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What can we expect when the Saints come marching in to FedEx Field this Sunday?

A statistical look at the New Orleans offense and defense

New York Giants v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Confusing results

I haven’t watched the Saints play a football game this year, though I kept an eye on their loss to the Giants via Red Zone this past Sunday. Looking at the results of their first four games, I’m a bit confused.

They beat the snot out of the Packers in Week 1, and went to Foxborough and came away with a 15-point win in Week 3, but they got trounced by the now 3-1 Panthers in Week 2 when they had players and coaches missing due to COVID protocols, and lost to the previously winless Giants in overtime in Week 4. I mean, that’s a lot of contradiction to reconcile.

They’ve scored 38, 7, 13, and 21 points, and surrendered 3, 26, 13 and 27.

Prior to the start of the season, I had the Saints rated considerably lower than the general consensus, primarily because I just don’t have any faith in Jameis Winston. Jameis has had an…interesting season. He opened up with 5 TD passes against the Packers, but only 20 attempts and 148 yards.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans Saints Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

As you’ll see from the statistical look at the New Orleans team that follows below, I don’t think Sean Payton has a ton of belief in Jameis as a passer either.

Win or lose, the Saints haven’t varied their passing attempts very much; they had 21 attempts at New England, 22 at Carolina, and 23 vs the Giants.

In a win against the Patriots, Winston completed about 62% of his passes. In a loss to the Panthers, he had his worst day in comp% at just 50%, but his best day (74%) came in the loss to the Giants.

Over the last three weeks, Winston has thrown just 3 TD passes, and rushed for one more. His total rushing yards on the season (60) seem almost insignificant.

If Jameis Winston hasn’t been the primary factor in Saints games over the past three weeks, who or what has?

Well, the “other” QB on the roster, Taysom Hill, might provide part of the answer. Hill has only thrown 4 passes this season, accounting for 12 yards and giving up an interception to the Giants. But he has rushed 16 times for 77 yards this season, posting 3 touchdowns. Even so, 2 of his three TDs came against the Giants, so the correlation between Hill’s productivity as a scorer and the Saints’ success seems tenuous.

So, what about their skill players?

Running Back

Well, unsurprisingly, the top rusher is Alvin Kamara (78 rushers, 297 yards, 0 TDs, 3.8 avg). Kamara also contributes as a receiver, with 10 catches, 62 yards and 2 TDs. To put that into an easy-to-compare context, here are Kamara’s total offensive numbers side-by-side with Antonio Gibson:

As you can see, the two players have a similar number of yards and an identical number of touchdowns, but Gibson has 21 fewer touches. Kamara gets a larger share of touches in the Saints offense than Gibson does for the Football Team, but AG has been more productive on a per play basis, both rushing and receiving, than AK has. However, Kamara’s current 4.1 yards per touch is the lowest of his career. His lowest full season average came in 2019 at 5.3. In 2020, he averaged 6.3.

Kamara’s lower average this year isn’t a result of just rushing yards or just receiving yards; at the moment, he is on track to record the lowest averages of his career as both runner and pass catcher.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In the Saints’ two wins this season, Kamara rushed 20 & 24 times for 83 and 89 yards, and he caught 3 of 4 targets for a TD in each win.

In the Saints’ two losses, Kamara rushed for 5 and 120 yards. Against Carolina, he caught 4 passes; versus the Giants, he wasn’t targeted.

I’m stuggling to find a useful trend to understand AK’s season, aside from the possibility that the Saints win when he has between 80-90 yards & a TD, but lose when he has more or less yards and doesn’t score. Does that sound too cherry-picked to be meaningful?

Pass Catchers

In addition to Kamara, the Saints have 4 guys with 7 or more targets in the passing offense this season.

By contrast, Terry McLaurin has 354 yards and 3 TDs by himself, which is just about exactly what NO’s top three wide receivers have produced combined.

Logan Thomas (12 rec, 117 yards) has pretty much doubled TE Johnson’s production, despite missing most of the Falcons game with a hamstring injury.

I’m starting to get the idea that the Saints aren’t a prolific offense team.

