Credit: USA Today
By Dan Levy - Staff Writer - Saintsreport.com
It’s a good thing the first two games of the Saints’ 2022 preseason have been on the road, because neither has been something you’d want to sell tickets to. But fan frustration aside, both contests have been quite revealing, particularly when it comes to competitions further down the depth chart and the progression of key rookie investments. With that in mind, here are my main takeaways from the Saints 20 - 10 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Special Teams Have Never Looked So Special
Whether it’s punter Balke Gillikin’s booming punts (including an 81 and 65-yarder) or kicker Will Lutz’s 59-yard field goal strike in his first on-field action since 2020, the Saints may have the strongest combined leg power in the NFL. Throw in a 59-yard kick return by WR Kick Merritt and some strong returns by RB Tony Jones, Jr.—who also contributed two huge solo tackles in punt coverage—and the Saints’ special teams look to be elite across the board. The fact that their key return man, Deonte Harty, hasn’t fielded a single punt or kick this preseason shows that the units as a whole are executing extremely well. In fact—and this may be unpopular to point out—on Merritt’s return, I’m giving most of the credit to the excellent blocking (but more on that later).
Penning and Ruiz Keep getting Better
LT Trevor Penning continues to dominate in the run game and take significant steps forward in the passing game. And while his technique remains a bit inconsistent, particularly in pass pro (he plays a little high, his timing can still be off, and he still struggles vs. counter moves), he is an absolute freaking mountain. I cannot emphasize enough how impressive his natural awareness is in both aspects of his game. His head is always on a swivel, and he has a great feel for posting inside on his pass sets and takes fantastic climb angles in the run game. With every next matchup, Trevor Penning further exceeds my expectations.
RG Cesar Ruiz is a little more low-key, but he has definitely improved from where he was last season. He still looks a little finesse in the run game, but I did see a couple moments of nastiness and finishing when he locked on at the second level. There is also not a player behind him who can challenge his athleticism. I definitely screamed at the TV on the Tony Jones, Jr. screen; when Ruiz saw that the safety had the angle on the Jones, he should have turned his head inside and taken the pursuing linebacker, but instead he watched and waited for Jones, Jr. to break the tackle; the LB closed in and shoved Ruiz from behind, knocking him into his own player and ending the play. That said, on a later screen to the same side with Calvin Throckmorton at LG, Throck was so slow in his release to kick out the force player that the defender easily beat him to the RB for a TFL.
All that to say that no one is going to be seriously challenging Ruiz, and I do think that speaks to his improvement as much as it does to the lack of athleticism behind him. Just like I said last week, Ruiz isn't going to light the world on fire—but he will be a solid starter this season.
Poor Ian Book. Genuinely, I feel sorry for him and the way the media and fans are piling on—and anyone who read my last article will know that that includes me, too. So let me start by defending him.
The second-year QB played better. From an operations standpoint—getting in and out of the huddle, communicating, running the offense with tempo—it was night and day compared to the Texans game. He made some much better throws and looked to be double-clutching/winding up less in his release (it’s still there, but not as glaring as it was last week). He also used his legs well, including a pretty nifty 20-something yard scramble.
He still has no comfort in the pocket and is unwilling to climb. When he does, he is so flustered in the proverbial phone booth that it usually results in a sack or a horribly errant throw. That is a hard habit to break, and will take time and patience. It’s also extremely frustrating that any time he’s flushed out of the pocket or moved off his spot (often unforced), Book tucks the ball way too soon—something baffling to see from an NFL QB. He will roll to his right and immediately tuck the ball, even as defenders close on him and receivers open up behind them. Also, I was pretty annoyed with the redzone fade to Dai’Jean Dixon, where Book didn’t put even close to enough air under the ball to give the rookie WR a chance to use his size and body control to bring in the TD. That was just terrible placement.
Now should we be breaking the glass, setting ourselves on fire, and slapping out a bunch of ALL-CAPS posts calling for him to be tarred and feathered? Absolutely not—for practical reasons, since you won’t find a QB on the street right now who can come in and learn the Saints playbook, snap cadence, huddle operations, etc., in a matter of days. K.J. Costello still has yet to see the field, likely because of this exact issue. Also, the coaches aren’t putting Book out there for nearly eight quarters in the first two games for no reason. They are investing time in him, and they are doing so deliberately.
Additionally, I paid attention to Book’s post-game interview. He seems to know exactly where he is right now and to be very aware of his issues. I don’t think he’s out there in denial, thinking he’s playing lights-out. I’ve seen players with raw talent—which I DO think he has—who take longer than others to break their bad habits and form good ones. He was a fourth round pick and it appears the Saints are going to give him every chance to succeed. He is no doubt destined for the practice squad, where he will have chance to grow and learn, much like Taysom Hill did. And yes, if the Saints see another QB who they like hit the waiver wire, they should absolutely bring them in, too.
But outside of anger and the desire to see punitive justice levied against a second-year QB because he played badly in a couple of preseason games, there is no reason to cut Book right now. Would I like to see Andy Dalton get some more snaps with the young WRs? Yes. Do we have someone besides him and Jameis Winston who can give them a better look than Book? No.
Well, except for Taysom Hill, but that’s not going to happen in the preseason (nor should it).
RB Picture: Loading
Tony Jones, Jr. has all but locked up the #3 RB spot. Of the four backs competing behind Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, he is the most polished runner, receiver, and pass protector. He gives great effort on special teams, and, frankly, his contributions in punt coverage have been even more impressive than his contributions in the return game.
