Saints identity still a work in progress
METAIRIE – The 2-2 New Orleans Saints’ game at Washington on Sunday afternoon will determine whether they enter their bye week with a winning record or a losing record.
This is the stage of the season when the most recent Saints teams have begun or continued lengthy winning streaks.
In fact, the Saints have not had a losing record as far as five games into a season since 2016, which was the last time New Orleans finished with a losing record. The 2016 team was the third straight Saints team to finish 7-9.
The 2017 team started 0-2 before winning eight straight on its way to an 11-5 finish.
The 2018 team lost its opener before winning 10 straight on its way to a 13-3 finish.
The 2019 team split its first two games before winning six straight on its way to a 13-3 finish.
Last year’s team lost two of its first three games before winning nine straight on its way to a 12-4 finish.
All four of those teams won an NFC South championship.
It’s too early to tell whether this team is capable of making it five straight NFC South championships.
It played like it was capable of that and much more in the season-opening win against Green Bay.
It looked like a strong candidate to wind up in the division cellar in the loss at Carolina.
It looked like at least a challenger for the division title in the win against New England.
It looked like a team still trying to figure itself out in the overtime loss to the New York Giants last Sunday – probably the truest indication of where this team is.
It’s not where it wants to get, but no team with lofty goals expects to arrive where it’s headed in early October.
“I wouldn’t say in Week Four, I am kind of seeing our team the way I see it (later),” head coach Sean Payton said. “I see a lot of players coming back at some point and slowly being integrated back into the lineup.”
Defensive tackle David Onyemata has to sit out two more games – Sunday’s and the one Oct. 25 at Seattle – to complete his six-game suspension.
A bunch of important injured players – wide receivers Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith, center Erik McCoy, tackle Terron Armstead, defensive end Marcus Davenport, linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Ken Crawley and kicker Wil Lutz – are expected to return.
That’s a lot of really important players.
The impending bye week will provide those players an extra week of recovery time without costing them any game time. It’s reasonable to expect that the return of injured players to action will begin in Seattle.
The team we have seen in the first games – and will see again Sunday against the 2-2 “Football Team” – will gradually start to look different post-bye.
The offensive line should become more consistent with the return of McCoy and Armstead. Jameis Winston should find more open receivers once Thomas and Smith return.
The sporadic pass rush, which all but disappeared during the Giants’ comeback from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit, will benefit from the comebacks of Onyemata and Davenport to the deepest unit on the team.
“It will be even deeper once Marcus and David Onyemata come back and then we’ll even have a little more flexibility,” end Cameron Jordan said.
The back end of the defense will benefit from the return of Alexander and Crawley, and the return of Lutz should bring more stability to the kicking game after the Saints released Aldrick Rosas and signed Cody Parkey to replace him as Lutz’s fill-in.
This entire team is a work in progress – as most teams are this time of year. The offense, most specifically the passing game, would have been the least stable area of the team even without the injuries because of the transition from Drew Brees to Winston.
“(Payton) just didn’t hand over the keys to Drew in their first four games (together),” Winston noted after practice Wednesday.
The game against the Giants demonstrated how Payton and Winston and the passing game are working through the transition.
The Saints were very nearly shut out in the first half as both Payton and Winston seemed timid.
In the waning moments of the second quarter, Payton found a nice run-pass balance and Winston connected with Ty Montgomery for 19 yards, leading to his 15-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson.
Payton was much bolder in the second half and Winston seemed far more comfortable.
On the first play of the third quarter Winston threw a 58-yard completion to Marquez Callaway, setting up Taysom Hill’s touchdown run. A later 46-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills was nullified by a holding penalty.
In the end Winston was an efficient 17 of 23 for 226 yards and didn’t throw an interception. But the offense couldn’t score enough points or gain enough yards to maintain a 21-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Winston was clear Wednesday that he considered it his responsibility to adjust to Payton and not the reverse, though this is a mutual challenge.
“I trust him with everything I got,” Winston said. “This is a relationship that is going to build and as we find more of an identity, we’re going to have different things where he trusts me more in this situation than that situation. That’s how football works.
“Early in the season, you are always searching for how we can best function as an offense, but I think after we get a nice self-scout after this game and get into the bye, get some guys healthy back on the offensive side, I think we’ll start finding that identity.”
The same is true of the whole team.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…