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Analysis: Why Taysom Hill makes sense against the Falcons defense

In terms of opponent specifics, Taysom Hill might frankly be the obvious choice to take down Atlanta this Sunday.

NFL: NOV 28 Saints at Falcons

In Sean Payton’s book, Home Team, he boasts a Parcells-disciple mantra: the art of creating a crisis. No notion was truer when the news broke Friday that Taysom Hill is poised to be the New Orleans Saints starting quarterback this Sunday. Now, in classic Payton fashion, he declined to name the starter in his press conference.

Is there a strong chance we’re being trolled, and this is all a smokescreen? Absolutely. But what if it’s not? I spent some time studying franchise quarterback replacement trends in an attempt to surmise the heir apparent to Drew Brees. Opinions aside, the research and historical parallels frankly pointed towards Taysom Hill as Brees’ successor. In the interest of concision, that full breakdown can be found here:

In short summation, Payton has done nothing but position Taysom Hill as a starting NFL quarterback; he promptly named him the second-string QB in the spring, awarded Hill a legitimate 2-year contract, and ultimately declared that Hill will be an “outstanding NFL quarterback.” In 1987, Bill Walsh was deemed insane when he traded for Steve Young. Revisionist history aside, everyone thought he was crazy, he did it anyway, forced a quarterback controversy, and forged a path for Young in the NFL. Payton is frankly doing the same this year, minus the controversy; namely, he’s been running a watered-down version of Walsh’s two-quarterback system from 1988.

In my somewhat controversial conclusion, I deemed Hill as the successor to Brees for 2021. What I was not expecting was Payton to make this switch midseason. Should Hill start, this is Sean Payton’s Siege of Orléans. Undoubtedly, Taysom Hill’s first NFL start will be the ultimate test of Payton’s career. Which is why it was initially shocking to see he may be testing it out against our biggest rival. A more critical look at this matchup, however, proves to be quite illuminating for this potential move. While in the midst of his typical evasion of the question of the hour, Payton did note Friday that the opponent unquestionably plays a role in the decision-making process.

“One of the things you guys hear me talk about a lot is focusing on each game,” Payton told reporters. “We’ll do what’s best relative to how we play the quarterbacks, and the situations, and what we’re trying to accomplish each game.” If we look at this matchup in particular, the Hill decision starts to make some more sense.

The most obvious elephant in the room is the turnover factor. While the immediate counter has been Taysom’s two fumbles this year, this is a lot easier to surmount than Winston’s propensity to throw interceptions. The analysis of Winston’s ability to find success in New Orleans, specific to the turnovers, centered on the Saints system that excels in short-to-intermediate passes. Seemingly, this would counteract the dangers that Winston looks downfield to taunt; over his five seasons, Winston has the highest average depth of target of any qualifying quarterback. In light of this assumption, it was a bit alarming to see Winston operate in a New Orleans-style offense for a half last Sunday.

It’s absolutely necessary to disclaim that Winston was thrust into a gameplan not designed for him whatsoever, and his play was comparative to Bridgewater when he took over mid-game for Brees last year. Bridgewater, however, went into extreme game manager mode; Winston nearly threw a pick on a gimme pass to Michael Thomas out of the slot. Unlike his typical gunslinger throws, this was a very conservative attempt in comparison. One that quickly led to Sean Payton eliminating the position of quarterback in the fourth quarter last Sunday. If there’s one thing Payton is known for, it’s his penchant for stealing possessions from opponents. This emphatically does not line up with Winston’s abilities. This isn’t to say Winston has been decidedly demoted; it’s likely we’ll see Winston in games more suited to his strengths down the stretch. Particularly, one where pressure on the quarterback isn’t critical to the win.

The Atlanta Falcons upset the Saints in their first matchup last year with one simple edge – six sacks on Drew Brees. Another recent Saints game that shared this damning factor was last year’s Wild Card loss to the Minnesota Vikings. When New Orleans offensive line crumbles, the rest of the offense promptly follows suit; Brees was sacked three times in the Vikings game, threw an interception, and seemingly could never find his footing in the pocket. On the Falcons side, one of their most successful outings this season was their win against Carolina. In that 25-17 win, Atlanta completely harassed Bridgewater into oblivion with six quarterback hits and three sacks.

In the subsequent matchup between New Orleans and Atlanta on Thanksgiving last year, though the defense largely deserved credit, there were two critical factors in the Saints win: zero sacks and Taysom Hill. New Orleans exponentially increased their employment of Hill in that November contest, and the results were palpable; in all, Hill had a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and a punt deflection. Do any of these have much to do with being a quarterback? Not in the slightest. It was Hill’s versatility that proved to be the difference maker – and his elusiveness as a rushing quarterback. We may remember a particularly hilarious quote from Alvin Kamara a few weeks back on Hill:

That rang incredibly true when Hill broke through with a 30-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter last year. Throwing abilities aside, Hill is extremely difficult to take down when he runs off on a tear. Significant to this matchup is the factor of a mobile quarterback.

Historically, Atlanta does not fare well with an elusive quarterback; namely, they have never been able to contain Russell Wilson, or really any quarterback that can move out of the pocket. The Falcons have tried tweaking their defensive schemes and alignments, and preparing for quarterbacks that run read-option packages or zone-reads, but they’ve never been able to actually figure this component out. Moreover, the only avenue of success for their pass rush has been on the interior; New Orleans interior line is flanked by Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz, with Erik McCoy at center.

This is exactly the point on the o-line that melted down in the loss to the Vikings, and the sack on Brees last week that put him on IR was a collapse of the interior by Ruiz. Notably, Taysom Hill was just about the only shining star on the field in the Wild Card loss to Minnesota. Grady Jarrett’s presence on the opposing side only bolsters this; he’s foreboding in the interior, and is very good at sacking New Orleans quarterbacks. It’s likely a tandem of the Falcons inability to contain mobile quarterbacks and their ability to rush up the interior that are propelling Hill’s alleged start.

Lastly, there’s the complete x-factor that may trump all other arguments. How exactly does one prepare for a quarterback who’s publicly thrown 18 career passing attempts? When Hill comes in as a gadget player, it’s easy to surmise that 9 times out of 10, he’ll put his head down and run. Interestingly, per Nick Underhill, Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi noted that most of these “reads” by Hill are just straight-up designed fakes.

Hill has been the NFL’s best kept quarterback secret thus far. Why give any of his skillset away if you don’t have to? While we may want to be placated by seeing Hill throw under center, it ultimately makes no sense for Payton to show his cards needlessly. Hill has been employed exactly as intended – as a decoy. What no one knows is what Hill actually can do when he’s tasked with just one role: starting quarterback. And that’s nothing short of a nightmare for an opposing coaching staff on a Friday morning.

It’s 2020, things are weird, but at least they’re terrifying and exciting simultaneously with Taysom Hill. Should Hill be the starter, grab a drink, buckle up, and just enjoy the madness of an enigma game.

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