Your 2018 Saints: What’s So Special?
by JRNOLA’s Christopher Taylor
After the Saints’ tough lost to the Cardinals last week, New Orleans looked to bounce back and see some progression from players fighting for a spot on the special teams. Going into week 3, some of the players to watch were Tate and Scott, as they continued to battle for the starting kick return position, as well as special teams aces Banjo and Hardee, (players that most people may not be looking at, but we’ll be putting a spotlight on them).
Sean Payton, decided to let the veteran Brando Tate receive the opening kickoff. After, the strong start last week from Tate, coach Payton expected him to bring that same energy to this week’s game as well. A trend that would continue throughout the evening, however, the L.A. Charger’s opening kickoff ended with a touchback in the end zone.
In the first move of the chess game for field position of the night, Thomas Morstead’s first punt was a 49 yd boot minimized by a 19 yd return. Demonstrating why Morestead remains the only punter on the roster, the veteran punter played double duty by wrapping up the Chargers’ return man out of bounds to stop the play.
On fourth-and-3, Sean Payton pulled an old trick out of his bag, the fake punt. The Saints get the first down, thanks to quarterback Taysom Hill’s 5-yard rush. Setting up Brees for a beautiful 26 yard pass to his primary receiver, Michael Thomas, the first down yielding special teams 5 yard gain was part of the critical hidden yardage Payton often refers to.
Saturdays first touchdown was capped off by a 2-point conversion; a Brees screen pass completion capped off by a Thomas goal line reach, to give the Saints a one point lead over the Chargers.
On the Saints’ first kickoff, Lutz kicked a 67 yard bomb to the Chargers Desmond King. King’s 19-yard return is put to a stop by Saints’ Taysom Hill. This is the second time that the Quarterback in waiting has made a positive mark on special teams. With this, T. Hill has put himself into the spotlight this week, continuing to show his versatility and athletic ability. Hill started playing special teams with the Saints last season, so he has some experience in that aspect of the game. Hoping to become a true quarterback, Hill was not shy about his aspirations in the post- game press conference, “In the long run, I want to play quarterback”. But Hill didn’t deny how much fun he’s having playing and contributing in many ways. “Being to be out on the field in different capacities is really memorable.” Hill also said it helps him quickly get into the flow of the game.
Likely to clinch starting positions, Brandon Tate started the night off with a fair catch and handful of short punts with few return opportunities, and Kicker Will Lutz drilled 25-yard and 35-yard field goals to put him at the top of scorers for the half, responsible for 6 of the Saints 14 points.
In the second half, the backups looked forward to making their cases for why they deserve starting roles. The Saints backup return man, TommyLee Lewis entered the game as the returner for the first time. On his first punt return he was tripped up with his teammates and ended up with a 6 yard return, followed by another short return of 4 yards. Running backwards and losing yardage on returns may not be the best way to make that case.
Even though Lewis doesn’t give the Saints’ offense they greatest field position, spotlight player Taysom Hill was able to lead his offense down field, and rushed in for his own drive ending 11- yard touchdown. As icing on the cake, Hill lined his team up for their second 2-point conversion of the night, as he took the ball in himself.
Following a Marcus Williams pick-6, Coach Payton brought T.Hill back to try and go 3 for 3 on 2-point conversions. With the threat that T.Hill could keep the ball on the option play, running back Boston Scott rushed in to convert the 2-pointer.
Lewis was given another opportunity to show his return skill, but ended his third punt return with another short run, only getting 8 yards on the return. Not showing much progress as the backup return man, Lewis may need to review some film and get some lessons from starter, Tate, to improve on his return game.
Last week it was all about the return men and the special teams coverage, but this week it was about the kickers and the man that wears many hats, Taysom Hill. Kickers Will Lutz and Thomas Morstead are the only kickers on the roster, so what we see in pre-season should be what we get in regular season. If they show the same productivity they did this week, the kicking game looks really good for 2018, assuming they can both stay healthy. With Lutz finishing 2/2 on FGs, both extra point conversions came in the first half and kept the Saints in the game early. Morstead’s 2 punts yielded a combined total of 106 yards, his longest being 56 yards. Coach Sean Payton adds in the post-game conference that “I thought that the kicking game, particularly was solid, our situational football I thought was good. At the end of the half we were able to get a short field with the punt and convert it into a field goal…” With Lutz and Morstead being the only kickers on the roster, this could pose a huge problem if either of them suffer an injury. Should we be looking for the Saints to sign another kicker before week one of the regular season or will they take the risk of keeping only two kickers on their final roster?
While the return games had no standout players or big plays this week, one stat does stand out: Zero Turnovers on Special Teams. Nary a juggled catch or mishandled snap. For a Saints team that has a long history of living and dying by the turnover sword, ball security certainly did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff.
Our special team spotlight this week was Taysom Hill. Tenacious on offense and dominate on defense, Hill also shined as third string QB. During his spotlight performance, Hill ran for a short run on a fake punt play early in the game. He came up clutch on a kickoff tackle. Sean Payton says that “The players love playing with T.Hill, part of it is what he brings on special teams, there’s an appreciation for it”. Although, T.Hill played some special teams last year, Coach Payton let him show his skill as quarterback this preseason, and in this game he did just that. T.Hill finished with a 87.5% completion rate with one passing touchdown. He also showed his speed, finishing as the top rusher, with 35 yards. T.Hill also contributed to the Saints’ two-point conversion rate. Finishing 3-for-4 on two point conversions, the Saints went for two every chance they had. Is Coach Payton dropping hints on gameplans for this upcoming regular season, or just playing film games for future opponents?
One thing was obvious. T.Hill’s performance this week made everyone forget about those two interceptions and two fumbles last week against the Cardinals. This week he showed how he can be a dual-threat on the football field. What better way is there to make a great case on being Brees’ backup than bouncing back from a tough game last week to become this week’s spotlight player?