UDFA rookie Abram Smith is still my favorite for the likely fourth RB spot (though it’s not guaranteed, as veteran Dwayne Washington hasn’t really done anything to lose it). He unfortunately saw some pretty tight running lanes once he entered the game, when the Saints were dipping into the very bottom of the OL barrel. He still has the most upside and unique skillset of the four competing backs, and while Devine Ozigbo doesn’t make any glaring mistakes, he simply doesn’t have the physical minimums to be a productive runner in the league.
Chris Olave is Special
I won’t spend much time talking about Chris Olave because I think everyone who is paying attention can see how special he is. On his touchdown, it was a little bit messy and took me a few viewings to get an idea of what the call was. In the end, I settled on a scissors concept, with Marquez Callaway having a post/dig option (which he snapped it off into the dig route b/c the safety had the post capped) and Olave having a shake-corner—which is the same as a normal corner route, but with an inside stem to attack the linebacker before bending back out to the corner. I should reiterate that this is my best assessment without seeing the actual call.
The flat defender was wide so Olave took an inside release. The coverage rotation was not what he expected, which can happen with rookies. You see a little bit of hesitation before he turns to get back out onto his route. He bumps into the flat defender's downfield shoulder as he bends back outside and, in a great moment of awareness, realizes he’s too shallow. His landmark appears to be the front pilon, which is why we see him turn back over his inside shoulder (rather than his outside, which is where you typically turn on a corner route) so he can get moving vertical and reach his landmark depth.
Olave reaches his landmark, which is the most important thing for the QB, then makes a great adjustment to the ball and cashes in on the TD. It wasn’t the prettiest route, but was a great display of awareness that you rarely see from a rookie WR.
Let’s Talk About the Rest of The Receivers
It’s difficult to go hard in the paint here due to the lack of opportunities, but I am now comfortable saying that I don’t see any of the young WRs supplanting Deonte Harty, Marquez Callaway, or Tre’Quan Smith. For me, the next best three—at least in these first two games—are clearly Kawaan Baker, Dai’Jean Dixon, and Kirk Merritt.
Baker will be suspended for the first six games, after which I believe he’ll join Dixon on the practice squad. As for Merritt, I’ve had a chance to get a better look at him as a route runner and a player in general, and I can now more clearly see the flaws that kept him from being drafted. While his measurable athleticism is through the roof, he is not as refined as someone like Olave or Harty (or Deebo Samuel, the player he is often compared to).
There were two great examples of this vs. the Packers: the 59-yard kick return, and the take-off route where Ian Book appeared to overthrow him. On the kickoff return, Merritt had some great blocking and, yes, used his speed. But you can really see how he has to build to his top speed and looks pretty stiff once he reaches it. This is evident in his route running, too, where he seems to lack the burst you’d expect and not really switch gears well. In short, he looks stiff and even a little lumbering, and I partially blame this for Book overthrowing him.
The wildcard in this conversation is Rashid Shaheed. I have no idea what his status is or if we will even get a look at him at all during the preseason (if we don’t, that could turn out to be a blessing and allow the Saints to sneak him onto the practice squad). But he is a player I am very interested in seeing live, both as a receiver and a returner.
Defense: Quick Hits
- The best LB combo of the night was Eric Wilson and Jon Bostic. Bostic, in particular, really impressed me. He brought some athleticism and instincts with a little thump in the middle that the Saints have been lacking with Demario Davis on the sidelines. Most of the big runs happened when these two were not on the field and were the result of poor run fits. Here is one example, courtesy of LB Kaden Ellis.
- To be clear, this could be a gap-exchange between DE Payton Turner and Ellis, in which case Turner is way too passive and needs to come harder/flatter down the line. Because it's split zone, the H-back blocks back on Turner and manages to cut him. The combination of the rest of the DL getting washed and Turner being too passive/getting cut (if this IS a gap exchange) opens a huge cutback lane for the RB. But in the end, this isn't a talent issue. It's an execution issue.
- LB Nephi Sewell is a young guy who showed impressive instincts in both the Packers game and the Texans game. He has a lot to learn in terms of taking on and getting off blocks, but he looks like a great practice squad candidate and reminds me a little of Jonathan Casillas.
- DB Brain Allen is intriguing—not for any particular play, but because he is huge and long and moves really well for his size. He has an uphill climb to make the roster, but man he brings a rare skillset to the table.
- S Daniel Sorenson, despite all of his YouTube dunk reels, had been winning me over. But then Danny Etling ripped off a 52-yard TD run on a zone read where Sorenson was the force player—meaning he had contain/QB responsibility. He flew in to try and make a play on the RB in the backfield, and Etling took off, racing untouched into the endzone. A player's fate shouldn’t be decided on one play, but for someone who has played pretty conservatively and been in position most of the preseason, that error offered me a first-hand glimpse into why he gets picked on.
- DT Malcolm Roach played great, aside from the bonehead roughing the passer penalty on third down. For all the external concern surrounding interior defensive line depth, the Saints look to be in pretty good shape.
- I know we’re all worried about the lack of pass rush in these first two games, but if Marcus Davenport AND Cam Jordan both miss significant time, then we will undboubtedly-100%-guaranteed have trouble rushing the passer. This should be obvious. Having either one of those guys on the field has a massive impact on the entire defensive line.
- S J.T. Gray has been a demon on special teams for a while now, but in these two games he has also impressed me on defense. I’m still hoping there’s a spot for Justin Evans, but I do think that, in a pinch, Gray could come in and hold down the fort. Once again, this speaks to the depth the Saints have across the board.
- There may not be a player on the roster right now whom I am more eager to get a look at than CB Alontae Taylor.