It wasn’t pretty, and the final two minutes were way too reminiscent of last-minute playoff implosions, but the New Orleans Saints advanced to their ninth straight win. The Saints swept the Atlanta Falcons in their 21-16 victory on Sunday, leaving them with just one game left for a full NFC South sweep.
This was certainly not a game to look back on fondly, nor should it have ever been a consistent five-point game. That all said, at the end of the day, New Orleans did their job, clinched a playoff berth, maintained the No. 1 seed, and are on the cusp of their fourth straight NFC South Division title. Let’s get to it.
The Good: Three Quarters of Taysom Hill
Up until 3:25 remaining in regulation, Taysom Hill made a hell of a case for a shot at the starting role when Drew Brees retires. And all things considered, he still might’ve done just that. We’ll get to his troublesome fumbling issues. But don’t allow that to outshine the sincere promise we saw from Hill under center.
When Taysom Hill was announced as the starter for the Week 11 Falcons game, the resounding reaction was equal parts bewilderment and refusal to give Hill a chance. Despite this, Hill showed out in his first NFL start with 18 completions, 233 passing yards, and two rushing touchdowns. The response, then, was that Hill is better than expected, but can’t throw touchdowns, and is better off as a gadget player. We then played in the oddest game of 2020 against a team sans quarterback, and Hill played a conservative game accordingly, and suddenly we were back to square one of Taysom Hill Is REALLY Not a NFL Starting Quarterback.
Today, he finally delivered what we’ve been asking for; he exceeded expectations in spades. He not only threw his first NFL touchdown pass, but he did it twice over, completed 27 passes for 232 yards, rushed for 83 yards, and was only sacked twice. Past the stats, Hill excelled most in his intangibles. He displayed incredible patience in the pocket, actually went through his reads, and skillfully converted on third down.
Hill’s clutch play on third down was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance. He completed 11-of-13 passes for 114 yards and a passing touchdown on third down, with 97 of those yards as successful conversions. His clutch performance wasn’t so much illustrated by the conversion rate as it was the yardage and throws he made on these downs. Hill wasn’t often faced with 3rd and short; he threw a third-and-13 conversion, a third-and-17 conversion, and ultimately totaled five conversions of six yards or more.
That type of control and poise on third down is one of those intangibles you can’t easily teach in a quarterback. They either have that killer instinct, or they don’t. We laud Drew Brees for his impeccable game-winning drives and two-minute drills; Hill was just as clutch on third downs that were key to Sunday’s victory. While we’ve seen him get flustered at times, we genuinely have to remember that this is his third NFL start. Hill was composed in the pocket, yet he knew when to tuck and run when necessary, rushing for a career-high 83 yards. Dare I say, the Steve Young comparison is becoming more and more keenly accurate?
If you're a coach and your quarterback has things he needs to work on, I'd probably want this problem vs. a host of others. I mean it's definitely not great, but it's fixable.— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) December 6, 2020
The Bad: Taysom’s Ball Security
Alas, with the good always comes the bad. While I just finished arguing Hill’s promise exceeded concerns in his performance, those concerns are ultimately not negligible. Hill objectively had his best game as a passer in Sunday’s win. This impressive outing will unfortunately be marred by a glaring issue: his propensity to fumble.
The sharp uptick is a bit bewildering; it feels like it occurs in nearly every game at this point. I’ve quietly been rooting for Hill to keep proving everyone wrong. This becomes markedly difficult, however, when he continuously puts us in a position to lose football games. Ultimately, the ball security issue is correctable.
In Hill’s own words after the game, he painfully needs to, “put two hands on the ball in [that] situation.” In hearing Hill’s presser, and his earnest desire to make a play on that fumble, I honestly have to wonder how much of this falls on Hill. Taysom had plenty of time to throw the ball away on that play, live to see another down, and worst case, we kick the field goal and go up 24-9. That’s what a Drew Brees does in that game situation. Hill is not only a backup in his third career start, but he’s also trying to prove himself, amidst sharp criticism, to both his teammates and the NFL as a whole.
Taysom is doing everything in his power to win and lose this game.— Canal St. Chronicles (@SaintsCSC) December 6, 2020
As admitted by Sean Payton himself in his post-game presser, Payton was just as much, if not more, to blame for that ill-timed fumble. Some might validly point to his comments as protecting his quarterback. That’s likely true. But this goes deeper than slippery hands.
