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The Saints Look Like a Contender Hiding in Plain Sight

Overshadowed by the Buccaneers and Drew Brees’s retirement, New Orleans wasn’t a popular Super Bowl pick this season. Its Week 1 domination of the Packers showed that this team is a force in the NFC.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of all the surprising results from Week 1, none was more stunning than the Saints’ 38-3 beatdown of the Packers. Previous Saints juggernauts might have been capable of pulling off such a commanding win, but the circumstances certainly didn’t favor this season’s group: Last Sunday’s game was played in Jacksonville instead of the Superdome as New Orleans recovered from Hurricane Ida. Drew Brees is no longer quarterbacking; it’s Jameis Winston. Receivers Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith are out; Marquez Callaway is the Saints’ no. 1 receiver. Starting defensive tackle David Onyemata is out due to a PED suspension. Green Bay has appeared in back-to-back NFC championship games, and many analysts took the Packers to go far again this year.

And yet, the Saints won in dominant fashion, and in the process might have reestablished themselves as a legitimate contender in the NFC.

It’s easy to overlook New Orleans in the conference, considering the Packers’ Last Dance narrative, the presence of the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in the same division, and the Rams popping off in Matthew Stafford’s debut. But the Saints are the defending NFC South champions and they boast one of the NFL’s best coaching staffs. Under the leadership of offensive mastermind Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, New Orleans was the only team to rank within the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings on both offense and defense in each of the past four seasons. Few teams can roll out more talented and complete starting lineups.

The Saints deserve the hype they’ve received in the past week, although there’s fair skepticism about whether their high-level play is sustainable. ESPN’s FPI ratings, a predictive measure that factors in team strength to predict season outcomes, saw New Orleans jump from 13th to fourth after its season-opening win. But the margins between the Saints being a true contender to a fringe playoff squad are thin.

Let’s start with Winston, the former no. 1 pick who, after spending the 2020 season riding the bench, now has a fresh start to his career. After winning a preseason battle with Taysom Hill, Winston’s starting tenure opened with a bang as he completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards and five touchdowns. (He’s the first player in the Super Bowl era to throw for five scores and fewer than 150 yards in one game.) The most impressive aspect of Winston’s performance was his decision-making, which was abysmal when he was running Bruce Arians’s aggressive scheme in Tampa Bay. He managed the pocket well, displayed tighter passing mechanics, and even showed good burst when getting outside the pocket and scrambling upfield.

According to Pro-Football-Reference’s charting, Winston was on target for 89.5 percent of his pass attempts (tied for second highest with Mac Jones for players with at least 20 attempts). Pro Football Focus credited Winston with zero turnover-worthy plays on Sunday. In five seasons with Tampa Bay, he averaged a turnover-worthy play on 4.86 percent of his 2,875 dropbacks. Winston’s short-pass accuracy was solid, and he displayed his ability to stretch the field on a 55-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Harris in the fourth quarter. “I guess, apparently, this is what the Saints have been missing over those past couple years,” Brees joked on Sunday Night Football.

Winston’s start is encouraging. The sample size isn’t big enough to determine whether we can expect this kind of performance from him consistently. But the fact that Winston needed to drop back only 23 times to pull off a 35-point win is a testament to his potential in Payton’s offense. New Orleans relied plenty on its rushing attack of Alvin Kamara (20 carries, 83 yards) and Tony Jones Jr. (11 carries, 50 yards), and in tandem with Winston’s efficiency, grinded out three lengthy first-half drives that consumed nearly 22 minutes of clock and produced 17 points. Conversely, the Packers offense led three first-half series that lasted just over eight total minutes and produced three points.

