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Saints Week 11: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (eh)

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints have not had a season devoid of adversity since 2016. Yet, this seems to only propel New Orleans forward each time. The Saints handily defeated the Atlanta Falcons in their 24-9 Week 11 win, and continue surging in their quest to the playoffs. There isn’t too much room to complain when you dominate a division rival, with a “gadget player” quarterback, missing your top cornerback, and losing Andrus Peat in the first half. Accordingly, this is mainly to be taken in jest. Let’s get to it.

The Good: How About That DEFENSE

When Drew Brees went down in 2019, one of the most pleasant surprises was the Saints response on defense. This cannot be overstated - this defense can win championships singlehandedly. When the Saints lost to Atlanta last season, the difference maker was the respective sack counts; New Orleans had just one, while the Falcons preyed on Brees with six sacks. This time, the Saints completely flipped the switch. With Marshon Lattimore out due to injury, this game was going to heavily rely on the pass rush to aid the backfield - and boy did they deliver. The pass rush had an absolute field day; Matt Ryan had no shot in his perpetually collapsing pocket.

You just can’t ask for more from your defense when your star player on offense decimates his entire rib cage. Notably, the game was off to a slow start for New Orleans on offense; it’s easy to lose momentum entirely when you have a new quarterback, new offensive game design, and can’t get anything generating to sustain drives. If not for this lights-out performance by the defense, this game could have gone very differently. It was both a complete performance, and simultaneously headlined by star players. Namely, Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander.

New Orleans has struggled with linebackers in recent seasons, and this injury-riddled unit last year was a critical factor in the Saints loss to the 49ers in the 2019 season. Our pass rush is phenomenal, and the secondary has its days, but that middle unit was decidedly missing from an all-around defense. Not only does Demario Davis has incredible field presence, and insane leadership qualities (particularly in Brees’ absence), but he is just everywhere in the Saints backfield. Now, he has a formidable tandem in Kwon Alexander. What a midseason trade. Alexander was lauded for his coverage abilities, and he was nothing short of a terror today. And frankly, C.J. Gardner-Johnson can start all the fights he wants if he keeps this play up for a third consecutive week.

It’s somewhat hard to evaluate the secondary when Ryan barely had a chance to even get there. That said, barring the Calvin Ridley 46-yard blunder, the Saints did not let this game slip away with deep balls on 3rd and long. Did Julio Jones’ absence help matters? Absolutely. If anything, it simply evened the playing field with Lattimore out. This defense is really good, and just keeps surging by the week. A rare sighting for Saints fans. No matter how you viewed Hill’s performance today, this defense proved that it can win games with him under center. Handily.

The Bad: Taysom Hill’s Ball Security

Now, before I get into this, how about a round of applause for Taysom Hill. Imagine having four season-ending injuries, fighting your way into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, gleefully playing every position on the field, and getting laughed at when you finally get the chance at your well-deserved first NFL start. Sean Payton had everything to lose with playing Hill today; with the general consensus that Jameis Winston start, no one would have really batted an eye had Winston faltered. Had Hill crashed and burned, we would be hearing about this game for the next decade. In Sean we trust, and he delivered in spades today with Hill. In my earlier week analysis about the Taysom Hill start, I reasoned that Hill’s fumbling is easier to surmount than Winston’s propensity to throw interceptions. In an offense led by the coach best known for his joy of stealing possessions, this ultimately bolstered the Hill start. That still rings true, but the lack of ball security is nonetheless a troubling trend.

As we saw today, Taysom Hill is never going to slide for a down in his life. Like Drew Brees can’t just lay down and nurse 11 fractured ribs, Hill simply cannot run less aggressively. You know who else had absolutely no qualms about being killed by a linebacker?

When Taysom takes off on a run, he is no longer thinking about being a quarterback - he just sees red, and goes off on a tear. That’s equal parts commendable and worrisome if he can’t protect the football in his pursuit. The fumble was singular today, but it’s his third lost fumble of the season. Comparatively, he had no fumbles last season, and just one in 2018. Has he been playing a lot more quarterback, and that led to the uptick in fumbles? Perhaps. But as the Saints current starting quarterback, this trend simply cannot continue past his first start. This is easily teachable, and undoubtedly will be the primary focus in the quarterback room this week.

In no way, however, should this outshine the promise we saw from Hill - his play wholly exceeded any possible expectations. He was incredibly patient - which is an immense positive from someone predisposed to run - had clean footwork that helped him navigate the pocket, and ultimately never faltered when the going was tough. The first half was rough; that was to be expected. Payton wasn’t calling plays suited to Hill’s typical “strengths,” likely in an attempt to get him comfortable and situated in the passing game. If he can just work on tucking the ball a bit tighter, there’s ultimately nowhere to go but up with a Hill-led offense.

The Ugly: The Face Made by Falcons Fans Whenever Their Offense Was on the Field

I kid, I kid, somewhat. It’s just hard to pick apart a complete team win, one that was overwhelmingly dominant on defense and showed sincere promise offensively. In a game missing our future Hall of Fame quarterback and our top corner, asking for more than this dominant performance just feels greedy. New Orleans is unparalleled in their ability to parse out the exact strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and find a way to win just about every football game. While most team falter in the face of adversity, the Saints just thrive off it - going back to Sean Payton.

Payton loves a challenge, and this game may have been his biggest challenge yet. Everything from the beginning of his tenure has been an uphill battle; he arrived in his first head coaching job without a stadium, nor a fully rostered team, and a directionless Saints team. As we saw come full circle in Super Bowl XLIV, this wasn’t remotely daunting for Payton. Accordingly, it frankly is no longer surprising that New Orleans flourishes in adversity. Two seasons in a row we abruptly lost Brees, and this only seems to make the rest of the team better. We talked a lot about the Saints locker room culture with the comments made by Brees back in June, but their cohesiveness as a unit just can’t be understated.

This win does a lot for the confidence of this team moving forward, and the playoff implications only gets stronger. It’s a good day to be a Saints fan.

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