As I look at this 2018 version of the New Orleans Saints, one thing is extremely clear. Offensively, we are looking at an updated version of the 2009 Saints team that won Super Bowl XLIV. In no way am I suggesting the results will be the same or even similar this season, but Saints Coach Sean Payton has found a man to play every role in a script that played out very well in the past for him.
The main character is still the same, Drew Brees. Brees is the unquestioned leader of this Saints offense. By his general standards, this was a down year statistically, but he rightfully traded another 5,000 yard passing season for two Pro Bowl running backs, and another playoff appearance. Some Saints fans were concerned that the main character’s role was seemingly fading. However, after watching him work masterfully against the Panthers last week for 376 yards and 2 TDs, it is clear the main character, even after all these years, can still carry his role extremely well.
Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are doing an excellent job filling in the role of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. It is clear that both are used a lot in the screen game, both are used as running backs, and both are used to exploit Saints favoring matchups. Mark Ingram plays the role of Pierre Thomas, used as a hard to tackle powerful body in the screen game and as the primary goal-line back.
Kamara plays the role of Reggie Bush. Most would argue that Kamara plays the role of satellite back better than Reggie Bush. He is a rookie Pro Bowl Running Back, second-team All-Pro, and He runs just as well between the tackles as he does on the outside. However, no one can deny that both provide incredibly explosive plays, caught a ton of balls out of the backfield, and serve as ultra-talented versatile offensive weapons.
Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon Coleman serve as the modern day secondary set of wide receivers formerly played by Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. The similarities in the roles are incredibly clear, as Ginn is the deep threat that can stretch the field and open space for other receivers underneath. Henderson and Ginn even wear the same number. Brandon Coleman acts as the brute of the receiving core, he is not exceptional in the passing game at all, however, he is consistently active on game day (just not Sunday) because of his ability to serve as a blocker, which helps in the running game. If Saints fan can remember towards the end of Robert Meachem’s career, he was often cut and re-signed with the Saints. This was mainly due to his ability to serve as an extremely good blocker on the outside.
The role of number one wide receiver formerly manned by Marques Colston has been assumed by second-year wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, like Colston, was during his playing days, is Brees’ favorite target in the passing game. Unlike Colston, Michael Thomas is getting his just due and has been voted to the Pro-Bowl after a stellar second season.
Some may suggest that Thomas is more explosive than Colston and presents more of a matchup issue for cornerbacks, but they both have imposing size, great hands, and serve/served as the primary offensive weapons in the passing game. With that being said, almost every role in this offense has been filled and in most cases (Thomas, Kamara, Ingram, and Ginn) the players taking on the roles have been more productive and has filled the role more successfully than former players. There is, however, one other important role remaining.
Lance Moore in 2008 was an incredible weapon for the New Orleans Saints. There were a few games when Marques Colston went down with an injury and Lance Moore stepped up big for the offense and earned his way into the starting line-up. He finished the 2008 season with 928 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2009, things were much different for Moore, as he dealt with multiple injuries and was not able to provide much production. He finished the 2009 regular season with only 14 receptions, 153 yards, and 2 TDs. The fact that Lance had such a horrible overall season is often forgotten because of his incredible 2 point conversion in the Super Bowl, but for most of the ‘09 season, Lance Moore did not contribute much to the offense. The role of 2009 Lance Moore is, unfortunately, being played by third-year receiver Willie Snead.
The similarities between Lance Moore and Willie Snead are remarkable. Both Snead and Moore were undrafted rookie free agents that earned their way onto an NFL Roster through hard work and determination. They both possess similar builds Moore (5’9 and 190 lbs) and Snead (5’11 and 195 lbs). Due to Snead’s work ethic, attention to details, strong hands, and ability to run precise routes, prior to last season he was often referred to by many of his teammates and the media as Lance Moore 2.0. In 2016, Willie Snead was an incredible part of the Saints offense. He was a key contributor on 3rd downs, ran excellent routes, and displayed strong hand in clutch situations. Though he was not as productive as Lance Moore in regards to touchdowns last season, he produced 72 total catches for 895 yards.
