Why the Saints’ offense is operating like it is and what to expect moving forward

The Saints have an identity, the same one they’ve always sought.

They don’t care how it looks or what anyone has to say. The Saints are simply a team that goes into each game trying to find a way to win. That has never changed. The only difference is that recently the best way of going about that is to throw the ball about 20 times per game, which is a drastic departure from how this team used to manufacture offense.

“We’re in the business of winning,” coach Sean Payton said. “Honestly, it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing, either. So, it just truly is what it is.”

Each week, Payton lays out his keys for victory. Last week, against the Patriots, he wanted to protect the ball, run it better than New England did, and match their intensity on special teams. The Saints succeeded on all fronts, converted on some key third downs, and won the game. There are things this team wants to do better, and there are plenty of corrections that can get made, but the team won. That’s what matters to Payton.

Still, there is no denying this year’s team looks different. New Orleans hasn’t hit 25 attempts or 160 passing yards in any of the first three games. The Saints only had 10 games since 2006 when it passed 25 or fewer times before this season. They won eight of those games, including two games started by Taysom Hill and one by Teddy Bridgewater.

A new trend? Not at all. The new approach isn’t a winning formula because there is no winning formula. The NFL is now a league where teams pass to win, and running is often a byproduct of success, not the reason behind it. The Saints aren’t likely to flip that on its head, and if they do, it will be due to an elite defense putting the team in a position to get by without scoring a ton of points. The point is, Payton did what the specific game required, just like he always has.

“Anybody that actually watches football that has a knowledge of football knows what’s going on,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “It just is what it is sometimes.”

New Orleans’ approach also shouldn’t be confused with being something ultraconservative. The team isn’t calling a significant amount of passing plays, and the run numbers are up, but this is still a team that wants to move the ball through the air. The difference is, the team is often looking to get yards in chunks.

The Saints have frequently called deep passing concepts through the first three weeks of the season. The call sheets for those games were loaded with vertical concepts, including some plays where four players are running vertical routes. They’ve also dialed up a lot of sail concepts, which was prevalent in Week 1, to get players open down the field. Those plays just haven’t connected consistently outside of the first game.

The reasons for the issues stem throughout the offense. You can quickly find 50 yards left on the field during last week’s game against the Patriots. Juwan Johnson stopped his route on one play and caused an incompletion on what should have been a 20-yard gain. On a later incompletion to Marquez Callaway, Winston held the ball a little too long and missed the opportunity for a big play. Then, throughout, the offensive line had protection issues that led to other issues.

In some regards, this offense is designed to be more aggressive and attacking than it was the last couple of seasons. The approach is also beneficial for Winston since it allows him to use his arm and helps keep him out of trouble by painting an advantageous picture down the field where he can target his receivers without taking risks. But some of those decisions are also up to him. The quarterback got intercepted by Carolina by taking a deep shot before his feet were set.

The approach is different from what Winston experienced in Tampa Bay, but he fully supports how the team is operating.

“I think the biggest thing is remaining efficient,” Winston said. “When I have the opportunity to make a play, I make sure I make that play. That’s something that I continue to work on in this offense. When we have opportunities to make a big play, make sure I execute on that, but we know that this team has an excellent offensive line. We know that we’re blessed by having Kamara in the backfield. That’s a good thing for a quarterback in any room. That’s the best part of our team, so why not give those guys that opportunity. I just need to do my job when the opportunity presents itself.”

The path forward for this team is likely the one it is on – at least for now. New Orleans might choose to open things up a little more at some point over the next two games, but it could make sense to keep forging ahead as is. The New York Giants aren’t built to win, and the Washington Football Team might not be either. The Saints might be wise to make sure they don’t do anything to beat themselves in both games.

So, for now, this is the team. There might seem to be an element of surviving and advancing until players like Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith return and help get the passing offense on track. Still, Payton disagrees with the notion that this team doesn’t yet have an identity on offense or that it is waiting to forge one.

“You’re building your identity each week,” Payton said. “I don’t think you’re waiting to build it for guys to get healthy. This is our league. Some teams are healthier than others, some teams aren’t, some teams have players that are suspended, some teams don’t, and honestly no one cares. I say that relative to (for example) you are out of your city for a month. You have to play, you have to go out and perform, and it’s your job to do that, no side note (of excuses). The minute that you begin looking at it that way, you have created an excuse if you don’t have success.”

There are no excuses here. Just finding ways to win. There is nothing ugly about stacking those on the ledger. The question is, can the team keep winning like this until it reaches full strength. So far, the team is staying above water.

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