The New Orleans Saints are among four teams who have the first bye on the 2021 NFL schedule this weekend. New Orleans has a 3-2 record going into the off week.
They've done it in spite of playing four of five games on the road and having team operations displaced to Texas because of Hurricane Ida. The Saints have also dealt with a lengthy list of players unavailable because of injury.
New Orleans has played better offensively in the last two weeks after a rocky start. They've also had some ups and downs defensively, but have generally played well enough to support the team.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the Saints' success over the previous four years was the performance of their special teams unit. An often forgotten aspect of football by the average fan, the New Orleans special teams.
Offseason personnel losses would affect the team's depth on both sides of the ball, but also give a different look to the Saints kick coverage units.
New Orleans would have a new punter for the first time in 16 years after parting ways with franchise icon Thomas Morstead. They’d also start the year with a new kicker, with Wil Lutz sidelined early in training camp after core muscle surgery.
Here's how the New Orleans special teams' units have performed over the first five games of the season.
SAINTS SPECIAL TEAMS
- Kickoff Coverage = 18.4 yards per return
- Punt Coverage = 10.7/return
- Kickoff Returns = 26.6/return
- Punt Returns = 12.7/return
- Field Goal Accuracy = 25% (1 of 4)
- Extra Points = 88.9% (16 of 18)
- Punting = 49.8 yards/punt
New Orleans owned the league's second-best kick coverage unit and top-ranked punt coverage unit in 2020, allowing a paltry 2.3 yards per punt return and 17.2 per kickoff return. Coverage units haven't been quite as stingy in 2021 but have still given up ground grudgingly. Opponents' average starting field position is at their own 26-yard line.
Reserve S J.T. Gray again leads an athletic coverage unit that is on top of opposing kick returners quickly. The Saints maintain gap responsibilities to prevent any breakaway runs and down punts masterfully inside an opposing 10-yard line.
There were major questions about the punter position after the release of Morstead. Second-year P Blake Gillikin showed enough promise to be stashed on injured reserve as a rookie. The move has paid great dividends.
Gillikin has a booming leg that has kicked the team out of deep in their own territory several times so far this season. He's also shown incredible directional ability, killing the ball inside an opponent's 10-yard line with consistency. He had three punts that were downed inside the Washington 5-yard line last week.
A change in punters has paid off for the Saints, but the kicker position has been a big problem this year. Pro Bowl K Wil Lutz is one of the league's most reliable at the position. His long-range and accuracy all but guarantees points from an opponent's 40-yard line.
With Lutz sidelined, the Saints turned to veteran K Aldrick Rosas to start the year. Rosas converted all 13 of his extra points but was only 1 of 4 on field-goal attempts, including one miss from inside 40 yards. It was enough to make a change and sign veteran K Cody Parkey last week.
Parkey missed two extra points against Washington, causing the team to sign K Brian Johnson off Chicago's practice squad. Unreliable kicking has caused coach Sean Payton to alter his play-calling on third and fourth downs once entering the opposing territory.
The Saints boast the NFL's most dangerous kick returner in third-year WR Deonte Harris. A constant scoring threat, Harris has yet to break a long return this season. However, he consistently sets his team up with good field position, and seems just a matter of time before he takes a punt or kickoff to the end zone.
New Orleans has the height and athleticism to change the momentum of a game with a blocked kick or punt. DE Carl Granderson blocked a field goal against Carolina to snuff out a scoring opportunity. Reserve LB Andrew Dowell blocked a punt to set up a score against New England. DE Tanoh Kpassagnon has blocked four kicks in his career.
The addition of Brian Johnson indicates that Lutz will be out at least a few more games. Placekicking woes haven't cost the Saints a game yet but will play a vital role as the season progresses.
Gillikin's ability to flip the field is a great asset for the Saints' defense. He allows the team to control field position, a crucial advantage for an offense that has had early-season struggles.
Deonte Harris is a major X-factor for this team. He’s not only a scoring threat every time he touches the ball but also gives the Saints a major field position advantage.
Harris' health is worth watching, especially with his increased role in the offense. He left last week's game with a hamstring injury and missed seven contests in 2020 with a neck injury. Without him, the Saints return game becomes stagnant.
Remember also that offensive weapon Taysom Hill is the up-blocker on punt units. Hill has been used on trick plays in that situation before and presents a constant run-pass threat to opposing special teams.
New Orleans could beat opponents in every aspect of the game over the previous four years. If the placekicking struggles get solved, this is once again a unit that is capable of winning games as this season progresses.