This year has been a disappointing year for Snead. He started the year suspended for the first three games of the year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. When Snead was eligible to return to action in Week 4 he was unable to play due to hamstring injuries. Snead did not play this season until Week 6 against Detroit. While most Saints fans expected 2016 Snead to take the field, the 2017 injury-riddled, slightly slower Snead took the field. It became remarkably apparent that he was not the player fans saw during the 2016 season.
While the offense is still very productive, finishing as the number two overall offense in the NFL, 3rd down efficiency is down. The clutch hands and the guy most fans have grown accustomed to seeing in a clutch situation is simply not there. Which is leading most fans to ask the question “Where’s Willie?” Willie Snead even realizes that his role on the offense has diminished greatly, he recently told the Advocate, “It’s definitely been tough,” Snead said. “I’m used to being in there on third down. I’m used to getting all those reps…”
Snead has completely disappeared from the offense. Last week, against the Carolina Panthers he caught one pass for 7 yards. Over the course of the season, he has 8 receptions for 92 yards and 0 touchdowns. That’s the equivalent of simply a good day for the 2016 version of Willie Snead. It would be unfair, in some regards, to compare Snead’s numbers to Michael Thomas.
However, it is a fact to say that even wide receiver Brandon Coleman bested Snead in regards to contributions this season. Coleman caught 23 passes for 364 yards and 3 touchdowns this season. Ted Ginn, Jr., a free-agent pickup from the Carolina Panthers, has flourished with Saints this season to the tune of 53 receptions, 787 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Ginn even provided a major spark in the game against the Panthers by catching a Brees Bomb to get the Saints off to an early advantage. Even Tommylee Lewis, who primarily starts on special teams had better stats this season then Snead with 10 receptions, 116 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Snead still plays a lot of snaps but his overall statistical contributions to the teams have been significantly diminished. In ‘09, the Saints were able to sustain a major absence from Lance Moore. The defenses they faced on the road to that Championship were not legendary defenses. The Saints also had 3 Pro Bowler players on the Offensive line, a semi-healthy big target at tight end, and an extremely opportunistic defense. This team is one injury away from having major chaos on the offensive line, over 20 players are on IR and they have a very young and inexperienced defense. Also with the recent announcement that Brandon Coleman won’t be playing this Sunday, it is imperative that the Saints and Saints fans get to see at least a glimpse of the 2015 and 2016 Willie Snead.
This Sunday, the Saints will be playing the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Vikings are well-equipped to defend almost every weapon the Saints can deploy. The Vikings ended the season as the number one defense in the NFL. Their linebackers are some of the best run stopping and coverage linebackers in the NFC. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes has all physical attributes and cover skills to frustrate Micheal Thomas. The rest of the secondary including Trae Waynes, Terrence Newman, and Harrison Smith are playmakers as well. The Defensive Line will also be another major threat to the Saints offense, some may say the most threatening due to the presence of two great defensive tackles and the uncertainty on the Saints offensive line.
Re-watching Game 1 between the Saints and the Vikings, as I’m sure most Saints hardcore fans have done at this point, it was clear to me that the offense could move the ball efficiently on the Viking defense. However, converting possessions into touchdowns once in the Red Zone was tough for the Saints. Most Saints fans believe that this game is going to be different because there has been so much turn-over. The Vikings feel more confident going into this game after “finding their identity” as well.
This will be a difficult game and the Saints will need every offensive weapon they have to exploit holes in the Vikings secondary. In the first match-up, the Saints were able to use tight end Coby Fleener, to help get themselves back in the game after falling behind. Coby Fleener, like many other players, is on IR. Who will step up for the Saints, who will be the offensive weapon that surprises the Vikings, who will make the unexpected contributions that will possibly lead to a Saints victory.
Willie Snead recently tweeted “Right where I’m supposed to be #TrustGod”. This Sunday, Saints fans are trusting God to provide us with the best version of Willie Snead that they have seen all season long. If their prayers are answered, I believe the Saints will have a much-improved chance of advancing toward their ultimate goal this season.