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How might Jameis Winston fare against the Falcons?

He adds new elements to the Saints passing game, but he also introduces new risks.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons will see Taysom Hill as the starter on Sunday, but it’s fair to say my assumption is that Jameis Winston will still find himself with significant work against Atlanta. Drew Brees is injured to the point where he may not be back in action until late in the year and Taysom Hill has never thrown more than a couple of passes in a single NFL game, which leaves Winston as the only real option to take on that work. If Hill plays a full game, even against a shaky pass defense like Atlanta’s, I don’t see things going well.

So let’s assume Hill’s in and out of this one, throwing a couple of passes and using his legs to annoyingly pick up some first downs. Handing the keys to Winston the rest of the day has obvious benefits and drawbacks for the Saints passing game. New Orleans fans and media members alike have been pretty heavily in the tank for Brees for a long time now, and they point to every 20 yard completion as evidence that he hasn’t truly lost his fastball. But Brees’ decline in arm strength has been evident for a long while now and has accelerated in 2020, as he’s 33rd in the NFL (read: dead last among qualifiers) in intended air yards per attempt at 5.4 yards per attempt, nearly a full yard behind #32 Jimmy Garoppolo. His accuracy and the fact that the Saints have built a team full of players capable of picking up yards after the catch have allowed this passing attack to roll on, and Brees went from a guy who threw quite a lot of picks to someone who was able to manage a game effectively by limiting risky plays.

Winston could not be more different. In his three fully healthy seasons, he’s thrown for over 13,200 yards and 83 touchdowns, an eye-popping pace bolstered by his willingness and ability to go deep. He rarely meets a contested throw he doesn’t like and can sometimes fit passes into windows that few other quarterbacks could dream of even trying, and that gunslinger mentality leads to truly remarkable highs and spectacular lows.

In the first four seasons of his career, Winston was murder for the Falcons. He threw 20 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions from 2015-2018, averaging nearly three touchdowns per game and less than one pick. Last year, however, Winston threw 5 touchdowns against 4 interceptions as one of the few quarterbacks to truly struggle against Atlanta’s defense in 2019, completing under 60% of his passes in the process. He threw his 30th interception of the season right to Deion Jones, who sealed a victory for Atlanta with the pick, and Atlanta appears to have gotten better at figuring out how to take advantage of his riskier throws over the past couple of seasons.

In New Orleans, Winston has the luxury of a better offensive line, but he still was sacked twice on 12 dropbacks last week. He also emphatically does not have the advantage of a better set of receiving options than he had in Tampa Bay, as Michael Thomas is looking shaky, Tre’Quan Smith is injured, Jared Cook has disappeared for much of the year, and even Alvin Kamara might be banged up on Sunday. If he does play a significant part of the game on Sunday, Winston will be fighting against his worst tendencies with an offense that wasn’t really built with him in mind, which makes me

I’m still exceedingly skeptical we’ll see Taysom Hill for an entire game, so trying to suss out how Winston will fare is something that may actually matter to the outcome of this game. I’m hoping that with a less imposing cast of pass catchers and some of the same old Winston habits evident in his limited action last Sunday that we’ll get the quarterback who threw away a couple of games to Atlanta in the very recent past.