Taysom Hill, Alvin Kamara have the New Orleans Saints' offense running, but what about the pass game?

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints are in uncharted territory heading into Sunday night’s game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints (6-7) began the week as 11 1/2-point underdogs, according to Caesars Sportsbook. If that holds, this will be their first game as double-digit underdogs since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in 2006 – snapping a streak that is the NFL’s longest by more than five years, per ESPN Stats & Information.

And perhaps the biggest reason for that lopsided spread is New Orleans no longer has the dynamic passing offense that made Payton and Brees so legendary.

The Saints rank 29th in the league with just 197.9 passing yards per game and dead last in completion percentage (58.0) – by far the lowest totals in the Payton era. They haven’t had a single 300-yard passing game with Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian or Taysom Hill at quarterback.

Payton, who tested positive for COVID-19 and won't be on the sideline Sunday, has been unapologetic in recent years about winning even when it’s “not aesthetically pleasing.”

The Saints relied more than ever on their run game and defense while winning four straight NFC South titles from 2017-2020. They just did it again last week while reviving this season with a 30-9 rout at the New York Jets, when Hill and Alvin Kamara led the New Orleans to a season-high 203 rushing yards.

But Payton acknowledged that the Saints might need a little more air in their game to keep up with Tom Brady and the Bucs on Sunday (8:20 ET, NBC), since they rank first in the NFL in points (31.5 per game), total yards (410.2) and passing yards (314.2).

The Saints did get by with just 209 passing yards when they stunned the Bucs 36-27 in the Superdome in Week 8 – even though Winston tore his ACL early in the second quarter. But they know they can’t rely on the run game alone against Tampa’s third-ranked rushing defense.

"I think it depends on the game you’re in,” Payton said when asked if he is concerned about the run-pass balance. “There are some games where you are gonna have to be proficient throwing it. We're gonna have to have a good throwing game this Sunday, based on some of the things that Tampa does so well.

“But you (always) want to be efficient at it. And you want to be able to execute when you’re choosing to (throw).”

Perhaps Kamara's and Hill’s legs will be part of the solution – following the old axiom that the run sets up the pass. Kamara obviously provided a much-needed spark last week after missing the previous four games with knee and ankle injuries.

“I don’t think we realized how much we missed him,” Saints tight end Nick Vannett said. “Whenever you run for that many yards on the ground, it opens everything else up in the passing game.”

“Alvin brings so much not just to the field, but there's an element of confidence that he brings with him, and that carries over to the offense,” said Payton – who also noted how important it was to get standout left tackle Terron Armstead back from a knee injury (and how important it would be to get standout right tackle Ryan Ramczyk back from his own knee injury soon).

The Saints will obviously be counting on Hill’s continued development as a passer, too – a challenge that was made even more complicated when Hill suffered a mallet finger injury on his right throwing hand two weeks ago during his first start of the season.

Hill, who will likely have to wear a splint on the middle finger for the remainder of the season, said it definitely affects things like grip strength. But he’s learning to adjust.

Hill’s first start (a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys) showed some promise when he ran for a career-high 101 yards. But it turned into a mess when he threw three of his career-high four interceptions in the fourth quarter.

Hill was much better last week, completing 15 of 21 passes for 175 yards while running for 73 yards and two touchdowns. He fumbled twice but recovered both. It was an imperfect but serviceable performance that looked similar to when Hill went 3-1 as Brees’ injury replacement last season.

“I thought it was one of his better games,” Payton said when asked about Hill’s decision making. “He had a couple throws [that were off]. But just relative to where he's throwing and the design and the defense, I thought it was good. I thought he played well.”

Hill agreed, saying, “There’s always a handful of plays you could’ve done better, but overall I was happy with where I threw the ball and my decisions – and the overall tempo and urgency on offense.”

Winston’s performance over the first six weeks should be even more appreciated in hindsight. His big-play ability has been sorely missed after he completed 14 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. But even with Winston, the Saints’ passing game lacked volume and consistency – ranking among the bottom three teams in attempts, yards and completion percentage.

There are countless reason for the drop-off. Obviously Brees’ retirement is one. Injuries are another, starting with receiver Michael Thomas’ season-long ankle injury. The reduced salary cap was also a huge blow, leading the Saints to release veteran pass-catchers like Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook without spending to replace them. Meanwhile, the receivers and tight ends who have been on the field have struggled all season to get open and catch passes.

The Saints can’t expect a miracle cure. But the schedule does lighten up after Sunday (with home games against the Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers before the season finale at the Atlanta Falcons). So if Hill and the pass-catchers can make small strides, and they can finally get a little injury luck, it may provide just enough lift for a playoff run.