The Saints on offense

Total Yards

It turns out that the Saints have the 5th fewest offensive yards in the league so far in 2021. The 4 teams below them in this metric are the Jets, Texans, Dolphins and Bears, who are a combined 5-11 on the season.

While Washington’s offensive yards total is only 21st in the league, the Football Team, averaging 342 offensive yards per game, looks like an absolute juggernaut compared to the New Orleans average of just 277 yards per game.

Here’s a chart comparing the offensive output for New Orleans and Washington in their respective wins & losses in 2021.

You’ll see that the Football Team and the Saints have run an identical number of plays, and have scored a similar number of points.

Unsurprisingly, both teams have won the two games where they have scored 28 points or more, and lost the two games where they have scored 21 points or less.

Washington has been more consistent; that is, the Football Team has had more yards and more points when it has run more plays, and it has been fairly consistent in terms of yards per play. By contrast, the Saints have been much more inconsistent, losing the games with the highest and lowest yards per play, and ranging from 2.98 to 6.23 in this metric.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Fiesta Bowl - Washington v Penn St Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Interestingly, although the two teams have run an identical number of plays, Washington has made 11 more first downs, even though the Football Team’s 3rd down conversion rate is significantly lower that the Saints’ rate (32% and 47% respectively). You’ll notice that Washington has had only 41 3rd down plays versus 49 for New Orleans.

It turns out that Washington’s rate of only 10.8 3rd down plays per game is the third lowest in the NFL, while its rate of 21.3 first-downs per game over the past three games is just about league average.

One factor that helps explain this is that Washington leads the league in 4th down conversions, having successfully converted five 4th down attempts in 4 games, but, more importantly, Washington is among the league leaders in converting 2nd down plays into first downs – which is a large part of the reason why the team hasn’t had as many 3rd down situations as one might otherwise expect.

According to PFF, only 7 teams in the NFL convert a first down more often on 1st & 2nd down. The Cardinals lead the league at 59%, while Washington stands at 54% of all first downs converted without having to run a 3rd or 4th down play.

So, while Washington’s 3rd down conversion rate looks a bit anemic, paired with the Football Team’s high conversion rate on 2nd down and high rate of success on 4th down, the WFT offense has had about average success at keeping drives alive, while the Saints have struggled more, on the whole, in maintaining drives despite the team’s more attractive 3rd down conversion percentage.

Quarterbacks

The thing that leaps off this chart to me is the relative evenness of the two sets of quarterbacks. For the season, Heinicke’s 8 TDs & 3 INTs matches the output by Winston & Hill. The New Orleans quarterbacks, of course, have rushed for two more touchdowns, but Heinicke has thrown for an extra 335 yards and is completing about 3% more of his pass attempts on average. The yardage difference is primarily due to Heinicke having attempted about 30 more passes, despite having not played the first 22 minutes of the Week 1 game.

New Orleans Saints v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In other words, Washington is riding or dying with Taylor to a much greater degree than New Orleans is with Jameis. Still, “ride or die” is a relative idea. Washington is passing on 55.7% of its plays, which, in the mid-1980s would have been a lot. Today, it puts the Football Team at 22nd in the NFL.

Pittsburgh is #1, at 73.17%.

New Orleans, of course, is #32, passing on just 42.2% of offensive plays. Sean Payton seems to have decided not to ride or die on the arm of Jameis Winston if he can help it.

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

To give you an idea about how much the Saints head coach is trying to protect Jameis Winston from himself, Winston threw only four pass attempts in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants. Amazing.

We’ve already talked about Alvin Kamara’s stats, but let’s see if we can identify any trends in the New Orleans rushing attack.

Rushing

Knowing that the Saints have the lowest percentage of passing plays, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that New Orleans leads the league in percentage of rushing plays at 57.8%. Because of their relatively lackluster offensive output, however, the Saints are only 3rd in the number of rushes per game, at 33.2 (the Browns are #1 at 35 per game). N’awlins ran the ball 39 times against the Giants on Sunday; only the Bills and Cardinals (40 each) ran the ball more in Week 4.

