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The Saints get back on track and pull ahead in the NFC South

Finishing off the sweep of the Panthers puts the Saints at 9-3 with a favorable December ahead

New Orleans’ winning streak ended in Los Angeles, but a return home seemed like it might be just the thing the Saints needed to get back on track. The Saints had an important division matchup against Carolina; the two teams were tied at 8-3, but New Orleans had the advantage in the division after winning week 3 in Carolina 34-13. This was also a reason to feel optimistic, as the rematch would be at home.

Unfortunately, the team wouldn’t be as healthy for the rematch. Marshon Lattimore missed the first Carolina game and was out again; starting free safety Marcus Williams missed the game as well. Left tackle Terron Armstead dressed, but didn’t play a single snap. (This on top of the season-ending injuries the Saints have carried on their roster.) The team didn’t play their best game of the season, but from the opening drive, the Saints seemed to be firmly in command, eventually winning 31-21.

Once again, the offense was carried on the backs of the running backs. Mark Ingram broke a 72-yard run to open the Saints’ second-down drive, later scoring a touchdown, as well as adding six catches on the day, totaling 122 yards.  Human highlight film Alvin Kamara carried the ball nine times for 60 yards, adding five catches for another 66, rushing for two touchdowns, and once again providing us with a delightful selection of GIFs.

(These aren’t the best quality GIFs I’ve made; the first one is sped up for some reason, and the video started chopping up at the end of the second one, but better to just imagine that Alvin Kamara distorts space-time.)

Michael Thomas hasn’t been the focal point of the offense like he was last year, but he’s seeing even more targets and in line to finish with similar numbers. He’s got a lower catch rate, but his depth of target is further downfield, averaging 10 yards per target instead of last year’s 8.4. (10 still isn’t particularly high, but the difference has been noticeable on several passes this year where Thomas was open deeper and Brees missed him.) Even though Drew Brees is on pace to finish with “only” 4,397 passing yards, which would be the second-lowest total (by nine yards) of his time in New Orleans, Thomas is currently tenth in receiving yards, after finishing ninth last year.

Michael Thomas catches a touchdown pass after easily separating from Carolina’s coverage.

Despite missing Alex Okafor (the Saints decided to start the game with Sheldon Rankins out at end, and Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata the starting defensive tackles), the Saints’ pass rush was, I thought, proving capable today after I had some questions about its effectiveness last week. The Saints notched two sacks and four QB hits on Cam Newton, and forced him to scramble, running or throwing away the ball, a few more times on top of that.

That said, there were a few plays where the missing personnel stood out, often due to a miscommunication. On Christian McCaffrey’s touchdown reception, nobody was near him; this seems like it was a failure of the linebackers and safeties to communicate their responsibilities in zone. On Devin Funchess’ touchdown, Crawley went for the pass breakup and just missed, allowing Funchess to run into the end zone. Crawley mostly played well on the day, most notably with a terrific breakup of a deep ball, but it was the kind of play that makes a viewer wonder if Marshon Lattimore would have successfully prevented the score.

Coby Fleener also went on IR last week, and though I’ve considered him a disappointing acquisition, I can’t overlook how clutch he’s been in the fourth quarter. Without him available, the team turned to Josh Hill for its tight end receiving needs. Up 21-7 late in the second quarter, Hill fumbled a reception at New Orleans’ 45 that the Panthers turned into a touchdown drive, making the game close again and preventing the Saints from potentially putting the Panthers away by halftime. Though the Saints did even the turnover score recovering a muffed punt in the fourth quarter, this example speaks to one of the other strange quirks of the Saints’ season: They’re at 9-3 with a turnover differential of only +3, having only 15 takeaways in 12 games (a figure tied for 19th; the Baltimore Ravens lead with 29 takeaways). As well as the defense has been playing, one might expect them to generate more turnovers than they have. If that begins to straighten out down the stretch and into the playoffs, this team could play even better than expected.

The special teams unit seems to be turning around as well. After having one of the weaker special-teams units in the league by many measures (if not enough to be a liability), the Saints hired legendary special teams coach Mike Westhoff to shore up the unit. This week, the Saints managed to disrupt a punt and force Carolina punter Michael Palardy into a desperate pass which fluttered incomplete. Perhaps the most fun part of the unit (at least based on announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman’s reactions to him) was Taysom Hill, the team’s third-string quarterback– who got snaps on coverage teams, making two tackles, and who also rushed Palardy when he was prevented from successfully executing a punt.

Taysom Hill (7) turns the corner as Carolina’s Michael Palardy fumbles away the ball before he can punt it.

The Saints have a short week this week, and I suspect that was one reason Lattimore was held out. The Panthers’ top wide receiver is Devin Funchess; the Falcons have Julio Jones. Getting Lattimore healthy for Thursday’s game in Atlanta was far more important than rushing him back against Carolina, even given the stakes. If the secondary is at full health this week (Lattimore, Crawley, and both Williamses were on the early injury report) then the Saints’ fortunes are a lot brighter for Thursday night.

The latest report has Lattimore and Williams still listed as questionable, with everyone else in the secondary ready to go. Unfortunately, Andrus Peat will be out, and Terron Armstead will be questionable; the Saints can probably survive with Senio Kelemete in Peat’s place, but the line could be in for trouble if they have to go much deeper. Mark Ingram is also questionable with a toe injury; this could be the chance for Kamara to display how good he can be in a full-time role.

Even though Atlanta is at home, the Saints are still a 1.5-point favorite according to Vegas. Looking at their schedule beyond Thursday (home against the Jets and Falcons, then at Tampa Bay) this is likely the smallest margin they’ll be favored by. New Orleans is in a great situation to run the table, especially if they can clear Atlanta on Thursday. Fortunately for the Saints, the schedules of the other contenders get more difficult. (The 10-2 Eagles play at the 9-3 Rams this week; the 9-3 Vikings visit the now 8-4 Panthers.) If the Rams, Panthers, and Saints all win this week, New Orleans would now be in position for home field advantage (which could change, since they lose head-to-head tiebreakers with Minnesota and Los Angeles). The week 14 game against the Falcons could very well be the critical item to determine whether the Saints get a bye week to rest (and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs) or whether they have to play on Wild Card Weekend.

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