The New Orleans Saints came into the 2021-22 season with a lot of question marks. Numerous challenges would have derailed a lot of teams. The Saints are sitting at 2-1 through three weeks of NFL action. There are several reasons for the solid start. The defense has been stingy, the team has been careful with the football, and quarterback Jameis Winston has played decent. The biggest reason of all is the game planning and crisis management of head coach Sean Payton.
Hurricane Ida forced New Orleans to evacuate and play their first ‘home’ game in Jacksonville. The team stomped the Green Bay Packers 38-3 in the opener. Week 2 was a letdown as the Carolina Panthers downed the Saints 26-7. There were obvious questions about which Saints team was real. Some of that was answered this past week in a 28-13 win over the New England Patriots. The game was not as close as the final score.
Early Season Success Credited to Head Coach Sean Payton
The Saints are now 145-82 during Payton’s 15 years as coach. This is a franchise that had seven winning seasons from 1967 to 2005. They won their division twice in that span. Payton’s Saints have seven division titles, including the last four. New Orleans won their only Super Bowl in 2009 under the guidance of Payton. In the only year without him since 2006, New Orleans went 7-9. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season as a result of ‘bountygate’.
The team is much different in personnel and game plan than the high-flying days of the past. Payton has become a master at adjusting schemes to fit opponents while maximizing the talent he has. When asked following the Patriots game if the recipe for success this season is a strong defense and special teams with an efficient offense, Payton was quick to point out how the team must continue to evolve.
“Yeah, listen, I know this, just being in this league long enough, sometimes that formula has to change. We felt like going in that we wanted to effectively run the football. Obviously ball security, playing in here, is a must when you consider their record at home. But I think it’s too hard to say each week. I mean, it’s going to vary based on the opponents. I thought we did a handful of the things we were trying to do.”
There were plenty of reasons, or excuses, for New Orleans to lay down and have an off-year in 2021-22. All-time franchise quarterback Drew Brees retired in the off-season. The team has had numerous injuries and off-field indiscretions. Mother Nature has altered their home and community. Yet through it all, the steady hand of Payton has kept the team thriving.
Saints Defense Among Strongest in the League
For a coach lauded for his offensive acumen, Payton gets a lot out of his defense. Dennis Allen deserves a lot of praise as the team’s defensive coordinator as well. Allen is now in his seventh season leading the Saints defense. The team has improved in yards allowed every year under Allen. The Saints were quietly among the league’s best defenses last season, ranking fourth in yards allowed and fifth in points allowed.
That trend has continued this season for New Orleans. The defense is sixth in yards allowed and has given up just 42 points, good for third in the league. The Saints rank fifth in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA. The biggest factor in the team’s success is their seven takeaways. New Orleans is tied for second in the NFL in that department. Game-changing takeaways were a hallmark of the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run.
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
Saints Have Been Careful with the Football, Limiting Mistakes
Thanks to the many takeaways and solid special teams play, New Orleans is second in the league in average starting field position. Winston and the offense are getting the ball at their own 34-yard line on average. For a quarterback who has been notoriously mistake-prone in his career, this makes things a whole lot easier. The Saints have only turned the ball over twice in three games.
Winston deserves a lot of credit for buying into the system and being more careful with the football. Aside from two ugly interceptions against Carolina, and a very questionable touchdown pass against New England, Winston has been steady. Some of that has to be thanks to Payton coaching him up. The quarterback was scolded after a touchdown pass Sunday. The result was great for New Orleans, but the process was not what Payton wanted to see.
Jameis Winston said it was "all God" on the TD pass to Marquez Callaway. He was trying to throw it away and did not know it was a free play. … Winston said Payton's message was, "If you're throwing it away, make sure you throw it away." Winston told Payton it was God's plan too
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) September 26, 2021
Protecting the ball has always been a priority for the Saints coach. That he is getting Winston to do it regularly is a testament to Payton’s greatness. The Saints are very much in the mix of the NFC South and the conference through three games. Continuing to focus on ball control will be vital moving forward. In the games they have won, it is because New Orleans has gotten out in front and played keep away. The weapons are not there when they fall behind and it has shown in their losses.
Payton was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2006. That was his first season in New Orleans. The team had just returned home following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The Saints get their first true home game on Sunday against the New York Giants. It will be another homecoming that the city needs. If Payton can keep the Saints playing at this level, a second coach of the year award may be on the way.
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