Two and a half minutes still remained in Thursday’s Carolina win over Houston when television analyst Troy Aikman glanced ahead a week to Dallas, where the Panthers would play next, soon to be unbeaten through their first three games.
Trying to put their seemingly impressive start in perspective, Aikman then looked back five days to the 26-7 final between Carolina and New Orleans, which looked little like the team that dismantled Green Bay in its opener.
“Last week they played a Saints team that had been decimated — a lot of injured players, a lot of coaches unable to coach in that game,” Aikman cautioned. “They played well, I’m not taking that away from them. But that wasn’t the Saints that we saw in Week 1.”
The one Aikman saw from his FOX broadcast booth on Sept. 12 forced Aaron Rodgers into the fourth-worst passer rating of his career, while counterpart Jameis Winston threw five touchdown passes in a 38-3 rout. The one the Panthers saw failed to reach 20 points for the first time in 25 games, struggling through one of the worst performances under 15th-year head coach Sean Payton.
Payton’s staff that day, as Aikman alluded to, was without eight members due to COVID protocols. His team was missing several key Week 1 starters, like center Erik McCoy, linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerbacks Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Marshon Lattimore.
Furthermore, the Saints were playing their first official road game amid a month away from New Orleans. Because of Hurricane Ida, they canceled the preseason finale and temporarily relocated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for practices, before ‘hosting’ the Packers in Jacksonville.
Bouncing back and forth between different sites and cities, including Foxborough for this afternoon’s appointment with the Patriots, has to leave them wondering, where is where? Meanwhile, the way they’ve careened between extremes on the field, the Saints leave us to utter a favorite Crescent City expression, ‘Who dat?’
As in, ‘Who dat we gonna see today?’ The perennial NFC South power that pummeled the Pack? Or the undermanned, overwhelmed divisional-rival pounded by the Panthers?
On Friday, Matt Judon told us who the Pats expect to get.
“You don’t ever prepare for somebody’s worst,” he said, naturally focusing as an outside linebacker on the Saints’ offense. “We know what type of explosive offense they have, and what type of players they have. They score from anywhere on the field, 99 (yards), or get in that jumbo set and punch it in.”
Payton’s offenses have proven as much throughout his history calling plays. Since 2010, only New England (5,087) scored more points than New Orleans (5,021).
Sure, most were produced by a Payton-conceived attack engineered by Drew Brees, who retired to television with a league-record 80,358 passing yards and 571 TD passes. Nonetheless, when Brees was injured the past two seasons, replacements Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill went 8-1, leading the Saints to 30-plus points four times in their nine starts.
Not withstanding last Sunday’s 128-yard clunker at Carolina, where the Saints were scoreless through three quarters for just the second time under Payton, an annual strength of the Brees era remains — the offensive line.
Even with McCoy ruled out today, the unit, which last year paved the way to a franchise-record 30 rushing touchdowns, features three first-round picks (Andrus Peat, Ryan Ramczyk and Cesar Ruiz) and a three-time Pro Bowler (Terron Armstead).
Plus, Payton still possesses an oversized menu of plays, a seemingly endless array of personnel combinations and formations and the confidence to call any number at any time.
“I think Sean’s always done a really good job of using his personnel,” Belichick said on Wednesday. “He uses a lot of personnel groups, more personnel groups than any other team in the league. And those combinations they operate very quickly. They’re on and off the field, they’re in and out of the huddle, they’re up to the line and the ball is snapped.
“As soon as [one] play is over, he’s got somebody else in there and a whole another set of personnel, formations, motion [and] the ball is snapped. It’s hard to stay ahead of Sean just because he operates so quickly with so many variables. All the receivers play, all the tight ends play, the backs play, there’s two different quarterbacks, there’s a lot of stuff and then just the breadth of the offense from his time there.”
Too much, as Belichick said early in the week, to account for all of it. And that’s coming from a coach accustomed to covering every last detail.
As for the obvious, everyone on his defense surely understands the importance of containing one Saint in particular — dual-purpose back Alvin Kamara. He’s accounted for 6,285 yards from scrimmage since entering the NFL in 2017. Only Ezekiel Elliott has amassed more (6,483 in that span). In his fifth year, Kamara, who scored six times last Christmas Day vs. Minnesota, has 59 TD’s rushing and receiving.
“I feel like if you were to maybe try to build a perfect back, I mean, he essentially has everything you need,” says Pats’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “Vision, balance. He’s strong. He’s tough. However you want to give him the ball, you can give it to him.”
The Packers and Panthers defended Kamara well, holding him well below his per-carry and catch averages of 4.9 yards a rush and 8.6 yards a reception. Through two games, Kamara’s 35 touches generated just 3.5 yards per play, compared to his career average of 6.1. Look for Payton to prioritize increasing his production, especially as a runner trying to take advantage of a Pats’ front seven still searching for the right run fits.
Doing so gives the Saints a better chance of getting the best from Jameis Winston, who last week reverted to his worst habits as Payton’s latest reclamation project at quarterback.
In fact, the young season has resembled Winston’s last full campaign (2019) as a starter for the Buccaneers, who made him the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. That year he passed for 5,109 yards, 33 TD’s and 30 interceptions. This year, well, there’s been some good, some bad and some ugly.
Against Green Bay, five of Winston’s 14 completions were touchdowns, including a 55-yarder to Deonte Harris. Most importantly, he made decisions and throws that kept the ball out of harm’s way, practice the “process over results” philosophy Winston learned as Brees’s backup in 2020.
At Carolina, left mostly to his own devices without an effective run game, Winston was pressured into a 50 percent (in)completion rate, four sacks and two interceptions.
It’s been four years since Winston’s lone prior appearance vs. the Patriots, a 334-yard performance in a 19-14 loss at Tampa. A half-dozen New England defenders who appeared in that Thursday night affair remain on the active roster.
As they meet again, a focal point will be pressuring Winston without over-pursuing him. He escaped from the Packers for several early runs to first downs and vacated a widened pocket for a late touchdown run to prevent the Panthers from shutting out the Saints for first time since Jan. 3, 2002.
Of course, the second quarterback Belichick referenced, Hill, can also run. And catch. And block. And tackle.
“He’s their Swiss army knife,” said Patriots newcomer Jalen Mills.
Having lined up virtually everywhere else in every phase, Hill had the opportunity to spell Brees behind center four times in 2020. He recorded a .719 completion percentage, four TD’s, two picks and a 3-1 record. The lone loss was at the hands of Mills’ Eagles.
However and wherever utilized, Belichick believes Hill embodies Payton’s resourcefulness.
“He’s a pretty special athlete and a special player,” Belichick says of a player the Saints can use on special teams, defense and at tight end, running back and behind center. “He’s smart enough to do all those things. He has enough technique or skill at each of the positions to do them, you know, and keep up with whatever the game plan is.
“[Payton] has got a bunch of guys like that, you know, he uses in different roles and very effectively and complements with our players who do other things that play off of those kinds of tough matchup players.”
“They line guys up in so many different positions, in so many different ways, everybody’s at the point of attack.” Mills explained. “It’s not like one single guy is going to be singled out and that’s where the ball is going. You never know.
“So just [for] us as a whole defense, this game right here, this week right here is about everybody doing their job.”