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Grading the Saints at the bye

A look at how each unit on the team has performed this year and what they might do to improve for the rest of the season

Okay, “grading” is not exactly accurate– I don’t want to try to quantify performance at any position. But I do want to look at how each unit has performed so far this season, and what they have to do to fix any issues going forward, in order to be a championship team.

QUARTERBACK

Obviously Brees has been as great as ever this year. Not much to say there. Taysom Hill has also been good in his odd hybrid role of option QB / kick returner / gunner, although he did miss a pitch to Alvin Kamara against Washington that almost certainly would have resulted in a touchdown.

What can improve going forward: Hill should make that pitch.

RUNNING BACK

The return of Mark Ingram was the biggest factor the team needed to get the offense humming again. None of his replacements were capable of carrying the load in the same way, and the team had to rely on Alvin Kamara far too heavily. Ingram is not as impressive as Kamara but he’s steady and productive and capable of producing big plays. Giving the Saints two reliable running backs (nobody else even played a snap at tailback against Washington) allows the offense a greater diversity and a set of fresh legs to get through games and the season. Kamara’s talents will be much more valuable in the playoffs.

Fullback is rarely utilized in the offense. Zach Line’s usage against Washington– 15 of 66 snaps, 22.72%– was almost exactly his usage for the season (22.61%). I can’t honestly offer a more detailed critique of his play.

What can improve going forward: Really, Ingram back in conjunction with Kamara was the big concern here. I don’t expect it to always be as easy as it was week 5, but that’s much closer to what the offense ought to look like.

WIDE RECEIVER

Word broke late this week that Ted Ginn Jr. is headed to injured reserve, which will open up playing time on the outside for Cameron Meredith and especially Tre’Quan Smith. Smith dazzled on a couple of deep balls against Washington; he probably won’t be almost ten yards open regularly, as he was on his first touchdown, but the bye week, presumably, will have allowed him more practice time in that role and hopefully a better rapport with Drew Brees.

Michael Thomas has, of course, been the driving engine of the passing offense and will continue to be so. He may not actually set a receptions record this season, but there’s no reason he can’t finish with an absurd catch rate and the kind of production that firmly stakes his place in the upper echelon of NFL wide receivers.

What can improve going forward: Smith isn’t a speedster like Ted Ginn, but he’s fast enough that, in conjunction with his size, hands, and route-running, make him a very good deep ball target who can still keep a defense honest. With Ginn out, he’ll need to be integrated more into the passing offense. Hopefully over the bye Meredith will have been integrated more as well, as he has potential top-end talent, if he’s recovered from his injury and on the same page as Brees. Austin Carr has been fine as the slot receiver. All in all, though, the team was over-reliant on Thomas for the first three weeks, and it’ll take Meredith, Smith, and Carr improving and better integrating into the offense to keep it balanced.

TIGHT ENDS

On the one hand, this group hasn’t particularly stood out, although Ben Watson has been a fairly reliable if infrequently targeted pass catcher. Josh Hill has played nearly as many snaps as Watson; he hasn’t been much of a weapon, but he has produced when called upon (8 catches on 8 targets, a couple of big plays and a touchdown). Dan Arnold was a sort of surprise as the third tight end, and hasn’t been very active, so this is

What can improve going forward: Best-case scenario: Arnold develops into the guy many fans told themselves Josh Hill was going to become after the Saints traded Jimmy Graham. For this year, though, he probably won’t make a large impact, and Hill and Watson are who they are at this point. As long as Watson makes it through the season, this group will be okay. It won’t be a game-changing unit, but with all the other weapons the Saints have on offense, it doesn’t have to be.

OFFENSIVE LINE

As long as this unit stays healthy, it’s one of the best in the league. This year the biggest issue has been with Andrus Peat, who missed some time earlier this year (and seems set to miss the Ravens game), but none of the other players have missed a snap. Josh LeRibeus has filled in admirably enough when Peat missed time, though the line is at its best when Peat is playing. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the running game has struggled the most running behind left tackle or in the tackle/guard B gap, ranking 28th in the league there according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards stat, while ranking fourth overall.) All in all, though, the line is getting the job done.

What can improve going forward: Keep the line healthy, and develop young backups like Cameron Tom and Will Clapp as potential long-term pieces.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Saints rank as the #1 run-stopping team in the league according to Football Outsiders. The pass rush has been less sturdy, but is showing signs of improvement. Sheldon Rankins has been turning into the player the team hoped they were drafting in 2016; Marcus Davenport has been playing increased snaps every week and looking better and better. Hopefully after the bye, he’ll have a bigger role, and by the time the playoffs role around, he can be a real disruptive force on the line.

