ATLANTA – Sean Payton has made a few comments over the last couple of weeks to let us know that people aren’t looking at things the right way.
Not many lose full nights of sleep over who is playing left tackle, and outside of a few panicked tweets when Janoris Jenkins gets ruled out, no one spends too much time worrying over who is going to play cornerback and how it might change the scheme. But when it’s the quarterback, that’s all we talk about. Drew Brees goes down and every headline is about who will play the next game, and then, once they do play, every incompletion is analyzed with the eye of a forensic analyst.
Payton knows the positional value of a quarterback, that they touch the ball on every play and how important one is to success. He also has to know why everyone looks a little more closely at his team and how his quarterbacks are performing. Payton could tap one of these guys to step in for Brees full-time next season.
But in this situation, replacing the quarterback is like anything else. Sure, it costs a little more, and there is a bit more time and effort put into the process, but just like New Orleans created two layers of defense behind Terron Armstead at left tackle, it did the same at quarterback by bringing in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. You prepare James Hurst and Derrick Kelly just like you prepare Hill and Winston. When one (or two) go down, you turn to the next guy and move forward.
If we’ve learned anything about the Saints over the last two seasons, it’s that they can win with anyone. The players matter a lot, but New Orleans has built a team that is so strong, so deep, and so well-coached that, at times, it feels like it doesn’t really matter who is on the field. Of course, that isn’t true — it wasn’t that long ago that Payton and Brees couldn’t overcome a stripped-down roster – but this team is doing its best to sell the lie.
Sunday’s 21-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons, which ensured New Orleans would make the playoffs for a fourth-straight season, looked like another addition to his Coach of the Year-worthy resume, considering New Orleans is now 8-0 over the last two seasons without Brees. But the coach was hard on himself after the game, blaming himself for calling a play that caused Taysom Hill to fumble late in the game and opened the window for the Falcons to attempt a comeback.
The Saints closed the window, relying on their stellar defense, which they’ve been able to do of late. But the final stretch wasn’t without one last plot twist. While running out the clock, Hill fumbled again but was lucky to have the ball travel out of bounds.
This brings us to two truths in a season where it has taken a little bit longer than other years to reach these points.
The first is that New Orleans is the best team in the NFC. Several players were very clear this offseason about this year’s goal. “Super Bowl or bust,” they said. That goal should remain unchanged, and, I think, it’s fair to hold them to that standard. This team is too good, too close to accept any other outcome. We’ll see just how close they are to accomplishing the task after playing Kansas City in two weeks.
The other truth is that there is still no truth about Taysom Hill. He’s a guy who looks like he’s played three NFL games – one with potential, but one who has some serious but fixable flaws. Ball security is a huge issue. Hill knows it. The head coach knows it. They’re working on the problem, but it is, indeed, a problem.
There were two fumbles in this game. They weren’t the same. The second one was on a carry, which a defender knocked out. These are the inexcusable ones. The other one resulted from Hill trying to do too much and fumbling while trying to throw a pass. Payton took the blame for the first one, saying it was a bad play call, but it’s probably not that simple.
The call produced a wide-open Jared Cook, and Hill had time to see him, but didn’t. Hill also scrambled his way out of the pocket and attempted to throw the ball away instead of just taking a sack and playing third down. Maybe the call wasn’t great. Perhaps the Saints should have run the ball, ate up the clock, and relied on their strength. But Hill needs to protect the ball there.
Hill will learn how to manage those situations, and perhaps he’ll learn how to protect the ball as a runner better. There are no other options. Those are musts for a starting quarterback.
Hill had moments in this game where he looked the part. He ripped the Falcons apart on third downs, which is meaningful considering Atlanta switched up its coverages in those situations. During the first game, New Orleans saw single-high coverage almost exclusively. In this one, Atlanta played more two-safety looks on third downs. Hill was able to adjust, read the field and move the ball.
