Starters Shine and Standout reserves from the First Preseason Action of the New Look Saints

New Orleans Saints quarterback Derek Carr (4) looks to pass the ball in the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in New Orleans, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Saints won the coin toss and elected to receive and get their new quarterback on the field immediately. The entire projected starting 11 were on the field for the first snap, and it was a bootleg play action trying to get their second year star receiver Chris Olave a catch in the flat – but it broke down rather quickly and resulted in an incompletion. It was smooth sailing from there as Carr completed six of his next seven passes en route to a 12 play, 85 yard scoring drive ending four yard touchdown pass from Carr to Keith Kirkwood.

It’s only one drive in the preseason, but there are a few really encouraging signs in that drive that showed why this offense is destined to be far and away better than that of 2022. After the incompletion on the first play, the Saints ran an off tackle zone play with Alvin Kamara which went for twelve yards and a new set of downs. Last year, the offense was plagued by their inefficiency on 2nd and 10s – constantly giving the ball to Kamara for gains of one and two yards, placing the team way behind the chains. This play call was similar, but Saints play caller Pete Carmichael kept Chris Olave and Michael Thomas on the field which meant the Chiefs had to at least ponder the possibility of a pass, and the offensive line was able to get out in front and pave a lot of room for Kamara. Last year, in these scenarios, Carmichael would send out Tre’quon Smith and Marquez Callaway on these formations posing no such threat that they would throw the ball, resulting in an abundance of third and longs and three and outs that made the Saints one of the NFL’s least prolific offenses in 2022.

The second play worth highlighting was the first third down of the drive after Kamara was taken down for a loss of two yards, setting up a third down and eight. In 2022, negative plays were drive killers for the offense led by Andy Dalton. As a whole, the team was just about average on third downs at a 40.8% conversion rate, good for 15th league wide. However, on third down and greater than seven yards, the team was extremely inefficient – especially when following a sack or negative run. Carr, however, showed his poise on this play, climbing the pocket and finding his tight end Juwan Johnson on a drag route coming from the backside for a gain of 11 and another first down. Even on one drive, Johnson flashed his continuous development beating safety, Justin Reid, twice in one-on-one coverage for 29 yards – and Carr on this play kept the drive moving by quickly working through his progressions and confidence working in the pocket. This is something all Saints quarterbacks that have taken snaps since Drew Brees have struggled with, and seeing Carr show these intangibles multiple times on one drive was very encouraging.

The final play of the drive that stood out the most was the touchdown to Keith Kirkwood (shown above) which was set up by a 17 yard screen play to Alvin Kamara (another welcome sight from Carmichael). Another facet that Saints’ offenses have been poor in since Brees is their red zone efficiency, particularly when throwing the ball. Last year, the team ranked 21st in red zone touchdown rate at 52%, and the only reason it wasn’t even lower is their usage of Taysom Hill as a runner being a very efficient package in those situations. Now, Carr himself was not particularly good in the red zone in 2022 and has struggled in the past throughout his career – but on this second and goal play, he is forced to go to his third read after the Chiefs do a great job in taking away Thomas in the flat and Olave on the backside – and floats a perfect ball in the back of the end zone to a longtime member of the Saints practice squad in Keith Kirkwood.

All in all, this drive happened to show multiple areas of encouragement and potential improvement to what has been a dormant and anemic offenses the last two years in New Orleans. Everything is always barring potential injury, but the first unit looks to be long in weapons when healthy – even without Rashiid Shaheed in the lineup. The offensive line held up extremely well against the first team Chiefs defensive line (sans Chris Jones obviously worth mentioning) and if that unit can give Carr clean pockets, the unit should be far better in 2023 than any point of the last two years.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints first team defense minus Demario Davis got a look against probably the best offensive unit in the entire league, in the Chiefs first team led by Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce with Andy Reid calling plays. The drive resulted in a failed forth down conversion on fourth and one from midfield, where the Chiefs attempted one of their favorite short yardage plays where they have former Oklahoma quarterback turned NFL tight end Blake Bell motion under center and runs a quarterback sneak. The Saints defensive line was having none of it, as former Chief Khaulen Saunders blew up the center Creed Humphrey and stuffed Bell to force a turnover on downs.

