The New Orleans Saints defense seemingly hit a new low to begin the 2018 season. Allowing 48 points won’t win many NFL games, but yielding 48 points to a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense is flat-out embarrassing.
In Week One, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like the 2007 New England Patriots. The Buccaneers recorded nine plays of more than 20 yards and three of greater than 35. All three of those big explosive plays were completed passes that went for touchdowns.
But while the defense was atrocious, the offense had its problems too. Sure, Drew Brees and company scored 40 points, but after one week, it’s already clear the unit badly misses running back Mark Ingram.
Without him for the next three games, the Saints possess three issues.
Missing Mark Ingram Compounded New Orleans Saints Problems Versus Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The responsibility of replacing Ingram falls mostly on the shoulder of second-year back Alvin Kamara, who was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2017. Most expected him to at least temporarily be able to fill the void Ingram leaves.
In Week 1, Kamara was heavily involved in the offense. He received 17 touches and scored three touchdowns, including two on the ground. Just watching the game, it seemed as though he had a huge game.
But if one looks at the box score, the ground game was non-existent for the Saints, as Kamara ran for 29 yards on just eight carries. Fellow back Mike Gillislee, who the Saints need to help give Kamara a rest, rushed for nine yards on three carries.
Even worse, Gillislee fumbled, which Buccaneers safety Justin Evans returned it for a touchdown.
It was one of two lost fumbles for the Saints in the game. With the way the Buccaneers were scoring, New Orleans couldn’t afford to end possessions in giveaways. That, especially giving up seven points via the fumble return, arguably cost them in Week One as much as the poor defense did.
There’s no guarantee Ingram would have done any better against the stout Buccaneers defense but having him couldn’t have made it worse.
Ingram Is the Missing Third Weapon in the New Orleans Saints Offense
In order to keep the Saints in the game, Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas had huge receiving days. Thomas set a franchise record with 16 catches, recording 180 yards and a touchdown. Kamara hauled in nine passes for 112 yards and reached the end zone three times.
That’s tremendous production, but it is also an unbalanced offensive attack. Wide receiver Tedd Ginn Jr. caught a 28-yard touchdown, and other than that, his fellow skill position players provided little offense.
Thomas and Kamara combined to receive nearly 70 percent of the team’s targets. If the running game was working, that number wouldn’t be as big of a problem. But with no rushing attack, having more than two-thirds of the team’s targets go to two players is an issue.
Thomas caught 16 of his 17 targets, giving him a 94 percent catch-percentage. Even with Brees’ high completion percentage and the chemistry the two have developed, one cannot expect Thomas to haul in that many of his targets again.
A different receiver or tight end must emerge as a third option for Brees until Ingram returns.
New Orleans Saints Must Be Careful Not to Overuse Alvin Kamara
The third and final reason the Saints miss Ingram is that it could lead to overusing Kamara. As previously mentioned, coach Sean Payton plans to spell Kamara with Gillislee, but that won’t happen if Gillislee can’t hold onto the ball.
In Week One, Kamara recorded 17 touches. That’s not too many, but it is a significant increase from the 12.5 touches he averaged per game a year ago.
His snap count, however, skyrocketed on Sunday. Last season, Kamara played about 44 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps. Against the Buccaneers on Sunday, he played more than 81 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
That’s a problem.
Payton must navigate the early part of the season, ensuring his team doesn’t get off to a poor start like in previous years. That could mean using Kamara a ton in September, but Payton must also keep the long-term health of his young back in mind too.
This, along with the Saints offensive balance and rushing attack, will be a constant issue until Ingram returns in Week Five.