The 2021 New Orleans Saints are a strange team.
They began their first season without Drew Brees by knocking around the Green Bay Packers, making everyone wonder if Aaron Rodgers already had one foot out the door. They followed that up with a bad loss to the Carolina Panthers that included an Alvin Kamara performance of just five yards on only eight carries, then turned around to beat the New England Patriots in Week 3 with three interceptions of Mac Jones, including a pick-six. To top it all off this Sunday, New Orleans lost to the New York Giants, who were coming off a terrible loss to the Atlanta Falcons, in overtime.
After four weeks, we still don’t really know who the real Saints are.
I want to acknowledge off the top here that they’ve had an incredibly difficult start to the season, so seeing this team struggle on the field isn’t a complete shock. For one thing, they’re in their first year without the future Hall of Fame quarterback who had been the face of their franchise for a decade and a half. For another, they’ve had to deal with the consequences of Hurricane Ida, which forced them out of New Orleans. They practiced in Dallas for the back end of the preseason and played their first game of the season—which was a scheduled home game—at TIAA Bank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. To make matters worse, lead receiver Michael Thomas has been on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list since late July as he recovers from ankle surgery, so he won’t be available to play until at least Week 7.
Let’s start with the good start New Orleans had against the Packers. The secondary looked like one of the team’s greatest strengths, holding Rodgers to fewer than 150 passing yards with no touchdowns and two picks. Brees’ successor, Jameis Winston, looked like a more-than-serviceable option under center with five passing touchdowns on just 20 pass attempts. He wasn’t the go-to option on offense, as the low pass attempt count would suggest, but when called upon, he made some great throws and avoided any turnovers. Kamara got more carries than usual with a diminished focus on the passing offense, but his production with those carries looked to be off to a good start.
Since then, we’ve just seen a lot of weirdness from this New Orleans squad. After watching years of what we assumed a Sean Payton offense was—lots of passing complemented by a good run game—we’ve started to see the opposite. The Saints have turned Kamara into a workhorse back getting wayyyy more touches per game (19.5) than any season previously (12.9 was his previous high in 2018), and Winston is still hardly being asked to throw more than 20 times each game. What’s even weirder is that Kamara, who is also an exceptional pass-catching threat out of the backfield, has started to see his targets decrease as well. For the first time in his career, he had zero targets against the Giants on Sunday.
On the defensive side, there’s a lot of good to take away from what we’ve seen of it so far. They’ve allowed the third-fewest rushing yards per play, their total defensive DVOA is second only to the terrific Buffalo Bills’ defense, and they’re tied for first in red-zone defense. There’s also some bad. The Saints’ pass rush holds a 3.66% sack rate per passing attempt. That’s dead last of all NFL teams through four games. Against the Giants, whose offensive line has struggled to hold off opposing pass rushers from getting to Daniel Jones all season, New Orleans recorded zero sacks.
The Saints had a lot of hardship to overcome at the start of the season, and it still feels like this New Orleans roster is trying to find its identity as a team. Payton has played very conservatively in the passing game, and his reliance primarily on the run game and defense to win games has come back to bite the Saints twice now. Changing Kamara’s contributions from great running back with superb pass-catching ability to a ground-and-pound type running back has been detrimental to his production, and it could have adverse effects on his health if the Saints aren’t careful (see: Christian McCaffrey). It’s possible that when Thomas returns—whenever that may be—that we’ll see the passing game open up and Winston taken off his short leash. Otherwise, the defense can’t do everything, and New Orleans needs to figure out who they are on offense before they slide out of the playoff picture.
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