NFL: New York Giants at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints are 7th in rushing yards, at 132.8 yards per game, but 31st in passing yards, at 144 yards per game (Bears rank last at 114.3).

Interestingly, Washington and New Orleans are both averaging 4.0 yards per rushing attempt; both averaged 4.4 yards per attempt in Week 4, and both are averaging 3.8 yards per attempt in the last 3 games. The Saints have scored 4 rushing touchdowns this season (Hill 3, Winston 1), while Washington has scored 3 (Gibson, McKissic, Heinicke).

The Saints rushing attack, while being the predominate part of the offense, isn’t exactly dominating. A fair bit of the rushing efficiency comes from Taysom Hill. A bit like Cordarrelle Patterson for the Falcons last week, it may be Hill who is the X-factor for the Saints rather than the starting players at the key skill positions.

Offensive summary

The Saints are running a conservative, run-heavy offense that has them ranked 10th in time of possession, 28th in total yards, and 18th in total points. They had an offensive explosion in Week 1 against the Packers, scoring 38 points, followed by a meltdown against the Panthers in Week 2, when they scored just 7. The “real” Saints appear to be the ones that played in Weeks 3 & 4, scoring 28 and 21 against the Patriots and Giants.

In looking at their offense, there’s no one that’s especially ‘scary’ aside from, perhaps, Taysom Hill in the red zone. Winston will throw around 25 passes while the offense will run the ball perhaps 35 times. This would seem to play to Washington’s (relative) defensive strengths, as the Football Team has proven themselves more consistent in rush defense (ranked 17th) than pass defense (ranked 29th).

The Saints on defense

New Orleans is ranked 11th overall, surrendering 139 yards per game, but only a stingy 66 rushing yards per game, good for 2nd in the league behind Tampa Bay.

Rushing defense

Here’s what New Orleans has given up on the ground this year:

Packers 2.9 yards per carry

Panthers 2.7 yards per carry

Patriots 2.9 yards per carry

Giants 4.4 yards per carry

For the Giants, Daniel Jones had a 20-yard scramble. If you take that play out of the rushing totals, the Giants averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the rest of their rushes.

Passing defense

It would appear that the key to beating the Saints is to do it through the air. The Saints are ranked 26th in pass defense (283.3 yards per game):

Packers 186 yards, 5.0 yards per pass

Panthers 294 yards, 7.4 yards per pass

Patriots 251 yards, 4.7 yards per pass

Giants 402 yards, 10.1 yards per pass

Obviously, the Giants had a lot more success against N’awlins than the others did, but the two teams that had the most yards and highest yards per pass were the ones that got the “W” against the Saints.

NFL: New York Giants at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s opponents so far have included the Bills (#1 defense) and Chargers (9th). The Saints, in comparison to the 22nd & 23rd ranked Giants and Falcons will likely prove a sterner test than Washington has faced in its two wins, but likely a slightly more forgiving defense than the two AFC opponents offered.

Congruency

In a trend that may resonate with Washington fans, through four games, the Saints have given up their most points in the fourth quarter, with a total of 27. The third quarter hasn’t been so great for them either, with 23 total points allowed. By contrast, N’awlins has given up only 7 points in four first quarters, and 6 points in four second quarters thus far this season.

Given Washington’s slow starts on offense and defense this year (and last), this could mean that the Football Team will once again be forced to come from behind if they manage to come away with a victory.

Strength vs Strength

The New Orleans Saints are tied for first in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on only 33.3% of opponents’ possessions, and second in goal-to-go touchdowns allowed at 40.0%. Additionally, they are fifth in points allowed per game, at 17.3. All of these advanced metrics likely will mean some difficulty for the burgundy & gold.

There is some good news, however. Washington’s offense is tied for 6th in the NFL in Red Zone Scoring Percentage (TDs only), at 72.73%. When you expand it from TDs-only to include field goals, Washington jumps to a perfect 11/11, according to Flurry Sports. Of course, Washington will be running its red zone offense without Logan Thomas or Brandon Scherff, who will both miss the game with injuries.

