If weather lives up to hype, Taysom Hill could trump Andy Dalton, Deshaun Watson as most important QB

Oh, the irony.

We’ve spent most of this Saints season debating the merits of Andy Dalton vs. Jameis Winston. And before that, New Orleans’ offseason was clouded by its controversial pursuit of Deshaun Watson.

But come Saturday, Taysom Hill might wind up being the most important quarterback on the field when the Browns host the Saints in some of the nastiest weather conditions we’ve seen in any NFL game in decades.

If forecasts are correct, the Saints and Browns could be playing in winds of 25-35 miles per hour with gusts over 60 – and temperatures in the teens.

It’s not out of the question that both teams could consider an approach similar to the Patriots’ winning formula in Buffalo last December when they ran the ball on 46 of their 49 plays. (At kickoff, the wind in that game was 27 mph with a temp of 36.)

That’s why sports books have set the over-under total in the range of 31.5 to 32.5 points – which could wind up as the lowest since a Browns-Bengals game was set at 31 in 2008.

Hill was built for a game like this.

Unfortunately, so were Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and a strong offensive line that has helped Cleveland rank among the NFL’s top five rushing offenses for the third straight year.

But those guys don’t line up at QB. And in a game where everybody in the stadium knows both teams are practically forced to run the ball, it helps when your QB is your best power runner. As former coach Sean Payton always explained, you get to play 11-on-11 instead of 10-on-11.

Frankly, I’m not sure the Saints could run enough read-option or QB power plays with Hill in this one, considering the conditions – and, ya know, considering the fact that Hill is averaging a career-best 6.6 yards per rush this year (449 yards on 68 carries).

Only Justin Fields (6.99) and Lamar Jackson (6.82) are averaging more among players with at least 13 rushes.

Also unfortunate for the Saints – they will be without right guard Cesar Ruiz, who was placed on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury on the final offensive snap of last week’s win over Atlanta. And left guard Andrus Peat’s status is in doubt because of illness.

However, on the plus side, Cleveland’s defense has been vulnerable against the run, ranking 24th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (133.1), 29th in rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.97) and 30th in the Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for run defenses.

The only real question is whether the Saints will mix in a smattering of Hill at quarterback – or truly go “full Taysom” in a way they never really even did when he started a total of nine games at QB from 2020-2021.

Hill has never run the ball more than 14 times in a NFL game. But the Saints are 13-1 when he has had at least seven carries.

(Obviously there is a chicken-vs-egg qualifier to that statistic, since it’s easier for the Saints to call more Hill runs when they are leading – and harder to stick with the run when they’re trailing. But still, 13-1 surprised me.)

Here are Hill’s rushing stats in those 14 games (* = started at QB):

* 2020 Week 13, 21-16 Win at Falcons: 14 carries, 83 yards, 0 TDs

* 2021 Week 17, 18-10 Win vs Panthers: 12-45-0

* 2021 Week 13, 27-17 Loss vs Cowboys: 11-101-0

* 2021 Week 14, 30-9 Win at Jets, 11-73-2

* 2021 Week 15, 9-0 Win at Buccaneers, 11-33-0

2022 Week 8, 24-0 Win vs Raiders, 10-61-0

* 2020 Week 11, 24-9 Win vs Falcons, 10-49-2

* 2020 Week 12, 31-3 Win at Broncos, 10-44-2

2022 Week 5, 39-32 Win vs Seahawks, 9-112-3

2022 Week 11, 27-20 Win vs Rams, 9-52-0

2020 Week 10, 27-13 Win vs 49ers, 8-45-0

2020 Week 9, 38-3 Win at Buccaneers, 7-54-0

2020 Week 17, 33-7 Win at Panthers, 7-41-1

2022 Week 15, 21-18 Win vs Falcons, 7-30-0

Hill also has a total of 15 fumbles (six of them lost) over his career, including some when he was hit in the pocket instead of running. And he just fumbled in his most recent carry while trying to sneak the ball on fourth-and-1 during a rare snap taken directly under center instead of the shotgun. However, that was just Hill’s second fumble this year. He only had two fumbles in 2021 as well. And he hasn’t lost a fumble since 2020.

We spent the whole week talking to Saints players and coach Dennis Allen about the weather conditions. But nobody really tipped their hand as far as game planning goes – other than to say they’ll have an initial plan and contingency plans based on how strong the wind is and what direction it is blowing.

“It’s gonna be cold and windy. But, look, it’s gonna be cold and windy for both teams. So we’re not gonna make too big a deal about it. And … really the focus has to be on the team we’re playing,” Allen said – which was obviously his message to the team since several players repeated some version of it.

My favorite quote came from tight end Juwan Johnson, who was one of several players who seemed to embrace the unique circumstances.

“These are games like this that you’ll always remember,” Johnson said. “So I’m just gonna try to enjoy it.”

I know I’ll have my popcorn ready, eager to see the approach from both teams.

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