Taysom Hill might have completed the pass had he thrown it.
The Falcon zone defense was quite deep, and Michael Thomas did have a bit of room to roam underneath it. The pass in this situation might have worked. It is, however, unlikely that it would have worked as well.
The game between Atlanta and New Orleans was still scoreless about midway through the first quarter. Hill and the Saints were on their own 42, facing a first and ten. Thomas, aligned wide right, was the only receiver to that side, and as he curled his route back over the deep middle, AJ Terrell (the corner responsible for the deep right sideline) strayed from his area of responsibility, following Thomas, but at a distance. When safety Keanu Neal – responsible for the underneath zone – declined to cover that particular area to stay close on Latavius Murray, the right sideline was suddenly as deserted as an airplane during a pandemic.
Hill pulled the ball down and zipped down that sideline. Forty-three yards later, Taysom was at the Atlanta 15. On the next play, he threw his first-ever NFL touchdown pass, and the Saints were off and running.
By the way, as he reached the 15 and Terrell finally caught up with him, Hill did not lower his shoulder and run through him – as we are all used to seeing. He demurely stepped out of bounds. Apparently, nothing raises your awareness of your own mortality like becoming the starting quarterback. This was a constant throughout the game – Taysom avoiding taking unnecessary hits.
Now there is 4:51 left in the second quarter. The Falcons are hanging in there – the score is now 7-6. The Saints are first-and-ten on their own 25. This time Alvin Kamara would probe that same sideline.
The Falcons were in man coverage. With the Saints sending no receiver wide right, Terrell moved inside to line up over Tre’Quan Smith. He was the right-most receiver and aligned tight to the formation. At the snap, Smith turned into a blocker – and his technique is better than you would expect – and expertly steered Terrell out of the play, while right tackle Ryan Ramczyk set the edge by shoving end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner inside. Coming in motion toward the right side, tight end Jared Cook brought defender Foyesade Oluokun with him, but he didn’t block him. At the snap Oluokun sprinted into the backfield – a potential disruption.
But Kamara cut his run up inside of Foyesade and had only green in front of him. Thirty-seven yards later he was dragged down on the Falcon 38. Six plays later Taysom threw his second career touchdown, increasing the Saint lead to 14-6.
Facing off against their division rivals for the second time in three weeks, the Falcons made a much better show of this one. But the Saints held them at bay in a 21-16 victory (gamebook) (summary), and these two gashing runs down an undefended sideline were arguably the difference in the game.
They also accounted for 80 of the 207 rushing yards that the Saints pinned on a Falcon defense that entered the week ranked sixth against the run (allowing 100.3 rushing yards a game).
The Saint offense has unquestionably been different (as you would expect) after the injury to the incomparable Drew Brees. Through their first nine games, New Orleans averaged 34.9 passes per (with a 108.4 passer rating) and 29.6 rushes (averaging 120.8 yards per game and 4.1 per carry).
Over their last three contests (all wins) with Hill behind center, the number of pass attempts per game has dropped by about ten (to 25.3) – and the effectiveness of the passing game has regressed a bit too – again, as you might expect (although the passer rating is still a very solid 91.4). The running game (also as anticipated) has spiked notably.
Here, though, it’s the magnitude of the spike in the running game that calls attention to itself. In games against teams that were expecting the Saints to try to run the ball, New Orleans has averaged 38.7 rushing attempts and 200.7 rushing yards per game. Since Hill took over, New Orleans is averaging 5.2 yards per rush.
Now, a couple of caveats. First, of course, a three game sample is quite a small sample size under any circumstances. Second, the biggest running day of the small sample size (the 229 yards they rung up on Denver) came in a game where the opposing Broncos didn’t have any of their quarterbacks available and couldn’t keep their offense on the field. I am also not anywhere hinting that the New Orleans offense is better without Brees. Without question, once Drew is healthy enough to return, all of New Orleans will celebrate his return.
What I am suggesting, though, is this little stretch of Neanderthalish games (here is one of the posts that explain my use of this term) could very well have long term benefits for New Orleans.
The first and most obvious is allowing Taysom to find a comfort zone operating as an actual quarterback, but the benefits trickle down to the offensive linemen as well, who get to spend about a month of their season doing more hitting than being hit. The Saints were always a confident offense. Now when Brees comes back, he will have the benefit of an offensive line and a running game operating at its peak efficiency. Clearly a team that runs the ball a lot does it better and with more conviction than a team that only runs occasionally as a change-up off its passing game.
There will likely be some down-the-road benefit for Brees, himself. The legendary 41-year-old quarterback will almost certainly benefit from a month away from the wear-and-tear on his body. This little mid-season vacation increases the likelihood of having Drew healthy and strong come playoff time.
And then there’s Alvin Kamara.
Hill, himself, has been the biggest influence on the rushing numbers. Taysom has averaged 58.7 rushing yards as the starting quarterback, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and rushing for 4 touchdowns in the three games. But as Hill’s comfort with the offense grows, Kamara is increasingly coming into play.
Fantasy owners, of course, will bemoan Alvin’s disappearance from the passing game. The running back who averaged 72 receiving yards a game in Brees’ offense has 3 catches for 7 yards total over the last three games. But Alvin Kamara, the running back, has become more visible in each game that Hill has started.
