Easily the biggest question mark heading into the 2021 season for the New Orleans Saints is: Will Jameis Winston be able to cut down on his turnovers and succeed in New Orleans? Ultimately, that will be the determining factor for success for the Saints’ first quarterback of the post Drew Brees era.
In his last season as a starter (for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019) Winston had 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Nearly two interceptions a game isn’t going to fly for the Saints this year if they’re to be successful, so Sean Payton will have to find ways to help Winston.
One way to do so is to employ some of the game-planning Arthur Smith utilized when the Tennessee Titans signed Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill threw double-digit interceptions in each of his first five seasons for the Miami Dolphins. When he was signed by the Titans, Tannehill cut his interceptions down thanks to a heavy play action diet (bolstered by Derrick Henry).
Outside of Tannehill possession more mobility, Winston and Tannehill are fairly similar stylistically. They’re extremely similar size-wise, and both had big arms coming out of college.
This is all to say: Both players could have similar blueprints for success. A run-heavy offense with a lot of fullback play and heavy play action. Don’t make Winston do it all himself. Put him in situations to succeed. The Titans didn’t run it out of big sets either. They were tied with the Eagles in 1-2 personnel packaging (one running back and two tight ends) at 35 percent.
Very few teams have the personnel to make this work. The Saints are on the short list. Alvin Kamara is one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL, and while he may not barrel through defenders like Henry, he does wear defenses out in much the same way. His elusiveness and versatility — especially between the tackles — means play action should be a constant threat when he’s in the backfield.
The blueprint for this is already in place for the Saints. Brees’ later years saw an offense that was designed to manufacture space for receivers. It would be a mistake to break out the 2013-2016 playbooks just because there’s a guy who can make big throws again.
The Titans were third in the NFL in 2020 with 174 play action attempts, whereas the Saints were 30th with 92 attempts. There needs to be more of an attempt to keep defenses honest.
Plays like this one are a great example, and keep teams dangerous all over the field. The Titans run a zone blocking scheme out of play action, and the offensive line shows a lot of discipline in staying back and playing pass pro. The result is a play that gets Tannehill out of the pocket to see the field clearly, while a pseudo-pocket is created offset from the line of scrimmage. A.J. Brown comes into his field of view on a crossing route, and the Titans end up with an easy completion.
To know if these designs are going to work, you don’t have to look further than the linebackers. They all crash down and when Tannehill pulls up with the ball, they’re left flatfooted. The Saints can catch linebackers in much the same way, as you have to respect the threat that Kamara poses.
While the execution may look a little different for the Saints, the principles remain the same. The Titans offense followed an admirable mantra under Smith: Keep it simple, stupid. When the Titans line up in 1-2 with Tannehill under center, they’re either giving to Henry or running play action. When Tannehill lines up in shotgun, they pass it, because otherwise it complicates things.
The Saints will never run that style, it isn’t how Payton operates. But the basic framework can be taken and repurposed. Let the offense do the work for Winston, and let him do the work before the snap. That way, the trust in his arm is completely justified, rather than blind faith.
This will take tweaking throughout the season — no one knows what the Saints are going to look like this year. But Winston, for all of his talent, has a chance to prove that all he needed was a change of scenery. It’s a chance for him to earn a big contract, so if he does well, everyone wins. Everyone, that is, except the 31 teams in the NFL who aren’t the Saints.
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