For most of his 15 seasons as coach of the Saints, Sean Payton has helped coordinate one of the NFL's premier offenses with superstar quarterback Drew Brees at the controls. During that span, his teams have finished in the top five in scoring nine times and the top five in passing offense a whopping 11 times.
With Brees now officially retired and former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston stepping in as his successor, many expected New Orleans' offense to take a significant step back this season. But while the passing game hasn't been a strength as it was for more than a decade and the team ranks 31st in passing yardage, Payton's squad has found a different blueprint for putting points on the board and winning football games.
Entering Monday's prime time road contest against the Seahawks, the Saints currently rank a respectable 10th in the NFL in points with Winston efficiently throwing 12 touchdown passes compared to just three interceptions and running back Alvin Kamara producing 481 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. Even with star receiver Michael Thomas still on the PUP list, a cast of receivers headlined by Marquez Calloway and Deonte Harris has helped keep the aerial attack humming.
But the real key to the Saints maintaining their winning edge thus far - and what has caught the eye of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll the most - has been on the opposite side of the football. Led by defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis, and cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the team has yielded only 18.2 points per game, ranking second in the NFL behind only the Bills. They've been especially suffocating against the run, limiting opponents to 79 rushing yards per contest.
"We have an opponent coming up that we have great respect for," Carroll said on Thursday. "For them, it starts on the defensive side. They have a terrific defense, they are doing a great job again, and they can make it really hard on you so it’s going to be a tough opponent in all aspects."
With both teams trailing in their respective divisions, much will be at stake when Seattle and New Orleans tangle at Lumen Field on Monday Night Football. Here’s a closer look at the Seahawks upcoming Week 7 opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and Carroll’s evaluation of the Saints.
15th regular season meeting. The Saints hold a slim 8-6 advantage over the Seahawks in regular season games, while the all-time series is tied 8-8 with the Seahawks winning both previous playoff matchups between the two franchises.
Recently, New Orleans has won the past two matchups in the series, including a 33-27 road win at then-named CenturyLink Field in 2019. Seattle holds the only two three-game winning streaks in the series, including three straight victories from 2000 to 2004. The Saints have won four of the past five regular season meetings, including three out of four games since Pete Carroll took over as Seahawks coach in 2010.
Departures: While it wasn't a surprise, Brees decided to hang up his cleats shortly after New Orleans was knocked out of the playoffs by Tampa Bay in the Divisional Round, bringing an end to a remarkable 20-year career. Strapped for cap space, the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn't the only notable player to leave during the offseason. After a breakout year, defensive end Trey Hendrickson cashed in on a multi-year deal with Cincinnati, while veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders bolted for Buffalo and former first-round pick Sheldon Rankins signed with the New York Jets. Tight end Jared Cook also left to join the Los Angeles Chargers.
Additions: Struggling to open up cap space, the Saints made very few moves during free agency, elevating players from within to fill spots vacated by Hendrickson, Rankins, Cook, and even Brees. The team did sign veteran linebacker Kwon Alexander, but otherwise made few moves. In the draft, New Orleans used a first-round pick on high-upside Houston pass rusher Payton Turner and also found a starting cornerback in the third round in Stanford standout Paulson Adebo.
The Saints could receive significant reinforcements on both sides of the football coming off their bye week, as receiver Tre'Quan Smith, defensive end Marcus Davenport, and Alexander all were designated to return to practice from injured reserve. New Orleans could also have left tackle Terron Armstead and center Erik McCoy back from injury after lengthy absences, but they were limited in Thursday's practice. Receiver Deonte Harris (hamstring), running back Dewayne Washington (neck), and quarterback Taysom Hill (concussion) were all non-participants on Thursday as well. Star receiver Michael Thomas remains on the PUP list and isn't expected to be activated this week.
Inside The Scheme
While most of the league heavily deploys 11 personnel with three receivers, one tight end, and one running back, the Saints rank near the bottom of the league using those groupings on only 50 percent of their offensive snaps. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. love to utilize multiple tight ends, using 12 personnel with two tight ends on 27 percent of their snaps per Sharp Football Stats. They also rank third in the NFL for percentage of plays with four receivers, one back, and no tight ends in 10 personnel.
With Kamara as their featured back, according to Pro Football Focus, the Saints have ran zone 64 percent of the time, primarily running outside zone/stretch concepts. New Orleans also hasn't utilized play action as much as most teams, attempting just 30 play action pass attempts through five games per Pro Football Reference, which ranks 31st in the NFL.
On defense, coordinator Dennis Allen has built one of the better units in the league and he mixes in a wide variety of zone coverages with Cover 3 being the most used last season. This year, they have utilized more man coverage, with cornerback Marshon Lattimore being particularly effective with seven pass breakups on 61 man coverage snaps per PFF. The team also does an excellent job of disguising which players will be coming on the rush, often playing five or six defenders on the line of scrimmage in obvious passing situations and mixing and matching which players come after the quarterback.
Two years ago, the Saints finished ninth in the NFL in blitz rate. But since then, Allen hasn't been quite as aggressive sending additional rushers in part due to the talent of their front line anchored by Jordan and Davenport. So far through five games in 2021, New Orleans has blitzed only 24.3 percent of the time, down nearly seven percent from 2020 and nearly nine percent from 2019. With the diminished blitzing, they haven't been overly effective getting to quarterbacks so far with only seven sacks.
By The Numbers
28: Saints are 3-0 after hitting this point total in 2021, 0-2 when they don't
12: Touchdown passes by Winston, tied for the seventh-most in the NFL
1: Runs of 20-plus yards, tied for second-fewest in the league
9: Passes of 20-plus yards, fewest in the NFL.
1.8: Sacks allowed per game by Saints offensive line, tied for sixth-fewest in NFL
79: Rushing yards allowed per game, ranking second in the league
275: Passing yards allowed per game, ranking 23rd overall in the league
18.2: Points per game against, tied for second-lowest total in the NFL
35.7: Opposing red zone touchdown percentage, best in the league
3.76: Sack percentage per 100 drop backs, which ranks 31st in the NFL
--On Winston's development learning from Sean Payton: “The QB rating that we have for him is 108.0 and is a complement to the running game that they are featuring. He’s playing really well, he’s making huge plays, they are using his ability to get the ball down field really well in complement with the running game, so he’s fitting in well. It’s not exactly the same as it was with Drew [Brees], but Sean [Payton] is a good ball coach, so he figures it out, how to make the guys come to life and make the most out of them. That’s what it looks like is happening."
--On minimizing Kamara's impact as a runner and receiver: “You have to tackle him. He’s really elusive, quickness wise, but he’s maybe more impressive in his power when he runs. He has great legs and the ability to bust tackles, so you have to be really good at it and team tackle him to get him down. He’s getting the football all of the time, so you know where it’s going. The challenge is really obvious, you have to slow him down.”
--On the Saints bevy of weapons in the passing game even without star receiver Michael Thomas: “Deonte Harris has been a really exciting player for them and he’s their returner as well. He caught a bomb last week. [Marquez] Callaway has done a nice job for them. Juwan [Johnson] is doing a nice job at tight end as a receiver with [Adam] Trautman. Both of those guys get stuff done, but it goes back to Alvin Kamara. He gets the ball in a variety of ways. You might remember back when Sean [Payton] got Reggie Bush, he caught 100 passes in his rookie year or second year, whenever that was, just by moving him all over the place and making him a total threat. They have all of that in their background and Sean hasn’t forgotten the play, so he has a wide variety of things they go to and mix around to make all of those guys good. They aren’t leaning on one player, it’s the whole crew that is effective.”