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Despite an offseason of considerable change, the New Orleans Saints entered this season with many fans backing them for a return to prominence in the NFC.

The Saints saw head coach Sean Payton walk away from the game and be replaced by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as they also lost key pieces in defense and on the offensive line.

Still, New Orleans was tipped not just to win the NFC South, but to enter the playoffs as the number one seed in the conference.

Such predictions didn’t tickle because of the quality of the Saints’ roster — it remains one of the NFC’s best all-rounders — but because of the number of unknowns surrounding the Saints.

It’s a mystery whether Allen will have what it takes to be a successful head coach and whether quarterback Jameis Winston, who saw a promising seven-game streak end in injury last year , can finally be a success at the highest level after years of failure. living up to his status as the first pick of the 2015 draft.

The Saints’ 27-26 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 was far from convincing, but it seemingly removed an unknown key from the equation as Michael Thomas enjoyed a superb comeback from injury .

One game, one in which the Saints needed a huge fourth-quarter comeback to avoid an upset, however, isn’t enough to definitively answer questions about the coach or quarterback.

A much larger sample size will be needed to make an assessment of Allen, but Winston faces a litmus test of his credentials as the answer for the Saints when he faces the team that drafted him, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2.

The Saints have won their last seven regular season games against the Buccaneers, tying either team’s longest winning streak in that rivalry.

Winston was injured in a home win over the Bucs last year, and his ability to continue that run could provide a significant indication if he is the man to help the Saints snatch the NFC South from the Buccaneers of Tom Brady and put New Orleans on the path to being one of the top seeds in the conference.

Precise and aggressive

Winston showed why the Saints were willing to trust him in the comeback against Atlanta, illustrating his advantage as a field passer with six completions of 20 yards or more, which as of Friday was fourth in the NFL.

He also displayed impressive accuracy, delivering a well-thrown and accurate ball on 87.1% of his pass attempts, according to data from Stats Perform.

The former Florida State star also averaged 9.65 aerial yards per attempt, with Ryan Tannehill (90.3% and 9.42 aerial yards) the only quarterback to average at least nine. aerial yards and recorded a much higher throwing rate than Winston.

Winston having success pushing the ball deep is nothing new. His 154 passes for 25 or more yards since entering the league are the 13th most in the league over that span. Last season, he averaged 9.14 passing yards per attempt.

Still, his performance in Week 1 represented a marked improvement in accuracy over what he produced in 2021. Indeed, Winston’s well-pitched rate of 75.7% last season was lower than the league average of 77.9.

Winston also excelled at delivering the ball with precision under duress, with six of his seven attempted passes under pressure considered well thrown.

That he maintains that level of play in the face of Tampa Bay’s passing rush will speak volumes about his chances of leading the Saints to a division title.

Hold out too long?

Winston was sacked four times against the Falcons. While on the surface it may seem like an indictment of the Saints offensive line, the reality is that, for the most part, New Orleans has done a very impressive job at pass protection.

The Saints finished Week 1 ranked fourth in pass protection success rate by Stats Perform. Two of their sacks were the result of individual brilliance from Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, while one was a sack effort from rookie Arnold Ebiketie and another came on a delayed second-tier blitz by Mykal Walker .

The theme of those plays where the Saints quarterback was knocked down in the backfield was clear – Winston holding the ball for more than three seconds.

In his seven attempts under pressure, Winston held the ball from snap to release for an average of 3.15 seconds.

Against a Tampa Bay defense that recorded the seventh-most sacks for negative yardage (45) in the NFL last season and had no shortage of success against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys in the week 1, Winston is unlikely to get away with hanging on to the ball for so long.

How long Winston holds the ball is partly tied to his aggressiveness at targeting receivers on deep routes, and he and the Saints will need the offensive line, which lost the services of three-time Pro Bowler Terron Armstead during the offseason, to hold to facilitate those down shots in Week 2.

However, if not, Winston will need to read the field effectively and get the ball out quickly to prevent the Saints’ offense from being sunk by a fearsome Tampa Bay defense. If you don’t, it might be hard to take New Orleans seriously as legitimate contenders. Luckily for Winston, he has weapons that can give him the safety nets he needs to frustrate opposing passes with the fast play.

Winning armament

Having played only seven games over the past two seasons, there were substantial doubts about Thomas’ ability to return and perform at the level that saw him set the NFL record for receptions in a season ( 194) in 2019.

Thomas answered his doubters adamantly with a two-touchdown display, his second tally on a superb back shoulder catch that cut the Falcons’ lead to two points late in the fourth quarter.

Among wide receivers with at least five targets in Week 1, Thomas was fourth with a 52.9% big play rate.

Between Thomas, Jarvis Landry – who ran for 114 yards in his Saints debut – and rookie Chris Olave, the first-round pick who caught three passes for 41 yards, the Saints have three receivers who can all create separation to give Winston easy answers. against pressure.

Running back Alvin Kamara had little influence as a wide receiver in Week 1, but a 21.3% big-play receiving rate that was fifth among running backs (min. 100 carries ) in 2021 indicates how dangerous it can be. when he is part of the passing game.

There’s no doubt that Winston has the offensive talent around him to succeed and he proved what he can do when he harnesses that talent in Week 1, becoming the first Saints player to throw for 200 yards or more in the fourth quarter since 2008 as they won a game after trailing by at least 16 points in the final period for the first time.

He also has the backing of the defense which last year recorded one of three shutouts for a Brady team in his 317 regular season starts and 47 in the playoffs.

Sitting 11th in Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE), which measures the distance gained in expected overtaking situations compared to the distance expected in those same scenarios, Winston made an encouraging start to what he hopes will be his first full season in as from the Saints.

But the fact that he had to produce a late comeback against one of the least talented teams in the NFL speaks to an inconsistent offensive performance.

Volatility has defined Winston’s career in Tampa, but New Orleans will be much more trustworthy as a contender if he can maintain his level while taking on the quarterback who embodies consistency more than any other and helps the Saints continue their hoodoo on the Bucs.

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