Washington Football Team v Buffalo Bills Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Thomas has been, of course, responsible for 25% of the WFT red zone touchdowns, catching one pass in the end zone in each game against the Chargers and Bills.

Strength vs Weakness

If you read my preview of the Falcons last week, you would have seen that Washington had given up just three sacks in the first three games, and that Heinicke had been sacked twice, once for 18 yards and once for zero yards. The trend continued against the Falcons, with Heinicke again being sacked one time for zero yards. Washington’s 4 sacks given up in the first four weeks is second only to the Rams (3 sacks), although the 18 yards lost is still the best mark in the NFL.

Washington Football Team v Atlanta Falcons
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke #4 of the Washington Football Team runs with the ball away from Dante Fowler Jr. #6 of the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Saints have a 3.66% sack rate per passing attempt, which ranks 32nd out of 32 teams in the NFL through four games...dead last.

On Sunday in New Orleans, Giants’ quarterback Daniel Jones dropped back 40 times to pass, and was sacked exactly zero times by the Saints. If there is a glaring weakness in New Orleans’ very good defense, this may be it.

Heinicke is probably as mobile as Daniel Jones, and he has good vision. If he has been able to stay clean against the Bills and Chargers pass rushers, then it seems likely that he may be relatively comfortable against the black & gold 32nd ranked pass rush.

DVOA

Football Outsiders has the New Orleans defense ranked 2nd in the NFL in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) for the first four weeks of 2021, but looking at the traditional statistics, I’m having a hard time reconciling what the Saints defense has accomplished with this very high ranking. Still, those guys are a lot smarter than I am, so be aware that they have the Saints listed at #2.

Here’s where Football OUtsiders ranked Washington’s other 4 opponents of this young season:

  • Bills #1
  • Chargers #9
  • Giants #27
  • Falcons #29

The Bills pitched shutouts against the Dolphins and Texans in the games before and and after we played them. The fact that Washington put up 21 points against Buffalo on the road may turn out, later in the season, to be a more impressive feat than it felt like at the time we were getting blown out.

I guess the good news is that the Saints probably won’t be the best defense we’ve played this year, and we’ll have the advantage of playing them at home, but the Saints defense is almost impossible to run on, difficult to score on in the red zone, and their only real weakness appears to be an unproductive pass rush.

Depth will be tested

Washington will need to show up on both sides of the ball, but will enter the game for the first time all season with a roster that is significantly depleted by injuries. Three starters (Brandon Scherff, Logan Thomas and Jon Bostic) are definitely out. Of course, Ryan Fitzpatrick is still on IR. Backup CB Torry McTyer was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered on the final play of the Falcons game.

Hopefully, Benjamin St-Juste will be able to make a return from the concussion protocol, and we’ll want to keep fingers crossed for Dax Milne and Cam Sims to recover from their hamstring issues as well. Somewhat unexpectedly, Curtis Samuel appeared on the injury report and did not practice on Wednesday, so the receiving corps depth could be paper-thin and guys like Deandre Carter could see more offensive snaps on Sunday. Ricky Seals-Jones will need to step up big to replace what’s lost with Logan Thomas.

(As an aside, this week will mark the first time rookie TE Sammis Reyes will be active. I don’t expect to see him anywhere except special teams blocking, but this could someday be remembered as a milestone game in his career.)

Better late than never

The ideal week for the Washington defense to have shown up to the party would have been in the season opener, but the third home game would qualify for “better late than never”.

Bobby McCain’s comments this week make it painfully obvious that the players have heard the criticism; unfortunately, his comments also indicate that they may not yet believe that the criticism is justified. Hopefully the embarrassment over the chronic mistakes outweighs the pride of the win against Atlanta, and the defense shows up raw and angry this Sunday. A win against the Saints is possible (as we saw this past Sunday when the Giants beat them in Louisiana), but it will need a total team effort.

Nothing would make me happier than to be able to listen to Bobby McCain talking to the media next Sunday and shouting, “See! I told you so! Now what you gonna write about?!”

HTTMFWFT!