All of this was very encouraging, and Hill was about a quarter away from leaving Atlanta as someone with a significant amount of hype behind him, which would have been ideal considering this could be his last chance to start with Brees eligible to come off of injured reserve and play against Philadelphia next week. But after looking good for three quarters, he fell apart at the end.
His last drive of the third quarter featured a pass behind Jared Cook on second down and another incompletion on third down on a possibly overly aggressive pass to Michael Thomas. His performance up until that point was strong enough to gloss over a slow start and a dropped interception. Hill then fumbled on second-and-goal from the 5-yard line, couldn’t get a first down on the next series, and fumbled while running out the clock.
He’s ridden all the highs and lows throughout this game and his previous two starts. There are many good things – good enough at times to make you forget about all the things he isn’t doing well. But there have also been some low moments – including almost all of last week’s start against the Broncos.
There are moments, though. So, it comes down to what you want to believe. Can this coaching staff continue to pull from those and make Hill better? Can he make consistent decisions, develop a little more touch on his passes, and protect the ball?
The fact is, we can’t tell for sure. But for now, Hill has given the Saints precisely what they need – a chance to win every game. It felt more like the roster giving Hill a chance to win down the stretch in this one, but he did well earlier in the game. Still, that’s why only one of the truths has an answer.
If Brees does come back next week, we’ll still spend the offseason wondering if Hill is good enough or if Winston is good enough. That might have always been how it ended up, regardless of how these games played out. But even if it would have been a mirage, Hill was a quarter away from convincing people they had spotted an oasis.
WR Michael Thomas – The superstar wide receiver was back in action on Sunday. Thomas looked great, like his old self, from start to finish. There were some questions about his ankle injury impacting his play last week. There was none of that in this game.
S Marcus Williams – People forget how good Williams is outside of an errant moment here or there. But there was no doubt on Sunday. He forced people to notice and had a couple of plays in the box where he made strong tackles and looked like an enforcer. He helped break up a potential touchdown pass to Julio Jones late in the game that would have put the Saints up against the wall.
RB Alvin Kamara – It’s been a while. Kamara has had a few quiet games in a row, but he pieced together a strong performance on the ground that included a touchdown. Kamara’s patience as a runner really stood out in this game. He moves differently than other players.
OL Nick Easton – Something about right guard isn’t agreeing with the Saints this season. Easton stepped in for Cesar Ruiz, and after playing well all season, gave up what looked like four or five pressures. Andrus Peat also had a rough game. Not a great day for interior protection.
Taysom Hill’s fumbling — He has to figure out a way to stop this. He’s starting to develop a reputation, which needs to change.
CB Marshon Lattimore – Going against Calvin Ridley is never easy. The Atlanta wide receiver’s route-running is extremely impressive, and it stood out positively several times. But Lattimore is supposed to be among the best at what he does, and he simply wasn’t on Sunday. Not many of his beats were bad beats, but he did get beat a few times.
The Saints sent five or more pass rushers on eight plays, creating pressure on four of those. New Orleans was highly effective when sending four pass rushers, creating 13 pressures and three sacks on those plays.
New Orleans only used nine groupings in this game, which is extremely conservative for this team.
• One running back, one tight end, three wide receivers – 34 plays
• One running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers – 14 plays
• Six offensive linemen, two running backs, one tight end, one wide receiver – 6 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers – 5 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, two tight ends, one wide receiver – 5 plays
• Two running backs, three wide receivers – 5 plays
• Two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers – 2 plays
• One running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver – 2 plays
• Two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver – 2 plays
New Orleans played this one mostly out of subpackages
• Nickel (five defensive backs) – 30 plays
• Dime (six defensive backs) – 21 plays
• Base (four defensive backs) – 9 plays
• Dollar (seven defensive backs) – 3 plays
New Orleans had two very distinct packages at linebacker. Kwon Alexander and Demario Davis played in nickel, with Davis as the linebacker in dime packages. In base, Davis played alongside Zach Baun (9 snaps) and Alex Anzalone (9).