The rundown: How Jameis Winston and Sean Payton are getting used to communicating in the huddle

Sean Payton paused as he realized how many times he called a play into Drew Brees during the 14 seasons the two worked together.

The two had a cadence. Payton knew what Brees wanted to hear and how best to deliver that information. With Jameis Winston, the two are just starting to get used to communicating with one another during games. Payton said the best way to handle it is to tell the quarterback everything he needs to know during the week, but things always come up, and Payton said he is constantly working to make sure he isn’t giving too much information.

Payton peeled back the curtain on how he communicates with his quarterback in the huddle with a fascinating answer earlier this week.

“You really want the reminders and alerts to be ingrained through the game plan, and then there’s some things that take place where maybe you’re in the face of the wind on a certain play,” Payton said. “Maybe you’re in the second half, and you’re going to get a little bit more aggressive defensive approach because they’re down two or three scores. Things can change.

“If you were ever just listening, basically the microphone opens when the play before is whistled dead. It’s second-and-8 and the official spots the ball: boom, the mic’s open. I’m beeping in. The first thing is the personnel we’re sending on the field. He’s going to echo that, and then here’s the play. It might be as simple as him in the huddle, ‘Let’s go.’ Generally, one or two quick points for him. On a timeout, I might say, ‘Turn to Alvin (Kamara) and say I want a good play fake.’ Or turn to Marquez (Callaway) and (tell him to tighten his split).

“He’s kind of the telephone there in the huddle for more than just himself if there’s a stoppage in play. So, things periodically come up that he’s able to communicate not to just one player, but several players if need be.”

THE DEEP BALL: Winston showed off his arm during the win over the Packers by hitting Deonte Harris on a 55-yard touchdown reception.

The play illustrated what this team has been missing and certainly showed upcoming opponents they need to defend every blade of grass against this New Orleans team. The pass traveled 48 yards through the air beyond the line of scrimmage and 59 yards through the air overall when counting the distance behind the line of scrimmage.

There is no question that Winston has more arm strength than Brees ever did, and significantly more than Brees displayed the last four years. The team still won a lot of games with those perceived limitations, so it would be dishonest to act like the team struggled to survive without those plays.

Still, I got curious about how many times Brees hit a pass that traveled 40 or more yards through the air beyond the line of scrimmage since 2017. The answer? Three times.

The first one came in 2017 against the Bears when Brees hit Ted Ginn for a 53-yard gain. Brees underthrew the pass a little bit, which caused Ginn to adjust. The pass traveled 45 yards through the air beyond the line of scrimmage and 54 yards through the air overall.

Interestingly, the passing concept used on this play was the same one New Orleans ran for Callaway’s first touchdown reception during the second preseason game against Jacksonville. The touchdown pass to Harris was a similar passing concept, though the intermediate route crossing the go came from the same side of the field.

The Saints also ran the same play against Minnesota in 2017 on a 52-yard pass to Tommylee Lewis. That pass traveled 41 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and 52 yards through the air overall.

Brees also hit a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ginn in 2017 that traveled 40 yards through the air beyond the line of scrimmage and 48 yards through the air overall.

HARRIS ON THE COME UP: Harris finally feels like he’s hitting his stride and is ready to take his game to the next level. He didn’t understand the offense his first year here, got hurt during his second season, but he now feels ready to take his game to the next level.

And he might be right about that.

Harris is quickly emerging as a favorite target for Winston, a trend that started this summer when the two worked out together, carried into training camp, and proved true during a Week 1 win over the Packers. So, after catching two passes for 72 yards with a touchdown, Harris feels like everything is coming together for him, which is a long cry from how he felt his first year in the offense.

“I came from a college where we didn’t have play calls like this,” Harris said. “Everything was just signals. For me to come here and have to learn a whole new playbook and terminology system was difficult for me considering where I came from. I wouldn’t say the physical part was a struggle, but the mental part was.”

Now that Harris has that down, it looks like the Saints are counting on him to be a significant piece of the receiving offense. He played 43% of the offensive snaps last week, a total he only topped twice last year.

DID YOU KNOW?: Winston became the only quarterback since 1950 to pass for five touchdowns with fewer than 150 passing yards during Sunday’s win. He finished with five touchdowns and 148 yards.

Only five other players have hit five passing touchdowns with less than 200 yards during that span.

  • George Blanda (1962): 190 yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT
  • Boomer Esiason (1989): 197 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs
  • Lamar Jackson (2019): 169 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs
  • Eddie LaBaron (1962): 158 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs
  • Frank Tripucka (1962): 168 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs

STILLS STICKING: The media is only permitted to view about 20 or 25 minutes of practice each day, and that period usually consists of jogging, stretch and some individual drills. In other words, we don’t see any competitive periods.

So, it would be dishonest to try and offer a full evaluation of where things stand with Kenny Stills. We can say that he is moving well, runs good routes, and has drawn some positive reviews from the coaching staff. Does he step in and play this week against Carolina? Such a thing isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but that is still to be determined.

