Kicking game quality is ace in the hole for Saints

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Thomas Morestead, Justin Hardee
(Photo: Parker Waters)

So the narrative has been firmly established and bandied about for the last five days.

The New Orleans Saints are improved, good on defense.

The New Orleans Saints are not as good on offense.

Let the debate begin!

A year ago, the Saints were not so bad on defense.

Keep in mind that New Orleans had 23 takeaways and finished second in the NFL with a plus-15 turnover margin. It was the highest mark for the Saints in turnover margin since 1991, when the Saints won the NFC South.

New Orleans was plus-14 that season. It was only the sixth time in franchise history that New Orleans enjoyed a double-figure turnover margin advantage over its opponents.

The team record is plus-20, set in 1971. The Saints tied that mark in 1987, when they posted their first-ever winning season (12-3) and made their first-ever playoff appearance.

To put it in further perspective, the Saints were a plus-11 in 2009, when they won the Super Bowl. In that season, New Orleans forced a franchise record 39 turnovers that season.

Ironically, the Saints were a plus-3 in turnovers in 2011, when they set many team offensive records and they were a plus -4 in 2006 in reaching the NFC Championship game. New Orleans was plus-8 in 2018 in reaching the NFC Championship game.

The trend is of the last two seasons is continuing to start 2019.

In the season opening 34-23 win over Tampa Bay, the Saints were a plus-3 in the turnover department, forcing three and committing none.

If healthy, this is a better defense than a year ago.

The Saints were in the upper half of the league, ranked 13th in team defense in 2019. Another metric had the Saints ninth in defensive efficiency.

No running back has run for 100 yards against the Saints since Samaje Perine ran for 117 yards for Washington on Nov. 19, 2017 but the Saints still won 34-31 in overtime in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Now, let’s take a look at the offense.

New Orleans closed last season tied for third in the NFL in points scored with 458. Drew Brees nearly broke his own record of 2018 (74.4%), completing 74.3 percent of his passes. The Saints were fourth in offensive efficiency. Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage the last three seasons (2017-19).

Still, the memory of the offense struggling in an upset playoff loss to Minnesota lingers.

The offensive line struggled. Brees did not play anywhere near his best.

Then comes the season opener this season and New Orleans could not run the ball effectively and finished with just 271 total yards.

Brees could not get the ball down the field.

The reaction was swift.

Brees looks old.

He cannot throw it down the field anymore.

The interior offensive line is still a problem.

When is Tre’Quan Smith going to show up?

Incidentally, the Buccaneers are very good up front on defense.

Todd Bowles called a very good game. He seemed to be a step ahead much of the afternoon on Sean Payton and his play-calling. Payton admonished himself afterwards.

So did Brees, who completed just 60 percent of his short throws but had two touchdown passes and no interceptions. That, by the way, is a good, winning equation, particularly when your defense and kicking game excel.

The Raiders are not as stout up front on defense as Tampa Bay.

Carolina had 398 total yards and put up 30 points in defeat as former Saint Teddy Bridgewater passed for 270 yards and a score. Christian McCaffrey rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns.

Former Saints assistant and LSU offensive innovator Joe Brady is running many of the same principles that Payton employs. There is no doubt that Payton will employ some of the same principles against the Raiders that Brady had success with.

If Michael Thomas does not play, the Saints have sufficient weapons to mitigate his absence with Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook, Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Deonte Harris. Then, there are Smith, Josh Hill and Latavius Murray. Don’t sleep on Adam Trautman getting a shot soon as well.

While all of the talk is about the defense getting turnovers and the offense struggling, very few are talking about what is the strongest part of this New Orleans Saints team.

The special teams are special.

The Saints cover kicks with speed, reckless abandon, efficiency. Justin Hardee and J.T. Gray are stars but they are two of many.

The return game is simply the best in the league with a returning All-Pro in Harris. He is simply electric.

Thomas Morstead remains one of the very best punters in the league.

Against Tampa Bay, Morstead averaged 44 yards on six punts. The average per return on those punts was zero yards, a brilliant net average, as only one was returned.

Additionally, five of those punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.

For good measure, Morstead, who executed one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history and one of the biggest plays in franchise history with his “Ambush” onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV, came up big again as his short, pop-up kickoff following a penalty against the Bucs was fumbled and the Saints recovered.

For his effort, Morstead was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Morstead is in his 12th season and shows no signs of regressing. He averaged 46.2 yards per punt a year ago. He has had just one punt blocked in his career. Morstead has been named first or second team All-Pro in four different seasons by different entities, most recently in 2018 by Pro Football Focus.

Of course, the Saints are prepared, well equipped at punter with rookie Blake Gillikin on the reserve/injured list.

In his fifth season, Wil Lutz has become an elite kicker in the league.

In the opener against the Bucs, Lutz made both field goal attempts, made all four extra points and all six of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

A year ago, Lutz converted 88.9 percent of his field goal attempts (32-of-36) and 48-of-49 extra point attempts. A total of 78.7 percent of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

Lutz has made 87.7 percent of his field goal attempts and 97.1 percent of his extra points with the Saints.

He was second team All-Pro (Pro Football Focus) in 2018 and first team All-Conference (Pro Football Weekly) in 2019. Lutz made the 2016 All-Rookie Team and made the Pro Bowl in 2019. He is just 26, with a long career ahead of him.

The 2020 Saints defense looks good, promising.

The 2020 Saints offense will be fine. The panic after one game is puzzling, bemusing, bewildering, premature.

While there is great hope for the 2020 Saints, you have to have faith that the offense will return to form. There is too much evidence to suggest otherwise.

Meanwhile, with perhaps the best kicking game in the NFL, New Orleans is poised to win close games in frequent fashion.

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Ken Trahan

Ken Trahan

CEO/Owner

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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