Part 22 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 21 here: Atlanta Falcons. Part 23 available now: Tampa Bay Bucs.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
The Saints’ gameplan for the post-Brees transition was clear. They had an elite offensive line, one of the best running backs in the NFL, and a quarterback (Winston) dangerous enough to threaten downfield even if it wasn’t a huge part of the game plan. He would be just aggressive enough to open up some room underneath and could make some big throws as a bonus. They were set to rely on the strength of their defense by running the ball, avoiding turnovers, and implementing enough of Sean Payton’s patented creativity to keep defenses on their heels.
This approach can work. And when you no longer have an elite quarterback, it’s arguably the optimal way to run your offense. But it relies on the strength of the offensive line. The Saints’ offensive line completely fell apart in 2021 with injuries and Covid issues that never stopped. Terron Armstead missed 9 games, Andrus Peat missed 11, Eric McCoy missed 5, and Ryan Ramcyzk missed 7. It was a total disaster of rotations and the Saints just did not establish the run. A year after finishing with 4.6 yards per carry (good for 10th in the NFL), they dropped to 3.9 yards per carry, 5th-worst in the NFL.
On top of that major issue, the Saints played with four different starting quarterbacks and three different starting running backs in 2021 due to injury and ineffectiveness. They weren’t consistent on offense with any of the quarterbacks. Their four worst games relative to opponent came against the Panthers with Winston (-1.52 Adj. Eff.), the Eagles with Siemian (-1.31), the Bucs with Taysom Hill (-0.95), and, of course, the Dolphins with Ian Book (-1.39). In other words, every quarterback struggled at times and a healthy Jameis Winston did not solve all their problems.
They also lacked a true number one wide receiver. They needed to run to win, and were unable to do so. Chart A shows the Saints’ offensive Adjusted Effectiveness (measuring performance relative to opponent strength) against each opponent ranked by its run defense on the season in DVOA. All four of their best offensive showings involved teams that were bottom-5 against the run in the Packers, Falcons, and Giants. They struggled relatively against teams that could stop the run.
If everyone had stayed healthy, I think this team could have been competitive. But you simply can’t lose your offensive line and quarterback and expect to be successful, particularly without elite wide receiver talent. Taysom Hill is a good football player, but he doesn’t process defenses well enough or throw accurately enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Siemian showed signs of promise but is nothing more than a backup. Book was terrible. And none were in a favorable situation with all the injuries.
The Saints will return to Jameis Winston in 2022, but there are arguably more important questions. How will the offensive line look in the wake of Armstead’s departure? Probably better than the mess it was last year, but not the elite line it was with Armstead. How will the Saints use Taysom Hill without Payton running the show? They traded up for Chris Olave, and Michael Thomas is still technically on the team, so there is some optimism that they finally might have some outside weapons. But Kamara has a legal situation hovering over his head and showed last year that he likely cannot be an every-down type of player. Ultimately, this offense will come down to (1) the strength and cohesiveness of the offensive line and (2) how much they will miss Sean Payton. Both of these are fairly uncertain.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
The Saints fielded the most effective defense in the NFL in 2021 after finishing second in 2020. It has been a quietly dominant stretch by a team that tackles aggressively, exerts natural pressure, and consistently wins in high-leverage situations. What struck me when I watched this defense in action was just how difficult they made it for opposing offenses to impose their will. Every play was a fight for most teams.
It started with the run defense. With big defensive linemen and strong linebackers behind them, New Orleans stonewalled the run. They finished with the NFL’s best run defense. This led to favorable third down situations where opponents had to pass on third-and-long, particularly when those opponents insisted on trying to run the ball. This helped the Saints allow the 4th-lowest conversion rate on third and fourth down to opposing offenses. They had a strong pass defense as well, but their play on first and second down led to many bad situations that made it easier for them in obvious passing situations.
They also allowed the lowest conversion rate in the red zone. As the field got smaller, their aggressive tackling all over the field and chemistry made it harder for opposing offenses to get the ball into the end zone. They limited both rushing yards and yards after the catch. When a defense is built this solidly from top to bottom, the best way to attack it is to take chances through the air on deep passes. Taking little chunks of yardage or trying to turn catches into yards typically did not work.
Chart B shows the Saints’ defensive effectiveness ranking each opponent by its average yards after the catch per completion on the season. The Saints performed better against teams that relied on yards after the catch, like Green Bay, the Jets, New England, and Seattle. But they had some of their worst relative performances against teams that threw downfield, such as the Giants and Bills.
Most impressively, the defense performed at this level despite injury and Covid issues. The offense took moist of the impact but key players like Kwon Alexander and Marcus Davenport also missed time. The benefit to having a defense with talent at every level, chemistry, and trust in the scheme, is that missing one or two players does not sink the ship. With the offensive struggles they had, it was an impressive 9-8 season for this team. Their signature performance involved shutting out Tom Brady and the Bucs in a 9-0 win. When you can completely blank one of the top offenses in the NFL, you have a chance to win every game, no matter how bad your offense is.
That’s why I am not overly concerned that Marcus Williams moved on this off-season. This should be a plug-and-play situation where Marcus Maye and Tryann Mathieu step in and play well in a good system. Despite facing a tough cap situation, the Saints look like they could field a top defense once again. Teams with strong defensive schemes tend to be able to withstand individual players departures and continue their strong performance, so the outlook is still favorable. Sean Payton’s departure should have a bigger impact on the offense than on the defense.
When to bet on the Saints: You can rely on the Saints against opposing offenses that want to be methodical, instead of creating big plays in the passing game. But with an offense that needs a strong line and already missing Armstead, make sure the offensive line is healthy. At its best, this team can be playoff caliber.
When to fade the Saints: On the flip side, injuries to the offensive line will really hurt this team. I anticipate another strong defensive performance but there should be some drop off and teams that can successfully throw downfield (particularly with a mobile quarterback) have their best shot.
Evaluating the offseason so far: The cap space was supposed to catch up to the Saints, and it did with Armstead and Williams leaving. But they managed to fill most of the gaps so I don’t see them falling off a cliff. They made some suboptimal draft moves but if Chris Olave pans out they may have addressed a key gap. The jury is out on whether this was a successful off-season.
Enjoyed the content?
For all my analysis and NFL bets as I make them (including twelve NFL futures), become a SharpClarke Member for the 2022 season here: