Sean Payton and Drew Brees excelled in 2020 by maximizing their available offensive weapons and playing efficiently. Despite dealing with injuries and playing most of the year without Michael Thomas, the pair orchestrated the 8th-ranked offense by involving all their role players, keeping drives going, and converting drives to touchdowns. They had the 8th-highest 3rd down conversion rate (44.7%) and the 4th-highest 4th down conversion rate (68.8%), leading to more red zone opportunities than any other NFL team. They converted these to touchdowns at the 5th-highest rate (72.1%), leading to an NFL-high 49 red zone touchdowns.
Everyone in the offense had a role. Taysom Hill did not always have a big impact in terms of yardage but forced defenses to spend time game planning for his package of plays. And he did have a significant role when the Saints needed him most. In the running game, they used Latavius Murray liberally so they could keep Kamara fresh. And the passing game was so spread out that no wide receiver had more than 726 yards on the season.
But the Saints offense had its worst games when multiple elements of its diverse array of weapons were unavailable. Aside from the games where Brees was hurt, each time the Saints posted a negative Adjusted Rating they were missing at least two of their key offensive players.
Saints’ Bad Offensive Performances
Much to the chagrin of fantasy football players, the Saints were at their best when they got Taysom Hill involved as a change-of-pace option. They played poorly when he was the primary quarterback and they played poorly when he was totally unavailable. Two of the Saints’ best offensive performances (+0.79 and +1.37) came in their two regular season wins against the Bucs. Outside of the games where Brees was hurt, Hill racked up 48% of his season total yards in those two games, participating as a passer, rusher, and receiver in both games. The Saints knew that the Bucs were too strong defensively to try to play a vanilla offense. But in the playoffs, Hill was injured and not available. The Saints lost primarily due to their second-half offensive struggles, leading to a -0.18 Adjusted Rating.
But the Saints were also significantly worse as an offense with Taysom Hill running the show while Brees was injured.
*Included SF game as “No Brees” because Brees got hurt mid-game.
This chart shows the Saints’ offensive Adjusted Rating in games where both Brees and Hill were available (black line) versus the games where either Hill or Brees was not available (gold line). They were significantly better when both were healthy. And the only game where the Saints played well without Brees was the very first game Hill started against the Falcons before anyone had tape on him as a starting quarterback. It went downhill from there. Although Hill made some surprisingly nice throws (even downfield), he lacked the ability to read defenses and let routes develop.
Some people who did not actually watch the games suggest Taysom Hill should be the Saints’ starter next season because the Saints went 3-1 with him at the helm. But the Saints defense won those games, and they played the Falcons twice, the Eagles, and the Broncos who had no quarterbacks available due to Covid. It was not an impressive offensive run. I think Sean Payton wanted to see what he had in Taysom Hill, and the answer he got was that he is not a starting quarterback. I fully expect Jameis Winston to start in 2021.
With Brees, the Saints ran a low-ADOT passing offense built around getting the ball to their best players (particularly Kamara) and consistently gaining positive yards. An aging Brees appeared to lack zip on his passes at times, but did get the ball downfield when he really needed to and was still able to hit some tight windows in the short passing game. This style of offense led to the most success when they faced poor tackling teams because they maximized opportunities in the middle of the field.
*Omitted games without Brees and Week 17 v. CAR with no Kamara/Murray
This chart tracks the Saints’ offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long missed tackle count. They played consistently well against teams that missed a lot of tackles, like LV (+0.69), MIN (+1.61), DET (+0.86), and CAR (+1.55). But they struggled relatively against the more disciplined tackling teams, like SF (-0.36) and CHI (+0.03).
Thomas missed a good portion of the year with injuries, but also took a huge step backwards in 2020 while he was on the field. I don’t know if he lacked focus or if there was something else going on. At one point he was disciplined by the Saints for fighting in practice. He also had a seemingly rocky relationship with Brees on social media. Whatever the reason, he’s only 28 and I would anticipate a bounce back in 2021, provided the quarterback can get him the ball.
With Thomas ailing, Kamara was the centerpiece of the offense. But he was not effectively used in the games where Taysom Hill started, and that really hurt the offense. I expect Winston will do a better job getting the ball to his safety blanket to avoid costly interceptions. Winston provides a wide range of outcomes for 2021. I was not impressed with his performance in Tampa Bay, but he has talent and potential and Payton has always maximized his offensive weapons. There is definitely room for cautious optimism.
