Why does the Saints offense rank last in the NFL in explosive plays?

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The New Orleans Saints offense hasn’t quite lit up the scoreboard like we expected it to once Jameis Winston took over. Winston has largely played it safe, avoiding turnover-worthy plays and hesitating to pull the trigger on passes deep downfield. It’s helped the Saints achieve a 3-2 record but it’s also limited the offense by compounding with some other issues.

Let’s focus on the passing game first. The Saints played their first five games without their two best wide receivers, which limited what they could get going downfield. That hurt Winston’s confidence in the weapons he had to work with, which led to him passing on some potentially big gains.

It’s taken some situations where the receiver was just too obviously open (see: Deonte Harris scoring a touchdown reception from 72 yards out) or the down-and-distance was too desperate (both of Winston’s interceptions against the Carolina Panthers come to mind, but so does Marquez Callaway’s Hail Mary touchdown catch) for Winston to air it out routinely.

Of the nine explosive plays New Orleans has created through the air (defined as receptions of 20-plus yards), Harris and Callaway have each caught two, while wide receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Ty Montgomery, tight ends Adam Trautman and Juwan Johnson, and running back Alvin Kamara have each accounted for one.

Getting better players back from injuries — effectively rebuilding the top of the depth chart — should do a lot to help. Michael Thomas had 13 such grabs last season despite his injury and Taysom Hill filling in for Drew Brees. Tre’Quan Smith had 14 under similar circumstances.

As for the pair of explosive runs (gaining at least 15 yards): Kamara found one on a 23-yard touchdown dash, while Jameis Winston scrambled for 15 yards. The Saints have picked up 629 rushing yards on 156 attempts at a good, not great, pace of 4.03 yards per carry. It’s made for tough sledding while Erik McCoy, Terron Armstead, and at times Andrus Peat have been out of the lineup. Getting everyone back to good health and paving the way should help New Orleans get back to their usual standards, where they’ve averaged 4.6 and 4.3 yards per attempt the last two years.

But it isn’t just that the Saints aren’t creating enough yards before contact at the line of scrimmage. They’ve cultivated athletes who excel at getting out to the perimeter and paving the way for stretch runs and tosses to spring runners into the open field, and so far those guys haven’t been available. Neither have valuable second-level blockers like tight end Nick Vannett, who was explicitly brought in for that role.

Hopefully the offense gets back to full strength soon — or, well, finally comes close to full strength. We really haven’t seen it in action this year. Maybe that’s what Winston needs to really shift gears and command the offense with greater success.

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