He has been running routes but not receiving many targets, and I think he could be in for more offensive production shortly. Payton may want him to stay in and block some with left tackle Terron Armstead missing the game, but Trautman does have receiving ability - it just hasn’t been used much this season.
Juwan Johnson is a converted wide receiver who caught two touchdown passes against the Packers in Week 1. Johnson doesn’t play nearly as many snaps as Trautman, but Payton uses Johnson’s big frame in key situations (goal line, third down, etc.). Johnson creates mismatches against linebackers because he ate the biscuit and is now technically listed as a tight end at 231 pounds. Watch out for play-action rollouts with Johnson leaking out the backside. He has seven targets on 31 passing plays.
Sean Payton also uses Garrett Griffin primarily as a blocker. Griffin is physical and does a good job in the Saints’ heavier personnel package. The tandem of Griffin and Trautman make for two solid blocking tight ends. Taysom Hill will also frequently be used as an H-Back, and his presence keeps defenses guessing.
The losses of Terron Armstead and center Erik McCoy has hurt the overall nature of this offensive line, but they’re still a quality unit. When healthy, this offensive line is a top-three unit.
Cesar Ruiz has been filling in for McCoy. The second-year player out of Michigan is a better run blocker than a pass protector right now. He plays with good leverage, and his play strength at the point of attack is excellent. Speed to power defensive lineman can give Ruiz trouble, and I expect a player like Dexter Lawrence to give the young center some trouble.
Andres Peat and Calvin Throckmorton are solid players, but players the Giants’ defensive front should exploit. Peat is a converted tackle who kicked inside to guard a few years into his career, and Throckmorton is a 2020 undrafted player out of Oregon. He’s a big body, but he’s stiff. Lawrence and Leonard Williams have to win these 1-on-1 matchups against Ruiz, Throckmorton, and Peat.
The offensive line is still good, despite the injuries. Ryan Ramczyk is the best of the bunch. The Giants passed on an opportunity to select Ramczyk in the first round of the 2017 draft. Coming out of Wisconsin, Ramczyk had a hip issue that dropped him to the end of the first round, where the Saints gladly selected him. Ramczyk is now on his second contract and continues to be one of the better right tackles in the NFL.
Replacing the injured Armstead is James Hurst, a 29-year-old who has a lot of experience. The Giants’ EDGE group hasn’t gained a ton of pressure through three games. If they want to get pressure on Winston, stunts/twists and five-man pressure packages should do the trick. If the Giants are sending four and expecting pressure, rookie Azeez Ojualri can take advantage of Hurst. Ojualri and Carter aren’t designated to one side.
Payton will not put Winston into a position to take sacks and throw interceptions, so the Giants pass rush has to be quick, and the cornerbacks have to be disciplined at the line of scrimmage. The Superdome is going to be fired up on Sunday, and the Giants are in desperation mode. Let’s see what Joe Judge and this coaching staff can put together as they head into a hostile environment with a winless record.