That’s the kind of stuff that can build momentum and salvage a season. But it also can’t mask the fact that the 3-2 Saints are a couple hairs away from being 1-4 heading into their bye week.
When you throw in all the injuries the Saints have dealt with in this young season, the bye couldn’t come at a better time.
Here are the top five things that most need to be fixed for New Orleans to salvage this season and make a real postseason run:
1. Get Michael Thomas back (in more ways than one)
The Saints’ offense has performed in spurts this season (including the last 40 minutes or so of Monday night’s win). But if you’ve watched closely, you know it has been a clunky, inconsistent operation from week to week.
For instance, Drew Brees ranks 33rd among 34 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least two games this year with just 33.6 passing yards per game in the first quarter, according to ESPN Stats & Information, before turning it up in the second half.
Whether or not you believe that Brees is showing signs of a steep decline at age 41, it’s obvious that he could use a big, physical go-to target like Thomas, who caught a NFL-record 149 passes last year and won the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
Thomas was sidelined from Weeks 2 to 4 with an ankle injury. But now there is suddenly an even more concerning issue: Thomas was benched for Week 5 after throwing a punch at Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson during last Friday’s practice and Thomas reportedly was disrespectful to coaches afterward.
Thomas’ intense/competitive/combustible personality has never been a secret. But it’s essential for the Saints that he responds well to being admonished so publicly. The Saints need Thomas to be a driving force in their recovery — not a disruptive one.
Coach Sean Payton declined to discuss Thomas after Monday’s victory, saying he preferred to discuss “the players that played tonight.”
But Brees expressed confidence that Thomas would be “a big part of this team moving forward” and that “we’re gonna be all good.”
2. Stop the bleeding in the secondary
Count me among those who thought the Saints’ talent-rich secondary would be a strength this season. Instead, they have allowed 10 passes of 29-plus yards this season, which is tied for the second-most in the NFL. They also lead the league by a mile with eight defensive pass interference penalties of 19-plus yards.
Monday was a low point. The Saints allowed a 17-yard touchdown pass from rookie Chargers QB Justin Herbert to receiver Keenan Allen behind safety Marcus Williams when Herbert escaped a seven-man blitz in the first quarter. Then they allowed a 49-yard pass from Herbert to receiver Jalen Guyton behind cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the second quarter. Then they allowed a 64-yard TD pass from Herbert to receiver Mike Williams in the fourth quarter on an obvious breakdown when cornerback Patrick Robinson expected safety help that never came. Then they allowed a 29-yard pass from Herbert to Mike Williams against tight coverage in the final seconds of regulation that set up a failed game-winning field-goal attempt.
Lattimore did wind up playing hero in overtime when he tackled Mike Williams in the open field 1 yard short of the first-down marker on fourth down. And the Saints’ secondary has been hurting without fellow starter Janoris Jenkins because of a shoulder injury the past two weeks.
But the sheer volume of these game-changing chunk plays is inexcusable — and they’re a huge reason the Saints rank among the NFL’s bottom seven scoring defenses (allowing 30.0 points per game).
“We’ve got to get on top of one,” Payton said. “It’s something that we’ll be able to clean up, and it’s something that we have to. There are a few things offensively and defensively that I don’t want to say have plagued us — but we haven’t been as good at in the first quarter of the season.”
Meanwhile, on the flip side, the Saints’ defense isn’t making enough big plays of its own. They have forced only two turnovers in the past four games — tied for the lowest number in the NFL over that span.
3. Get Brees going earlier in games
We mentioned above how lackluster Brees’ performances have been in the first quarter of games. Well, it’s the exact opposite in the second half, where Brees’ passer rating of 113.8 ranks third-best in the NFL.
Monday was perhaps the biggest disparity to date. Brees was 7-of-15 for 43 yards and an interception before he finally caught fire during a two-minute touchdown drive before halftime. He finished 33-of-47 for 325 yards with a TD pass and a TD run.
Brees has been under heavy scrutiny this year for his lack of downfield throws — with longtime NFL analysts and casual fans both suggesting he has finally started to act his age. Brees’ 5.9 air yards per attempt ranks 32nd among 33 qualifying quarterbacks this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But Brees has scoffed at the significance of that statistic. And let’s face it — his downfield arm strength has hardly been a defining trait over the past two years, when he was still savvy enough to post the two best passer ratings and completion percentages of his career.
And he can still dial up the deep ball once in a while — as he did with a crucial 41-yard TD pass to tight end Jared Cook in the fourth quarter Monday.
But if Brees doesn’t flash that more often, teams will start focusing more and more on taking away his security blanket, pass-catching RB Alvin Kamara.
4. Stop the penalty madness
This is a relatively new development for New Orleans in 2020, but it has been painfully consistent throughout each of the first five weeks. The Saints lead the NFL by far with 458 penalty yards this year and lead the league with 22 defensive penalties (including those costly PI flags mentioned above). But on Monday it was the special-teams units that couldn’t get out of their own way.
Veteran special-teamer Dwayne Washington gave the Chargers new life on an early TD drive when he ran into the punter. And second-team All-Pro specialist J.T. Gray was inexplicably flagged three times for holding on punt returns — including one that nullified a 33-yard return.
By the end of last season, New Orleans’ Swiss Army QB/RB/TE/WR felt like one of the most exciting players on its offense. In the Saints’ playoff loss to Minnesota, Hill had a 50-yard pass, four rushes for 50 yards and two catches for 25 yards and a touchdown. Then the Saints signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract extension as a restricted free agent.
But he was ice-cold out of the gates this season until he finally broke through with a critical 9-yard TD run on a QB keeper with 52 seconds left in regulation Monday night.
Payton explained again Monday that he likes using Hill on read-option keepers with Brees on the sideline because it essentially gives them an extra player on offense. But the Saints need more plays like that, since Hill has completed just 1 of 2 passes for 38 yards this season; has run the ball 13 times for just 46 yards and one TD; and has three catches for 23 yards. He also dropped a pass Monday night.
Even with the 9-yard TD run, Hill’s average of 3.5 yards per carry is still about 2 yards below his career average. Either Payton needs to get more creative in how he is using one of his most versatile weapons — or Hill and his teammates simply need to execute a lot better.