The Rundown: He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but Justin Hardee is Saints’ most impactful player on special teams

Justin Hardee was dominating every punt.

Single coverage. Double coverage. Didn’t matter. The Saints gunner was on a tear early in the season, and he made every rep look the same. Beat the jammer off the line, get down the field, force a fair catch. The precision and predictability of his success were like that of a Swiss watch.

After seeing Hardee win over and over, the Packers decided to try something different and have their jammer line up about 7 yards down the field so he wouldn’t get blown away off the line of scrimmage. This was basically like a cornerback playing off coverage against a wide receiver who beats jams. The approach was unique, and Green Bay deserves credit for that, but Hardee still beat the guy down the field.

“I think a lot of times (Hardee) draws a lot of attention, which frees up some other guys to make some plays,” special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said. “And that kind of goes unnoticed sometimes.”

(Note: The Packers could be protecting against a fake here, but it’s still an unusual look, and adds to Hardee’s value)

Hardee has been out the last month with a groin injury. He returned to practice this week, signifying that he is now eligible to return from injured reserve. The timing couldn’t be better with Marquez Callaway, another special teams standout, landing on injured reserve last week.

This is an aspect of the game that is easy to overlook or take for granted, but Hardee might be one of the biggest difference-makers on special teams in the NFL. He doesn’t have the All-Pro accolades awarded by media members, but teams have decided he’s the guy who needs extra attention on the field. The reasoning is easy to see why. Before getting injured, Hardee was singled by the punt-return team 13 times. He beat his guy down the field, forced seven fair catches, tackled the returner for no gain once, and downed another punt.

That success is why things like the play against the Packers happened and why teams like the Bears and Lions decided he was the player who should receive a double team. Those approaches free other players to go down the field and make plays. Hardee says that he’s happy when someone else can make a play when he’s drawing extra attention, but even in those moments, he’s just thinking about finding a way to succeed.

“Even getting double-teamed against, game plans, I still feel like I need to find a way,” Hardee said. “I feel like there’s no excuse. My team counts on me so I need to get down there and make plays regardless of whether they’re sending 11 at me. I want to be the guy to make the play.”

Hardee is an athletic and explosive player but succeeding on special teams isn’t just about running around people and beating them down the field. There is a craft to this, and Hardee has worked hard to be at the top of his game. He studies players who are similar to him to see if there are things he can adopt for his game during specific matchups, and sometimes that process includes just looking across the field at teammate J.T. Gray.

But one of the guys he watches consistently is Matthew Slater. The Patriots star has a legitimate chance of getting into the Hall of Fame as a special teams player, and his film was vital in helping Hardee find an identity in his role. At the recommendation of a Texans coach, Hardee started studying Slater. His tenacity stood out at first, but then Hardee began to adopt some of his techniques. The two have since formed a friendship over their mutual respect for one another.

“I took some of that to my game. I believe that’s why I go hard,” Hardee said. “Of course, that’s not up to me, but I would say I definitely took some of his tactics and added it to my game. I believe it’s been beneficial, and I just want to get better.”

No problems so far on that last point.

JAMEIS IN THE MIX: Sean Payton did a media tour this week, and during one stop provided some interesting answers on his backup quarterbacks and how it pertains to Jameis Winston.

“I feel like our next quarterback is in the building,” Payton said. “I feel like Taysom is someone that is getting a great opportunity now. Jameis has had that experience. We think extremely highly of Jameis Winston. For us it’s about acquiring guys that we think can be starters in this league and play at a high level. … The experience and exposure we’ve had to Jameis has been fantastic. I’m glad he’s here. I think that we’re in that business of evaluating, but also coaching and developing that position.”

Not really a surprise to hear Payton say that he believes his next quarterback is already in the building. People around the team truly believe that they have two players on the roster capable of starting in the league. Winston has already shown that ability, and Hill is doing it right now. The question is, how good can those players become.

Seeing if Winston gets another shot next camp will be fascinating. His price will almost certainly go up from the $1 million he received this offseason but by how much? Is New Orleans sold enough on Hill to let Winston walk, or will he or someone else be brought in to force Hill to win the job?

STAPLE: The play Jared Cook scored on against Atlanta is a passing concept the Saints often run. The inside route from the trips side of the formation gets used to dig out the safety, while a player on the outside of the formation uses his one-on-one matchup to cut inside on a post route.

New Orleans used a similar route concept against the Packers on an Emmanuel Sanders touchdown. The formation looks a little different, and the order of the routes has some window dressing, but the coverage is attacked the same way.

BACKUP COMPARISON: Took a quick look at how backup quarterbacks have performed throughout the NFL the last two seasons. Figuring out which games to count and which ones not to count is a little bit subjective. I tried to bypass games where a backup was starting in place of someone who got benched and outright skipped some situations where teams were cycling between players and limited it to games where someone was holding it down for the starter.

During that span, the Saints have gone 8-0 with backups. The rest of the league is 16-66. The Steelers have managed to go 5-3 with Mason Rudolph at quarterback, which is commendable, but no one else stands out positively.

New Orleans has done an incredible job with backups. The team has set itself up well by acquiring highly-talented players, but the rest of the league could have pursued the same guys. The Saints claimed Hill off waivers and paid next to nothing for Winston.

DID YOU KNOW: Jared Cook has only been on the field for 92 running plays this season, or 27% of his snaps. Nothing has changed, the rate was similar last season, but this does help explain why he was out-snapped so significantly by Adam Trautman in some run-heavy games.

How the other right ends get used:

Adam Trautman: Run 55%, Pass 45%

Garrett Griffin: Run 73%, Pass 27%

CHECKING ON HURTS: Someone at some point will trot out a stat about rookie quarterbacks against the Saints. Ignore it when it shows up. This team isn’t the same as the one that saw Jared Goff or whoever else over the years.

Seeing Jalen Hurts in his first start does create some challenges. There is no tape or information. But New Orleans will scout the offensive concepts, look at what Hurts has done in the past, and prepare for some of the things he could do with his legs.

The good thing is New Orleans has been practicing against Taysom Hill for a few years now and is one of the teams at the forefront of the offense that Hurts could potentially run for the Eagles. Nothing should surprise the Saints too much.

Seeing a quarterback with those type of skills is much better now than it would have been earlier in the season. The Saints are much better prepared to handle a mobile quarterback now that their coverage is sorted out.

AWESOME MOMENT: There is nothing better than when Payton opens up the door and provides real insight into how the team operates. One of those moments came this week when he explained how Alvin Kamara shared an idea for a play based on a play they used earlier in the game. Payton took the running back’s advice and the play resulted in a touchdown.

WWL’s Adam Ney took footage from the game and mixed it with Payton’s explanation in the video below.

On the original play, which Hill kept, Kamara saw how the defense reacted and no one was covering the backside of the play. The running back said it was validating that the play he called worked. Still, Kamara is one of the few guys Payton will seek out to help get a feel for what they’re seeing and feeling on the field.

“Not everyone. I just happened to be next to him,” Payton said. “But he’s someone that has good instincts, and he’s someone that I think has got very good football awareness. I just, every once in a while, I’d like to know from the runners or the linemen what they like.”

Kamara is regarded as one of the smarter players on the team, so it isn’t a surprise he has insights that help the team. But he seems to have elevated into a leadership role this season and is coming into his own as one of the team’s pillars.

PREDICTION: Hurts, Wentz, doesn’t matter. The Saints are rolling, and this one shouldn’t be too difficult as long as the team isn’t looking ahead to Kansas City. Payton usually does a good job of keeping his team focused. Saints 28, Eagles 17.

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