What can improve going forward: Davenport’s development seems right on schedule, so he needs to get increased playing time. I still think Trey Hendrickson has talent; he was a healthy scratch even before he missed some games due to illness, and I’d like to see him work back into the rotation and develop further. The team has actually been terrific against the run– first according to DVOA– so the real issue for the defensive line is to put together a consistent enough pass rush that the coverage doesn’t have to hold longer than it’s capable of.

LINEBACKERS

For the second year in a row, the Saints tried to make a splash in the offseason to fix the position. Last year, it was signing free agents A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o and drafting Alex Anzalone; this year, it was signing Demario Davis to a big free-agent deal. Davis has taken over at middle linebacker and played well, being a great run-stopper, the team’s most reliable coverage linebacker, and a pretty good blitzer too. And that’s good, because the rest of the crew hasn’t quite been up to snuff. Probably most disappointing is Anzalone, not because he’s played particularly poorly but because he’s been largely consigned to the bench after he was expected to be a starter this season.

What can improve going forward: Pass coverage on running backs (29th in the league by FO). It might be time to give more snaps to Alex Anzalone or even Vince Biegel, signed from Green Bay’s practice squad. While the performance of the unit hasn’t been bad enough for serious concern, any weak spots in the defense will be exploited when it comes time to play the best teams in the league.

SECONDARY

Well, with as strong as the pass coverage finished the season and as young as the talent involved was, the expectations were that this unit would grow further and become one of the strengths of the team. Instead… the first few weeks were fairly disastrous. Tampa Bay (and Ryan freaking Fitzpatrick!) torched the team at every level in week 1 to the tune of 48 points. (To be fair, in a fashion, seven of those points were scored by Tampa’s defense.) Week 2 was a little better, in part because of Tyrod Taylor’s struggles, but the secondary still gave up a game-tying fourth-down bomb to Antonio Callaway. In week three, an attempt to swap P.J. Williams for Ken Crawley at CB2 resulted in 27 minutes or so of Calvin Ridley completely and thoroughly torching Williams until Crawley was reinserted. Weeks four and five were a little better, but the team still ranks last in the league, by substantial margins, at covering a team’s #1 and #2 wide receivers. (According to Football Outsiders, the 31st-best team in the league at covering #2 receivers, Minnesota, has a DVOA of 34.4%, meaning an average #2 receiver would be expected to perform 34.4% better than average against Minnesota. New Orleans’ rating against WR2s? 92.2%.

That said, the Saints have actually been very good against other receivers beyond the top two, ranking third in the league there (-39.6%). Patrick Robinson (now on IR but with hopes he can return this season), P.J. Williams, and Justin Hardee have done well covering slot receivers and deeper on the depth chart.

What can improve going forward: A lot, frankly. Lattimore has improved since his early struggles, keeping Odell Beckham contained in a week 4 win over the Giants, but Sterling Shepard had a big game. The team simply has to figure out how to stop the deep pass and stop team’s second receivers. Marcus Williams has the talent to cover the deep areas; Ken Crawley isn’t a shutdown corner, but is good enough to do his job if he gets proper health. Kurt Coleman has been disappointing; hopefully he turns it on in the second half of the season. The talent is there; the coaching needs to put it in the best position to win. The defense in general could stand to force more turnovers, and interceptions would be a great start to that.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Wil Lutz is the most consistent kicker the Saints have had in a while. Combined with steady hand Thomas Morstead, the Saints have some fairly reliable if not ground-breaking special teams. With Ted Ginn and Tommylee Lewis both on IR, more return duties will fall to Taysom Hill and Alvin Kamara– in the latter’s case, particularly in high-leverage situations. Also, Hill threw a pretty sweet pass on a fake punt to convert the first down.

What can improve going forward: Realistically, the unit is pretty good. I suppose an occasional return touchdown would be nice.

OVERALL OUTLOOK

The biggest weakness the team has exhibited this year is in pass coverage, which is a weakness that could sink the team if they don’t get it back together to the level they played in 2017. Though the early weeks this season were shaky, I’m optimistic things will get better, because of the talent involved. If the pass rush continues to develop, and Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams play up to their talent, the pass defense should get to the point where they can at least stave off opposing passing offenses enough for the offense to win games. With most of the other expected NFC contenders struggling this year, New Orleans has a real chance for a Super Bowl berth– especially if they can beat the Los Angeles Rams, their biggest competition for the #1 seed, in their week 9 matchup. (Beating the Vikings and Eagles would help a lot, too.)

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