4 things the Saints need to improve after the bye week

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The bye week has come and gone, and the New Orleans Saints are gearing up for their next game — prime-time kickoff on the road with the Seattle Seahawks. They’ve had plenty of time to evaluate themselves and find areas to improve, which, given their 3-2 record aren’t in short supply.

Still, here are four things we want to see improvement from on Monday night:

Creating explosive plays

Oct 10, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) throws a touchdown pass to Saints wide receiver Deonte Harris (not pictured) against the Washington Football Team during the first quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans ranks last in the NFL with just 11 explosive plays (popularly described as runs of 15 yards or more and passes of 20-plus yards), struggling to pick up yards at a great pace through the air or on the ground. With so many players missing with injuries to start the season, the Saints chose to play a less aggressive brand of football that put a lot of pressure on their defense. For the most part, it held up.

Now it’s time to take the training wheels off. Let Jameis Winston go out there and rip it deep to Tre’Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway. Get Erik McCoy blocking out in front of Alvin Kamara on screen plays. The Saints had some success targeting Juwan Johnson down the seam, and that’s an element they should expand upon to stretch the field. The more New Orleans can do to open up the field, the better.

Pressuring opposing passers

Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke, left, rushes the ball past New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Al Drago)

The Saints’ pressure rate clocks in near league average at 24.3%, per Pro Football Reference, which is a bigger step back from last season (26.3%) than it might appear. New Orleans is one of four teams that hasn’t created double-digit sacks yet, along with the Chiefs, Jaguars, and Falcons. And the bye week only partly explains that because Atlanta is the only other team in that group that took off last week.

They’ve got finish pressures better. Too often the pass rush is getting stalled out early or getting to the quarterback too late after he’s already thrown the ball. Improving the personnel there with Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata returning in the next few weeks will help, but at the end of the day guys like Cameron Jordan, Malcolm Roach, Carl Granderson, and Shy Tuttle need to start winning their matchups.

Gaining yards after the catch

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marquez Callaway, right, tries to outrun Washington Football Team cornerback William Jackson in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Let’s bounce back to the offense. Last year, the Saints averaged 5.2 yards gained after the catch per reception. This season they’re picking up 5.5, which on its face looks like an improvement. Then you look a little deeper and see that this year’s average depth of target (9.1) is almost a full three yards over last season’s number (6.3). Receivers are being targeted further downfield but they aren’t picking up many more yards after the catch.

Some of that is on Winston. He admitted as much when asked about the feedback Sean Payton gave him during the bye week, pointing to his ball placement on throws at short and middling range. Those throws should be made with an objective of leading the receiver in stride, allowing them to continue moving after the catch. Too often Winston has thrown darts that require his teammates to cut their feet. But they’ve got to do their part too by evading tackles and smartly manipulating opponents’ pursuit angles to work on the move.

Making at least a couple kicks

Sep 26, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New Orleans Saints place kicker Aldrick Rosas (6) reacts after missing a field goal against the New England Patriots during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Woof. The Saints are on their third kicker, Brian Johnson, with his two predecessors combining for a 1-of-4 field goal streak while going 16-of-18 on extra point attempts. Most of that damage was done by Aldrick Rosas, who was finally let go after four rough games. Cody Parkey only lasted one game before he was sent to injured reserve (and released with an injury settlement).

Maybe Johnson can steady the ship until Wil Lutz returns from injured reserve, which should happen in just a few weeks. If he’s ready to play after practicing this week he should get the green light on Monday. If not, at least Johnson has a respectable college resume with 131 successful extra point tries and a 54-of-71 record on field goal attempts. Whoever is kicking for the Saints, they’ve got to do a better job than those that came before.

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