After starting with just 45 rushing yardage in the first game against the Falcons, Alvin’s rush yardage increased to 54 yards against the Broncos. Sunday against Atlanta, his 88 rush yards represented a season high, and his most since he ran for 97 yards in the first game of the 2019 season.
Kamara and Hill (who ran for 83 yards of his own), could become a compelling one-two running punch, as both are exceedingly proficient running either outside or inside. While each broke long outside runs, both also made meaningful contributions running between the tackles.
Taysom still takes the bulk of the third- and fourth-and-short runs. He converted two fourth-and-ones into first downs. Meanwhile, Kamara delivered New Orleans’ final touchdown on two inside runs that covered a total of 21 yards – with a large assist from an increasingly in sync offensive line.
After a 10 yard pass from Hill to Jared Cook converted a third-and-seven, New Orleans was set up on the Falcon 21 with 9:43 left in the third. The Saints were clinging to a 14-9 lead.
Left tackle James Hurst turned out Atlanta end-rusher Charles Harris, while the double-team block of center Erik McCoy and left guard Andrus Peat swept defensive tackle Tyeler Davison off to the left like a snow-plow clearing a street. After disposing with Davison, McCoy came off the double-team block and picked up linebacker Deion Jones. As Kamara burst into the hole, the three of them stood in a tight line like a barrier reef – all sustaining these blocks and providing an impenetrable seal to the left.
The seal to the right came courtesy of right guard Nick Easton (who stuffed Grady Jarrett at the line) and tight end Josh Hill (who had no linemen to contend with as he led through the opening and took out safety Keanu Neal.
When they were all finished, Alvin looked up and saw a four-lane green highway stretched almost ten yards before him, with safety Ricardo Allen waiting at the end. With Allen back on his heels, Kamara charged toward him, then spun away from him back inside where he earned the final few yards of the run.
On the next play, Alvin had the pleasure of charging through another gaping hole.
This time Taysom turned to the inside to make the handoff to Kamara. That, along with Josh Hill’s pulling action toward the right gave the strong impression that the Saints were going to run around that inviting right end again. It was enough to get almost the entire defense heading in that direction, leaving them virtually out of position when Alvin instead darted right into the same crease he travelled on the play before.
Jarrett’s initial movement to his left helped to perfectly set up Peat’s block on him. The only two defenders left back on the left side were linebacker Oluokun (who was blocked out of the play by Hurst) and defensive back Isaiah Oliver (who was picked up by Tre’Quan Smith). Smith is one of those small, fast receivers. But as a blocker in the running game, Tre’Quan is very decisive and employs his small frame to its optimal effect.
Again, Alvin was running toward the goal line with no one before him – except Allen, again. Ricardo, waiting at the goal line, decided that passively waiting on Alvin wasn’t necessarily a productive strategy. So this time it was Allen who made the first move, diving for Kamara’s legs. In one of the more athletic touchdowns of the week, Kamara managed to twist off the attempted tackle and spin himself through the air for the final two yards for the touchdown that represented the final margin of victory.
The date of Drew Brees’ return to the lineup is still unknown. Very quickly the Saints’ season will get more difficult. The hope is that Drew will be ready to take on the Chiefs when they come to call in Week 15, with the Vikings set to visit the week after that.
In the meantime, the Taysom Hill summer will probably get one more week against a down-trodden Eagle team in Philadelphia. For however long it lasts, this has been an interesting and most informative stretch of the season, as Saints’ coach Sean Payton gets a close look at the guy he has speculated about replacing Brees “one day.” I also believe that playing a different style of offense for these few weeks will have long-term benefits for the Saints.
But only if Taysom delivers all of the victories.
The T. Hills are Alive
Perhaps you’ve noticed that T. Hill is beginning to be a frequently recurring entry into NFL line scores and summaries. Suddenly, it seems there are T. Hills everywhere.
The Rams have a T. Hill of their own. That would be defensive back Troy Hill. Troy’s statistical impact was rather muted last night – he had one tackle and one pass defensed – but he had made a bit of a splash as he had scored defensive touchdowns in each of the previous two games (a fumble returned against San Francisco and a pick-six against Arizona).
There is also a Trysten Hill, who plays defensive line for Dallas. You won’t be hearing much about him for the foreseeable future, as a knee injury has kept him on injured reserve since Week Five.
The king of the T. Hill, if you will, plays in Kansas City. That would be receiver extraordinaire Tyreek Hill – arguably football’s most feared offensive threat. Tyreek had an eventfully “uneventful” game last Sunday. He finished his team’s conquest of Denver officially with 6 catches for 58 yards (and another 30 yards on a rush). Unofficially, Tyreek caught two long touchdown passes that didn’t count.
Early in the second-quarter, a would-have-been 40-yard touchdown pass deflected off Tyreek’s hands up in the air. The ball actually landed back in his arms and, although ruled incomplete on the field, would have been over-ruled to touchdown if KC had challenged.
With 10:16 to go in the fourth, Tyreek slipped in behind the defense to haul in a 48-yard touchdown pass. But this one was nullified by a penalty.
Ah, well. When your team wins anyway, it’s easy to laugh about, right?