Taysom Hill reemerges as Saints' X factor after slow start

METAIRIE, La. -- Everything worked for the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night in their dominant 38-3 victory at Tampa Bay. But one of the most important elements was finally unlocking the full potential of Taysom Hill for the first time this season.

Hill was back to being one of the NFL’s most fascinating playmakers with two passes for 48 yards, seven rushes for 54 yards and one catch for 21 yards.

“There have been a few more opportunities for me as the weeks have gone on, certainly this week,” said Hill, who explained that a big key for opening things up for himself and the entire offense was his 19-yard completion to tight end Jared Cook on New Orleans’ first third down of the game.

Coach Sean Payton admitted that the Saints had shown a tendency to run almost every time Hill touched the ball earlier this season. So he used that to his advantage while devising the game plan against the Buccaneers and their No. 1 run defense.

“It was important for me to go out and throw the ball over the middle to Jared. And then it really opened up a lot of other things for us and the rest of the game,” Hill said. “And I think as you look at defending Drew [Brees] and all the weapons that we have, Alvin [Kamara] and Mike [Thomas], Emmanuel [Sanders], Jared -- and then you add this nuance to it. If we continue to do this, it’s tough to stop.”

Thomas was back in the Saints’ lineup for the first time since Week 1, which helped open up the offense for everybody.

“That’s what he does,” Thomas said of Hill’s performance. “That’s the reason why we extended him [with a two-year, $21 million contract this offseason]. That’s the reason why we put the ball in his hands. Because he’s a dominant player.

“It seems like every time I get on the field with him, he just finds a way to do something. Like again and again and again. I love playing with him, and he’s exciting to watch.”

Those comments should sound familiar, since Hill had emerged as such a huge X factor for the Saints over the past two years in his role as a QB/RB/WR/TE/FB/special-teams player.

Hill was the Saints’ most dynamic player in their overtime playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings in January. And he signed a lucrative contract extension as a restricted free agent in April -- while Payton and the Saints made it clear that they consider Hill to be a potential candidate to one day replace Brees as the starting quarterback.

But then Hill got off to a slow start this season, like the rest of the Saints’ offense. And the backlash quickly followed.

Halfway through Week 5, Hill had 11 carries for 34 yards, one first down, zero touchdowns and one lost fumble. He had three catches for 23 yards and one pass completion for 38 yards (on a trick play in Week 1).

And with each passing week, more analysts and fans would criticize Payton for being “too cute” and “too predictable” with Hill, routinely asking why they would “take the ball out of their Hall of Fame quarterback’s hands” to put Hill on the field in Brees’ place.

Payton didn’t relent, though. And his persistence has paid off.

Hill scored a 9-yard TD on a critical third-and-4 play in the final minute of that Week 5 game against the Los Angeles Chargers -- sending the Saints into overtime, where they eventually won.

And starting with that run, Hill has now gained 107 yards on his last 15 carries (an average of 7.13) with eight first downs and a TD. He has three catches for 51 yards and a TD. And he is 3-of-3 passing for 48 yards.

“We got him a handful of throws [against Tampa Bay]. And then if we can get his body moving forward the right ways, he's a tough out,” Payton said. “I thought we blocked him well up front, and his numbers had a lot to do with how we ended up with over 150 yards rushing against a team that's hard to do [that against].”

Payton’s explanation for why he would take his Hall of Fame quarterback out of the game is that replacing Brees with Hill in the run game gives New Orleans an 11-on-11 matchup instead of a 10-on-11 deficit -- the same general principle as Wildcat formations.

On top of that, Hill is an elite runner once he gets moving in the open field. He is a big, physical 6-foot-2, 221-pounder who reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at BYU’s pro day.

Last but not least, defenses do have to worry about Hill throwing on occasion. All of those factors have combined to allow Hill to average 5.68 yards per carry since the start of the 2018 season, including the playoffs. Only Kyler Murray, Raheem Mostert and Lamar Jackson have a higher average in that span among NFL players with at least 90 carries.

"Man, it's definitely valuable," Kamara said when asked about the "too cute" criticisms. "Because at the end of the day, people talk about, 'Oh, why are we doing that? Why are we doing this?' But teams still have to stop it. I mean, they know when Drew lines up at quarterback, there's a possibility he's gonna throw the ball. When Taysom lines up, he can throw the ball, they think he's gonna run it, they gotta stop both, they gotta figure out what to do with him."

Brees agrees, even if that means he is standing on the sideline -- or moving out to wide receiver and hoping for that rare chance to catch a pass.

"Just look at the productivity," Brees said. "And I think what people don't realize, too, is the stress that that puts on a defense. The defense has to have a plan for when Taysom is in the game at the quarterback position and the myriad of things that we can do."