Saints Passing Attack vs. Washington Pass Defense

The New Orleans passing game and Washington pass defense are two units that have struggled despite big expectations.  Now facing off against each other, which unit can begin to right the ship in this week five matchup?
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The New Orleans Saints (2-2) travel east to take on Washington (2-2) after losing a home opener to the New York Giants last Sunday. Because of Hurricane Ida, this will be the fourth time that the Saints play on the road in five weeks.

The Saints suffered several personnel losses on both sides of the ball this offseason, but none more newsworthy than the retirement of legendary QB Drew Brees. Jameis Winston took over the reins at quarterback, but with uneven results so far.

New Orleans has struggled with offensive consistency so far in 2021. They've run the ball well, ranking seventh in that category, but rank just 28th in total offense at an average of 277 yards per game. A major point of concern is the passing game, an unusual struggle during Sean Payton's tenure as head coach.

Washington comes into this game armed with a defense that carried them to the playoffs last year but has played poorly early this season. After ranking second in total defense in 2020, the Saints rank 29th and allow 418 yards per game after four contests.

Washington has been average against the run and ranks last in third-down defense. Their most shocking struggle has been against the pass, after ranking second in that category last season.

The two units expected to be productive in 2021 have greatly disappointed a quarter into the season. They are now facing off against each other; which one will right the ship to emerge with a Week 5 victory?


New Orleans Passing Game

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) calls for the ball against New England Patriots. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) calls for the ball against New England Patriots. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY 

The Saints have attempted the fewest passes in the league and rank 31st in passing yardage with an average of just 144 yards per game. Winston has completed 64% of his attempts and has thrown for eight touchdowns and two interceptions.

Winston's passing talents haven't been unleashed, although he’s coming off his best complete outing of the year with a 17 of 23 performance for 226 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He has a magnificent arm capable of tearing a defense to shreds but has also been guilty of indecisiveness at times while trying to avoid mistakes.

Indecision has limited Winston's throwing success and contributed to seven sacks on the season. However, the team's ordinarily stout offensive line has suffered from uncharacteristic breakdowns in pass protection.

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Besides the seven sacks, Winston has been pressured 33 times and hurried on several other throws. Pro Bowl LT Terron Armstead and star C Erik McCoy will miss another game this week because of injuries. Veteran T James Hurst filled in for Armstead and played well against the Giants, but normal RG Cesar Ruiz has been abysmal in pass protection at center.

Pro Bowl RT Ryan Ramczyk, one of the league's best offensive linemen, has had uncharacteristic issues against pass rushers. Pro Bowl LG Andrus Peat is a better run blocker than pass protector and is often caught off-balance by inside rushes.

The New Orleans receivers haven't provided a consistent threat for their quarterback either, leading to further inconsistencies in the attack. Without All-Pro WR Michael Thomas, only WR Deonte Harris has consistently produced. He leads the team with 11 receptions for 164 yards, scoring once.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Deonte Harris (11)

Second-year WR Marquez Callaway, who has nine catches for 137 yards, hasn't made the impact many expected after an outstanding training camp. Veteran Kenny Stills has just one reception in his two games back with the Saints. However, Stills had a touchdown reception called back last week and still has the speed to threaten defenses down the field.

The Saints starting tight end has been an even bigger disappointment than the wide receiver position. Second-year TE Adam Trautman hasn't gotten open, has caught 4 of 8 targets for just 21 yards, and has been a lousy blocker. Converted wideout Juwan Johnson has been a much better offensive threat than expected. He's caught six passes for 64 yards and a team-high three touchdowns.

The focal point of the Saints offense, especially without Thomas, is dynamic RB Alvin Kamara. He leads the team in rushing and is second on the team with ten receptions.

Kamara's catches have only resulted in 62 yards. New Orleans has had a hard time getting the league's most dangerous offensive weapon in open space, and he hasn't been as involved in the passing game as he was over his first four seasons.

Washington Pass Defense

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10)

After ranking second in pass defense last season, Washington is the league's 28th ranked pass defense after four weeks. They've allowed 299 yards through the air, and opposing quarterbacks have completed 67% of their throws.

The strength of Washington's defense is up front, with a talented defensive line that may be the best in the league. Washington's defensive line paved the way for 47 sacks and 97 QB hits in 2020. They've managed only seven sacks so far but have recorded 25 QB hits.

Last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, DE Chase Young, has gotten off to a slow start but has eight pressures and commands constant double-team blocking. DT Jonathan Allen, a first-round pick in 2017, leads the team with three sacks and nine pressures.

A 2018 first-round choice, Daron Payne joins Allen, Matt Ioannidis, and Tim Settle to make up a fearsome crew of disruptive defensive tackles. Montez Sweat is a terrific complement to Young at defensive end.

Much more will be asked of this year's first-round pick, LB Jamin Davis, especially after a season-ending injury to LB Jon Bostic. Davis is a highly athletic defender best equipped for coverage duties but has been exposed to a lack of experience. LB Cole Holcomb is a heady player who struggles in space in coverage.

Washington cornerback William Jackson III (23)

Washington has been vulnerable in coverage throughout the early portion of the year. Their top defensive back, CB Kendall Fuller, has allowed over 67% completion percentage when targeted. 

Offseason free-agent addition CB William Jackson III has been a bright defensive spot. He has the team's lone interception, leads the unit with five broken passes, and has allowed less than 47% completion rate when targeted.

Rookie CB Benjamin St.-Juste, a third-round choice, is emerging as a solid nickel back. Veteran defensive back Bobby McCain provides solid depth at both safety and corner. Safeties Landon Collins and Kamren Curl are a playmaking duo but have been susceptible to the deep shots this year.

What To Watch

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1)

Last weekend, the Saints' offensive line protected Winston much better but will be tested against arguably the NFL's most disruptive defensive line. The biggest challenge will be the interior battles against defensive tackles Allen, Payne, Settle, and Ioannidis. Perhaps one that will determine the game’s outcome.

New Orleans must get Kamara involved as a receiver. He’ll have an athletic advantage against the Washington linebackers, and his effectiveness will slow the opposing pass rush. Veteran WR/RB Ty Montgomery may also be used on patterns coming out of the backfield, as utility player Taysom Hill.

Winston seems to be getting more comfortable with his receivers each week. The Saints took more deep shots against the Giants than at any point this season, and the passing attack had its best rhythm.

Harris, Callaway, and Stills must find ways to get open against quality corners Jackson and Fuller. They’ll be helped if Kamara makes plays out of the backfield and stout protection up front.

The Saints' offense will also benefit from better confidence from their head coach, whose play-calling has partially held back an already struggling unit.  

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