The New Orleans Saints are one of four teams on a bye this weekend, joining the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, and Atlanta Falcons. It’s the first bye on the 17-game NFL schedule this season.
Normally, a later bye is more beneficial for a team to stay fresh down the stretch of the year. This year, the off week might come at a perfect time for the Saints.
New Orleans has 12 starters or major contributors that are on injured reserve or have missed the last few games with injury. Among those out have been All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and star offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Erik McCoy.
Many of those players may now be healthy to return to action when the team plays again on October 25 at Seattle. The Saints have also been through a more grueling stretch than any other NFL team.
The franchise has only been back at team headquarters for two weeks. They had to move team operations to Texas in late August because of Hurricane Ida. As a result, only one of their first five games was even played in the Superdome.
Despite the obstacles, the Saints enter the bye week with a 3-2 record. With a little more than a quarter of the season played, here's how their offense has fared statistically.
In the most shocking statistic of Sean Payton's 15-year tenure as the teams head coach, the Saints are last in the league in passing attempts. Only the Chicago Bears have fewer passing yards than New Orleans.
QB Jameis Winston has completed 60% of his passes, throwing for 12 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions so far. Winston has made few major mistakes, but also hasn't had to carry the offense with his passing. He’s been much more productive over the last two games, but must get the ball out of his hands faster and make quicker reads.
Missing Michael Thomas, the league's most productive wideout, has limited the passing attack.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway had a terrific training camp, but has struggled against the opposition's top cornerbacks. Electric kick returner Deonte Harris has been the team's most consistent receiver, with veteran Kenny Stills providing depth.
Harris leads the team with 236 receiving yards on 12 catches, while Callaway has pulled in 13 receptions for 222 yards. The Saints need better production from their wideouts, and have gotten even less from tight ends Juwan Johnson and Adam Trautman.
Winston has been sacked nine times in five games, but has been under heavy pressure on many of his throws. The absence of Armstead and McCoy have hurt, but former first-round picks Ryan Ramczyk, Cesar Ruiz, and Andrus Peat have had uncharacteristic struggles in pass protection.
Dynamic RB Alvin Kamara has been the focal point of the offense, as expected. Kamara leads the team with 368 yards rushing and has a team-high 15 receptions, but for just 113 yards. The Saints have yet to get Kamara untracked as a receiver, but he is coming off a season-high 51 receiving yards against Washington.
Kamara has shown he can take the brunt of the team’s rushing attack. However, he is at his best when used around the offensive formation to take advantage of mismatches against a defense. Backup RB Tony Jones Jr. is expected to miss several more weeks with an ankle injury, meaning that Taysom Hill will see more activity as a rusher.
Sean Payton continues to use Hill in different situations to put a defense on their heels. Most effective as a runner, Hill is a bulldozer between the tackles with an impressive burst in open space. He’s also an underrated receiver, and could be used more in that capacity as an added wrinkle to the passing game.
The passing game has been hampered by an inexperienced receiving corps, the absence of Thomas, Winston still learning the system, and pass protection issues. Callaway, Harris, and Stills have all made plays in recent weeks and the entire offense will be bolstered by a healthy Thomas.
As Winston gets more comfortable, expect a big increase in passing yardage. The big question is whether he can continue to avoid the costly turnovers that plagued the first five years of his career.
A return of McCoy and Armstead will restore continuity to an offensive line that dominated most opponents over the previous four seasons. Winston should be given more time to go through his reads and open up a running game that has averaged four yards per carry.
Kamara will continue to carry the rushing load, but the Saints need to get the NFL's best offensive weapon in space more often. It was an encouraging sign to see him more involved as a receiver last week. Expect that trend to continue.
New Orleans has never had such a lopsided run-pass balance with Payton at head coach. With Thomas coming back and the offensive line back at full strength, the Saints should be a much more explosive offensive team as they head towards the stretch of the year.