The Saints’ offensive line did enough Sunday, even as starting center Erik McCoy suffered a calf injury expected to keep him out for six weeks. Cesar Ruiz, a 2020 first-round pick, slid from right guard to center, where he starred at Michigan; Calvin Throckmorton took over at guard. In the second half, the Saints didn’t move the ball as consistently, generating a 59 percent pass-block win rate (tied for seventh best) and a 66 percent run-block win rate (22nd), per ESPN. New Orleans signed former Chiefs center Austin Reiter to its practice squad Wednesday to provide depth behind a unit that didn’t have to do much in the second half Sunday; the Saints’ opening scoring drives needed to go fewer than 25 yards thanks to a pick and the Packers turning it over on downs. This Sunday, that group will match up against a Panthers defensive front—which includes Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Morgan Fox, and Haason Reddick—that will present a good challenge for tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. “They have some good guys on the edge,” Winston told reporters Wednesday. “The good thing’s we have two All-Pro tackles.”

Arguably even more impressive than Winston’s performance last week was the play of New Orleans’s defense. Green Bay dropped 37 points against Dennis Allen’s unit last season, with Rodgers posting 283 yards and three TDs while being sacked only once. On Sunday, the Saints held Rodgers to 133 yards while picking him off twice. Allen’s unit found success deploying four-man rushes, as Cameron Jordan (four pressures), Tanoh Kpassagnon (three), and Marcus Davenport (two) kept the heat on Rodgers. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Saints registered the league’s sixth-lowest blitz rate (13.5 percent) through Week 1. As PFF’s Seth Galina explained to my colleague Kevin Clark on a recent episode of The Ringer NFL Show, the Saints defense notably prevented Rodgers from executing in the bootleg game, which helped derail Green Bay’s offensive game plan altogether.

New Orleans still has some questions on the defensive side. There are plenty of star names, such as Onyemata, Jordan, linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander, and defensive backs Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Malcolm Jenkins. But health and availability could be a concern, both in the long term and interim. Lattimore, who recently signed a five-year, $97.6 million deal, injured his thumb Sunday and will be week to week until he recovers from surgery. The Saints were already thin at cornerback after starter Ken Crawley went on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury in the preseason. Before the season, the team traded for veteran Bradley Roby, who practiced for the first time Wednesday, and signed Desmond Trufant, who appeared on 12 snaps against Green Bay. Rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo stepped in on Sunday, allowed only one completion, and grabbed an interception across 57 defensive snaps.

The defense also has injuries to deal with up front after Davenport hurt his pectoral and Kpassagnon hurt his calf, and both missed practice Wednesday. Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (knee) and linebacker Pete Werner (hamstring) have been dinged up, too.

In addition to Thomas, Smith, and McCoy’s ailments, the Saints’ offensive side of the ball was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak among a handful of assistants, including one player and a team nutritionist. “I said to [offensive coordinator] Pete [Carmichael] today, and [QBs coach] Ronald [Curry], and [offensive line assistant] Zach [Strief], it’s like Ted Lasso,” Payton said Wednesday. “Four of us. The rest are up in their hotel rooms and doing the best they can with preparation.”

Last season, New Orleans was one of the teams with fewer injuries and coronavirus infections. But this year is off to a much different start. “This COVID era has definitely brought in new challenges,” Jordan told reporters Wednesday. “We focus on how we can get better in practice. We’re spread out in meetings and taking meals to go. We have to be able to not let [restrictions] be a distraction and focus on what we can control.”

The Saints have been in capable hands throughout the Payton era. With Brees gone and a handful of serious teams within the NFC upgrading their offenses, Payton’s and Allen’s success in steering the ship will determine how New Orleans’s season goes. There’s uncertainty surrounding when the team will return to its home field (Week 4 against the Giants is the target date), when and if key players will return, and whether what we saw last week is anything more than just an aberration. Payton, who’s in his 15th season coaching the Saints, told reporters after the game that he wasn’t sure how he expected the day to go, even if he had an idea that his team could win.

“Doing this as long as I have, there’s nothing that surprises you,” Payton said. “We knew we were playing one of the best teams in our league, last year a final four team. It’s hard to go into a game and say this is the outcome that we are expecting. You just want to go in and put yourself in a position to win and do the things necessary and really not do the things that keep you from winning. So I was encouraged with that.”