“Each week, we’ll get a feel for where we are with our roster,” Payton said. “I’m real familiar with him. He’s extremely smart. He’s a really good transitional player and I think he’ll bring to a our group a few things that he does very well. Week to week, we’ll see what our vision is in regards to the game.”

Adding more talent to this position makes sense. The wide receivers had some issues getting open last week. But beyond that, if Stills can get up to speed, having some packages where defenses have to account for his and Harris’ deep ability could really open things up underneath for everyone else.

UNSTEADY TENDENCIES: New Orleans completely flipped its tendencies during Sunday’s game, which shouldn’t be a huge shock based on the overall game plan. Still, it is interesting to see how the approach changed from one year to the next when playing Green Bay.

The Saints ran on 69% of their 35 snaps with 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) on the field. In a typical game, New Orleans would be around 69% passing out of this personnel.

Last year against the Packers, the Saints passed 84.2% of the time they were in 11 personnel.

How’d the change work? New Orleans gained 105 yards on 25 carries out of his personnel.

ADEBO IMPRESSING: The Saints didn’t know how Paulson Adebo would respond to the NFL game. He sat out last year, and they knew he’d need a little bit of growth, but there was no way to gauge how he might respond to adversity, which is trying for every college player coming into the league.

“The one thing that’s hard to predict is how quickly they’re going to transition and be ready to play, especially if they missed a season like he did,” Payton said. “To his credit, he’s picked things up quickly. I think that helps a lot. And then there’s a confidence level he’s playing with. I think that’s one of the harder things to predict in projecting college players to our level is you’re trying to gauge how quickly the player learns. Sometimes, it takes a year. Sometimes a player comes in right away. Fortunately for us, he’s adjusted to that position pretty smoothly.”

Adebo has started about as well as anyone could hope. He allowed one catch on four targets against the Packers for 14 yards. During the preseason, he got targeted nine times and allowed six receptions for 46 yards. His quick start to the season has been impressive and is one of the reasons this team suddenly looks deep at cornerback.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was quick to douse any hype, pointing out that Adebo needs 16 more performances like he had during Week 1, but he had to admit the rookie is off to a great start.

“I think he’s done a great job of coming in and picking up the system and scheme and what we’re trying to do,” Allen said. “So, he understands what we’re doing. He understands what his responsibility is in this defense, so now he can let his natural ability take over. I can say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the progress that he’s made.”

COACHING ISSUES: The Saints have been all hands on deck this week at practice with wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson, running backs coach Joel Thomas, tight ends coach Dan Roushar, offensive line coach Brendan Nugent, offensive assistant Declan Doyle and offensive analyst Jim Chaney out of action due to Covid-19.

We’ve seen different coaches working with various positions throughout the week. Jermon Bushrod, who is a scouting assistant with the team, has been coaching tight ends. Quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry has spent time with the wide receivers. Offensive assistant D.J. Williams is stepping up and helping where he can. Right now, it is has been by any means necessary.

“Time don’t stop for no man,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “I think the coaches that are out are more stressed than us. Those guys are on my line trying to make sure we’re good. Of course, we miss them at practice, but we have to keep moving. I know they are trying to keep themselves sane by talking to us and making sure we are on point with everything, but the show goes on. It is like the next-man-up mentality.”

The coaching staff is still staying in touch with the players on phone calls and video chats. Some of the meetings are now grouped together instead of having every individual position working on its own. As Harris put it, this is “just more adversity” the Saints have to get through.

Luckily, New Orleans has good depth on the coaching staff and coaches who have been with other positions before or played them at a high level.

CESAR RUIZ CENTERS THE LINE: Life looked easy for Cesar Ruiz.

When Erik McCoy went down early in Sunday’s win over the Packers, the loss felt like the one that could potentially take down the offensive line. But Ruiz slid over from his spot at guard and handled the job like he belonged there all along.

And that probably shouldn’t be a surprise since Ruiz is a college center who spent his rookie offseason preparing for the possibility of playing center for the Saints until McCoy ultimately won the job.

“It was just that I hadn’t played center in about a year,” Ruiz said. “I hadn’t done it, so I was wondering what was going to come up and what wouldn’t. All my rules (from guard) transferred over. All camp, coach (Dan) Roushar told me to prepare for a situation like this, so I was prepared.”

Snapping the ball was easy for Ruiz. The only thing he had to do was make sure he was making the right identifications and setting protections properly at the line of scrimmage. Ruiz did not allow a pressure during the game and held his own in the running game.

Payton said he would have gone to Will Clapp at center first if he was healthy. So, it will be interesting to see the long-term plan at this position since McCoy is expected to miss around five or six weeks. Clapp can come back in two weeks after landing on injured reserve. The team also signed former Kansas City center Austin Reiter.

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