The 2020 Saints were powered by their elite 2nd-ranked defense, particularly in the latter half of the year. They ferociously gang-tackled, won the battle in the trenches, and got excellent cornerback play from Marshon Lattimore. Granted, their defensive Rating was inflated by playing the Kendall Hinton-led Broncos and a few other teams in poor spots, but they were still extremely strong.
They were big and strong up front but did not rely only on the defensive line to exert pressure. They implemented a healthy number of blitzes and tried to consistently push quarterbacks into bad situations. They excelled at getting pressure, forcing a lot of incomplete passes, and tackling well when receivers caught the ball.
Saints Defensive Numbers
|Category||NO Def||NFL Rank|
|Yards after Catch||1,589||3rd|
As a result, it was very difficult to pass consistently against the Saints. It was also difficult to pick up yardage on the ground against their defensive line, as running backs averaged just 3.9 yards per carry against them. But teams that insisted on running the ball at least cooled off the Saints’ pressure and chipped away in the run game, slowing them down defensively. Their aggression had less of an impact against run-heavy teams.
So teams that ran more frequently caused the Saints the most problems. This chart tracks the Saints’ defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long run rate. Run-heavy teams on the left of the chart like MIN (-0.27), GB (+0.28), and LV (-0.71) caused some of the Saints’ worst relative defensive performances. But pass-heavy teams on the right like TB (+1.36 avg. in 3 games) were good matchups for the Saints, who excelled at pressuring the quarterback.
The Saints did struggle at cornerback across from Lattimore. Primary receiving options were not productive in Lattimore’s coverage. As a result, every player who reached 100 yards receiving against them was either a tight end or a secondary or tertiary receiving option.
Big Receiving Performances v. NO
|Player||Rec. v. NO||Yds. v. NO|
Some of the Saints’ best defensive players have moved on in the offseason, particularly on their strong defensive line. But Lattimore and the remaining starters should still be competitive. I think their scheme is strong and they have several players who can step up when necessary. I expect continued success despite the key departures, but am tempering my expectations somewhat to see if they can return to form.
Putting it All Together
- The Saints are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were consistently underrated in 2020 but the loss of Brees and many other key players could significantly impact this team. They have a wide range of outcomes in 2021.
- If, for some reason, they decide to go with Taysom Hill as their full-time quarterback, fade the Saints offense.
- If they go with Winston, as I predict they will, pay close attention to how he fits the scheme early in the season. With a great offensive coach and some excellent skill players, Winston may be able to revive his career. But don’t bank on it.
- Favor the Saints defensively against pass-heavy teams, particularly those who rely on a primary wide receiver for production or who have a quarterback that does not handle pressure well.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- The days of Alvin Kamara’s fantasy dominance may have come to an end with Brees’ retirement. I do expect the Saints to try to keep him heavily involved in the passing game, but I have no confidence that Winston will be as effective as Brees at getting the ball to Kamara in good spots. He is still an exciting player, but likely will regress with a new quarterback.
- Michael Thomas is an intriguing bounce-back candidate who I anticipate will be heavily involved in the Saints’ game plan, particularly if Winston is the quarterback. I definitely do not anticipate a return to overall WR #1 status, but he should be heavily targeted as a safety blanket for Winston.
- Avoid primary wide receivers against the Saints when Lattimore is healthy. Unless they perform better on the other side, favor secondary wide receivers or tight ends.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
On Wild Card weekend, the Saints played host to the Bears in a complete mismatch. With virtually all their weapons back and healthy, I expected the Saints offense to be competent in a tough matchup with the Bears’ defense. With Sean Payton’s creativity in a must-win situation, I projected the Saints for 20-30 points. But the real key was that the Saints defense was playing lights-out football and drew a matchup against one of the NFL’s worst offenses. I had a hard time picturing how the Bears would score at all. Even though the spread had crept up to 10 points, I put 1 Unit on the Saints to cover that spread. I rarely make big plays on big spreads but I believe I should have here. The Saints dominated the game, and barely missed an opportunity at the goal line to make it 28-3 before Trubisky led a garbage touchdown drive to end the game 21-9.