The New Orleans Saints offense will enter unfamiliar territory when they visit the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday. For just the second time since signing Drew Brees in 2006, their starting quarterback will miss a game due to injury.
While Brees has sat out of two regular season finales with the top NFC playoff seed secured, the only other game he missed with an injury was a 2015 loss to the Carolina Panthers. That loss ended up being relatively inconsequential as New Orleans sank to a 7-9 finish anyway.
In this case, the timing of the Brees injury could not be much worse. New Orleans entered the season with Super Bowl expectations and their most talented roster since at least 2011. Early speculation suggests that Brees could be out for up to 12 weeks. Even if the future Hall of Famer is out for a significantly shorter amount of time, New Orleans must come up with a survival plan to keep their season alive.
Here are some potential workarounds for the Saints offense while Brees recovers.
New Orleans Saints Offense Must Find Workarounds While Brees Misses Time
Focus on Run Game Success
The Saints versatile running back duo of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray could be their greatest asset in the coming weeks. New Orleans has often had their running game lead the offense with good success. Over the last two seasons, the Saints offense finished with 30 or more rushing attempts in 16 regular season and playoff games. The team won each of those games, averaging 4.6 yards per rush or better in half of them.
With that said, there are several reasons to doubt the Saints running game right now. While Murray showed promise in his Saints debut last week with a 30-yard touchdown run, he’s managed just 20 yards on his other ten carries. Kamara exploded for 97 yards on 13 carries against the Houston Texans, but he also struggled to find room against the Los Angeles Rams. Kamara finished the 27-9 loss with 3.5 yards per attempt on 13 carries.
The Saints offensive line struggled greatly against a talented Rams defensive front. They’ll face two more daunting defensive lines in the upcoming matchups against Seattle and the Dallas Cowboys. The loss of Andrus Peat on Sunday with what appeared to be significant ankle injury won’t help the situation.
Free-agent signing Nick Easton was mysteriously inactive against Los Angeles and 2018 seventh-round pick Will Clapp filled in for Peat instead. If Clapp is indeed the favored backup at left guard over Easton, then the Saints depth there isn’t as strong as it initially appeared.
It’s difficult to win in today’s NFL with a run-first offense due to the number of productive passing attacks around the league. However, if Saints coaches can jumpstart the running game, it will relegate backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a game manager role and take significant pressure off his shoulders.
Focus on What’s Left of Passing Game
In addition to the losses of Brees and Peat, New Orleans had two wide receivers suffer injuries on Sunday. Keith Kirkwood injured his hamstring in pregame warmups and Tre’Quan Smith left the game with an ankle injury. Despite these losses, New Orleans still has its top four passing targets available.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas looks as good as ever with 20 receptions for 212 yards already this year. Other top targets Kamara, wide receiver Ted Ginn, and tight end Jared Cook haven’t fared as well.
While Kamara and Ginn each had seven catches against Houston, Kamara was targeted just three times on Sunday, catching one pass for 15 yards. Ginn wasn’t targeted once. Cook had a rough day too, catching just two of his seven targets for 25 yards.
There are perhaps more daunting groups of targets in the NFL, but each of these players has had a significant level of success. They already carried a lot of responsibility entering the season, and they now have to plan on being even better for Bridgewater.
Coaches also need to create better gameplans to jumpstart the Saints offense. The plan on Sunday wasn’t working even before Brees exited and the unit started slowly against the Texans.
Start Taysom Hill?
While the Saints appear committed to Bridgewater, Troy Aikman made an interesting point during the television broadcast of the game. Last month, Saints head coach Sean Payton compared versatile backup quarterback Taysom Hill to Hall of Famer Steve Young. With this in mind, Aikman stated that “if Taysom Hill is Steve Young, he should be playing.”
While Payton’s lofty comparison should be considered whimsical at best, starting Hill at quarterback has its advantages. Bridgewater has more experience than Hill and throws a prettier pass, but Hill brings an element of unpredictability to the offense.
Hill is just as much of a running threat as a passing threat. He has occasionally come in at quarterback to run RPOs over the last two seasons, most of which have been successful. Throwing this approach at opposing defenses could be the best way to keep them on their toes while Brees is out.
Payton defended Bridgewater’s lackluster performance against the Rams, citing struggles by the rest of the offense. While Hill will likely see an increase in snaps, there’s no reason to think he will start next week. Still, if Bridgewater doesn’t impress in the next few weeks, Payton needs to seriously consider starting Hill.
Outlook for Saints Offense
Things haven’t looked this bleak for the Saints offense since before the arrival of Brees. Beyond the lack of production in his absence on Sunday, there was an element of sloppiness by the unit as a whole. It’s always been clear that Brees meant more to the Saints offense than historic accuracy and efficiency, and we all just got a sobering look at how poorly this usually imposing force can operate without him.
In response to questions about the missed pass interference call, Payton has repeatedly stated that his team can only focus on what they can control. He gave a similar response to a question about another serious officiating error on Sunday. Now the Saints, with their most valuable player out of action, must further maximize the things they can control.
These next few weeks (or months) will be the biggest test of Payton’s coaching career. Ultimately, it’s up to him to ensure his offense can still function without one of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen.
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