The unit as a whole did a great job getting after Mahomes and forcing him to his check down, as they didn’t allow a receiver or tight end to make a catch on the short drive. The speed and energy was also evident on the drive, getting multiple players involved on tackles and stifling the run game – which the team also struggles with ranking 24th against the run. At this point, the game was already a success, as most starters were taken out on either side, but there were multiple standouts that came off the bench for the Saints who significantly elevated their chances at a roster spot on the final 53.

The first and most clear winner of the Saints bench was their 6th round pick and former Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry, who shined with Jamies Winston at quarterback. After the Chiefs turned the ball over on downs, the Saints offense led by Winston took over at the visitors 48 yard line. The drive opened with a 14 yard completion to Perry, on a comeback route in the middle of the field, where he found a soft spot in the zone. Two plays later, on third down and four, Winston connected with Perry running a slot post, lined up against veteran safety Juan Thornhill, and the young receiver was able to contort his body to make the catch and turn around to reach across the goal line all in one motion. Perry accounted for both of Winston’s pass attempts for 43 yards on the drive, and finished with six receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. So far, Perry hasn’t made a ton of noise at Saints camp, not to say he’s been bad – but there hasn’t been a signature moment for the rookie so far. He was extremely impressive yesterday on a bigger stage, which will no doubt be a confidence builder for the young receiver who the Saints have high hopes for. Of all the options at fourth receiver, Perry has the most athletic upside at 6’3, 198 lbs with 4.4 speed, and the Saints felt like they got a steal when they traded up to get him the 6th round when many had him going much higher than that. This performance was hopefully the beginning of the momentum he builds to earning that role as the teams first receiver behind Olave, Thomas and Shaheed.

The second player who stood out amongst backups was former Seahawks and Chiefs defensive back Ugo Amadi who was all over the field in the final three quarters as the slot defender for the Saints to the tune of an interception and two pass breakups. The 26-year-old defensive back has impressed in camp, and for a team that could use slot corner depth as Bradley Roby ages and P.J. Williams now being elsewhere – Amadi could definitely secure a roster spot if he finishes the preseason strong.

Another interesting detail is he is the first Saint ever to wear #0, which seems to catch my eye every time I saw it on the field.

The second half consisted of Jake Haener’s first snaps as an NFL quarterback, and it was a little underwhelming based off of how he has looked in camp so far – but the Saints’ fourth round pick finished strong – leading a drive down the field that would have tied it in an actual game scenario. The ensuing two point conversion was no good because of a snap communication issue.

His strengths of his anticipation and ball placement were on full display that drive, and the most encouraging part was how the young rookie seemed to respond well to the interception he threw earlier in the half. Now the expectation will be that he will look more comfortable immediately in next weeks game versus the Chargers, and joint practices with them in California this week should help the rookie’s confidence going into the game.

Even though wins and losses can be pretty much an afterthought during these games, the way the game ended yesterday was very dramatic as far as preseason goes. After the team failed to convert the two point conversion following Haener’s touchdown, the game stood at 24-23 with 1:20 left and two timeouts remaining for the Saints. For whatever reason, Andy Reid and Matt Nagy elected to go with a screen pass on third and eight, and defensive end Kyle Phillips – who the Saints signed a little more than two weeks ago – found a way to tip the ball and secure a big man interception.

It was a fun way to end an encouraging day for the Saints, getting the win and coming out of the game without any souring injury news. In fact, the only injury of the day seemed to be to the third round running back Kendre Miller who left the game in the first half with a knee injury. However, per NOF Network reporter Nick Underhill, the scans came back as a minor knee sprain that may have him back before the end of preseason.

It is unclear if the Saints will roll out the starters again this preseason, but we will continue to be on the lookout for standouts, as roster cuts inch closer. The team travels to Los Angelas to take on the Chargers next Sunday night at 6:05 p.m. (CT), and will be on the West Coast (thankfully away from the heat) for joint practice sessions with the Chargers later this week.

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