For the better part of the 21st century, the New Orleans Saints were defined by their explosive offense. With Sean Payton designing the plays, and with Drew Brees running the show, the Saints could always be counted on to put points on the board. When their defense performed well, they were consistent Super Bowl contenders. But things have changed quite a bit for this week’s Washington Football Team opponent in 2021.
Brees is gone. Michael Thomas, on tap to be the NFL’s next dominant receiver a few short years ago, has been MIA for more than a year. There is no obvious choice to fill the gap. The glory days of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston seem like ancient history. (Fun Fact: Colston, the Saints all-time leading receiver, never made the Pro Bowl. This, despite finishing in the NFC’s top four in catches, yardage, yards-per-catch, and touchdowns in 2007. Sorry Marques – we’re going with Donald Driver this year.)
The Saints still have Alvin Kamara in the backfield, but their usual solid offensive line has not performed very well thus far and Kamara is struggling to dominate the way he once did. As the season dawned, Saints’ fans were excited about the prospect of 2nd-year receiver Marquez Callaway inheriting the mantle from Colston and Thomas and becoming the major target for new quarterback Jameis Winston. So far, that has not happened.
If they want to improve to 3-2, the Washington Football Team cannot allow Callaway to break out this week. And that’s where William Jackson III needs to shine.
I have no idea how Jack Del Rio and Chris Harris intend to deploy Jackson on Sunday, but if it were me, I’d take the high-value free agent aside and say “you’ve got Callaway – make him a non-factor.”
Jackson has been a very good man-cover corner throughout his career. He clearly has more difficulty playing zone, and Washington has been playing zone – badly – all season. Not all the time, but seemingly early and often. Playing a soft zone is the kind of thing that could give a player like Callaway the momentum he needs to blossom.
There is a sound rationale for playing zone – especially against New Orleans right now. Theoretically, you limit the big play. Receivers may catch the ball but they should never have room to run after the catch. It requires more patience from an offense, and Jameis Winston has not shown much of that during his career. Make him throw enough balls, and he will make mistakes.
But the Washington Football Team should not be approaching this game with that mindset. They are going up against a struggling offense and they should take this opportunity to reignite their high-profile-but-mundane defense. Let Jackson do what he was brought here to do. Take the other team’s top outside threat out of the game. Even if he loses a couple battles, the benefits are worth it.
Winston isn’t going to run. Tight end Adam Trautman is not a threat. So far this season, Deonte Harris has been the Saints’ only dangerous perimeter player. Harris, who grew up in Baltimore, is an explosive kick returner who has been thriving as a receiver through four games. He is very similar to DeAndre Carter, and he should be a concern for the Washington Football Team defense.
And obviously, so should Kamara. He is the one consistently dynamic playmaker the Saints have right now. If Jackson takes Callaway, and if Taysom Hill is not under center, Washington can shrink the field and play ten against nine. That frees up an extra linebacker or defensive back to keep another eye on Kamara. If you do that effectively, Washington wins.
Of course there are other keys to the game. With left tackle Terron Armstead unlikely to play, the Saints line should struggle. I would expect to see creative games from the Washington line to attack the middle of Saints line, and perhaps the occasional set with both Chase Young and Montez Sweat lining up next to each other.
The Saints still have several outstanding defenders – especially in the backfield with cornerback Marshon Lattimore, and safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins. They have been opportunistic on defense this year, totaling seven interceptions in the first four games. Taylor Heinicke needs to protect the ball. And in the same way that Washington’s secondary – mainly William Jackson III – needs to ensure that Marquez Callaway doesn’t explode, Washington’s offense line needs to make sure that Saints edge rusher Cameron Jordan (94.5 career sacks), doesn’t come alive and get his first sack of 2021.
But to me, this game comes down to Washington’s defense. They get a New Orleans team that is struggling to redefine their offensive identity in the post-Drew Brees era. This is the exact type of team that a good defense should devour. This is the exact type of team against whom the Washington Football Team should rediscover its swagger. If I’m designing a game plan (and I recognize I have the luxury of not having to live with the consequences of doing so), I’m starting with William Jackson III and building out from there.