Hill is not just trying to keep a championship-level team in the hunt. He’s currently auditioning to be the heir apparent to Drew Brees. There’s an evaluation component to Hill that doesn’t necessarily exist with most backups; this might be the Catch-22 of this issue, one that I’m not entirely sure is fully recognized. While Teddy Bridgewater was certainly auditioning himself in 2019, he was just as much showing his skillset off to quarterback-needy teams. Taysom has made it blatantly clear that he wants that chance with New Orleans. Accordingly, he knows this is the biggest opportunity he’ll ever get to make a case for just that.
Combine Hill’s lack of experience in a starting NFL role, his team’s playoff trajectory to the No. 1 seed, a desire to prove himself not just to his coaches, but the world, and his innate competitive spirit. It’s easy to see how we got to this point. This frankly might be a mental issue more than an ineptitude to secure the football. Both Hill and Payton might do well to take a step back, recognize that this evaluation, while critical to the Saints future success, is causing a mental block and fueling a desperation to make plays, and consider Hill’s potential displayed thus far adequate.
Hill proved everyone wrong and showed he could throw the football today. As we’ve been told, there’s much more behind the scenes we aren’t privy to that bolsters New Orleans confidence in Hill. We may have seen just enough by now, and an amalgamation between the Denver game manager role and today’s display may hopefully temper this issue through Week 14.
Saints getting hit with defensive PI flags like they turned back the clock to September— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) December 6, 2020
The Ugly: Penalties and Minnesota Miracle Flashbacks
This game was almost boring. Almost. Prior to the fourth quarter, the Falcons had yet to find success in the end zone. They certainly prioritized Matt Ryan’s livelihood this time around, giving up a mere three sacks to the 8 in Week 11. What Atlanta could not do, however, was fend off the Saints for three quarters of this game. New Orleans clearly dominated the majority of this matchup, but in nostalgic fashion, nearly let everything collapse in a nail-biting final defensive stand.
The majority of criticism towards Hill’s fumbles this season has focused on the timing. This game was no different; the turnover gave Atlanta a genuine shot at winning a game they had no business winning for three quarters. The Saints defense used to be defined by penalties, damning big plays, and an inability to finish the drill. Earlier this season, we saw a defense reminiscent of that in the inexplicable mental lapses and constant flags. It’s certainly not time to sound the alarm just yet, but that final drive was quite troubling when the Ghosts of Saints Past made a brief appearance.
Hill’s fumble might have been the catalyst, but New Orleans sure took the relay and nearly ran it all into the ground. Atlanta got the ball back on their 15-yard line; surely, this lethal defensive unit can make a stop in 85 yards. Instead, that drive saw three penalties for 25 yards that left the Falcons to cover just 60 yards for a touchdown. Sometimes, it’s just the penalties - it wasn’t just the penalties in the final minutes. Matt Ryan completed passes for 14 and 24 yards on the touchdown drive, and nearly pulled off an upset with a 22-yard catch that set up the Hail Mary on the final play.
In total, the Saints committed 10 penalties for 79 yards - their highest since their Week 3 loss to Green Bay - and gave Atlanta five first downs by penalties. New Orleans typically excels in all three phases of the game; today, every phase was guilty of incurring flags. This was just needlessly sloppy football, against a team that we should never give an inch to. The Falcons may remain incompetent through the season, but year in year out, they play at least one game against us with a vengeance. As that wasn’t the case in our first outing, the Saints should’ve known better than to nearly hand this game away on DPI and defensive holding calls.
Truthfully, we were due for a slice of humble pie; it was a bit nerve-wracking at how easy this season was playing out. It’s a bit concerning that Marcus Davenport and Janoris Jenkins’ absence in their respective units was so painfully apparent, but a win is a win, and it’s our ninth straight at that. Would I prefer to not ever be reminded of Stefon Diggs circa 2018 in late-game drives? Of course. But sloppy play is easier to correct than flat out ineptitude. This was just one of those games, and hopefully, it’s the last we’ll see this season.
Just please, no more deep passes to TommyLee Lewis. That’s a voodoo box I emphatically wish to not open in 2020.
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