New Orleans Saints, rookie QB Ian Book fall flat with 20 players sidelined by COVID-19

Quarterback Ian Book couldn't get anything going in his first NFL start Monday for the depleted New Orleans Saints against the Miami Dolphins. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints looked every bit like a team down to its fourth quarterback and missing a total of 20 eligible players because of COVID-19 in Monday night’s 20-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Rookie quarterback Ian Book’s pick-six on his third NFL play was the biggest dagger. But he wasn’t alone, as the depleted offense fell flat all night long, finishing with 164 total yards. The Saints went 0-for-12 on third downs, and Book was sacked a staggering eight times.

Coach Sean Payton said it wasn’t his job to worry about whether the league should have postponed Monday’s game -- though he did note that the Saints “had two guys today getting fitted for equipment in the locker room” after they signed a total of four players Monday just to be able to fill out their roster.

“Our job is to really focus and prepare, get the players ready to go. [Or else] pretty soon your energy gets wasted,” Payton said. “Obviously we didn’t do a good enough job tonight. It was frustrating, and I’m sure it was frustrating to watch.”

The only saving grace was that because this loss came against an AFC opponent, it won’t hurt the Saints’ playoff tiebreakers. But they’ll need to beat the Carolina Panthers at home Sunday and the Atlanta Falcons on the road in Week 18 to finish 9-8 and have any realistic chance.

ESPN’s Football Power Index tentatively projected the Saints' playoff chances at 33% after Monday’s game. But they’re going to need a lot of players back for that to happen -- starting with at least one quarterback (Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian) and at least one offensive tackle (Terron Armstead or Ryan Ramczyk).

QB breakdown: The deck was stacked severely against New Orleans’ fourth-round draft pick, Book, who was thrust into the starting job Thursday and took his first NFL snaps Monday night behind a depleted offensive line. And his performance went about as well as you might expect under the circumstances.

“Just keeping him upright tonight was a challenge,” said Payton, who said it was “impossible to evaluate” Book’s play. “He’ll be frustrated like all of us with some plays. But certainly it’s not gonna define his growth or his career. It was kind of one of those perfect storms. It was just a tough spot for him to be in, and I think he’s smart enough to understand that.”

The pick-six came on a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage on third-and-3, with Book explaining that the Dolphins did a good job of making their coverage look like Cover Zero. And Book missed a few open receivers and probably took a few more sacks than he should have. But it also felt like he was scrambling away from pressure all night long. He finished 12-of-20 for 135 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

“I got a lot to get better at,” said Book -- who said the pick-six was just the second of his career and described it as both a “terrible feeling” and a “nightmare.”

But he said he went to the sideline and “completely got it out of my mind” afterward.

This was supposed to be a redshirt season for Book. Chances are, the Saints will give him a second chance to make a first impression next summer -- but obviously he won’t be Plan A as the starting quarterback going into 2022.

Unfortunate record: The Saints have set an NFL record by using 57 different starters this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They can credit both a barrage of injuries and COVID-19 issues for that (Book, offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch and receiver Easop Winston Jr. all made their 2021 starting debuts Monday night). The record is still in play, however, because the Houston Texans are at 56 and counting while they deal with their own COVID-19 issues.

Promising trend: The Saints’ defense put up a good fight one week after shutting out Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady -- even without linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Because the pick-six wasn’t on its ledger, the defense allowed only 259 yards and 13 points. Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore had an interception. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan had two sacks for the second straight week, and defensive end Marcus Davenport added a third.

Eye-popping statistics from ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Because of the pick-six, the Saints have now allowed more points on opening drives this season (7) than they’ve scored (6).

  • The Saints had negative-2 yards in the first quarter. That’s the fewest ever under coach Sean Payton.

  • Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost 24 straight NFL starts, thanks to Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, DeShone Kizer and Book. Quinn was the last to win a game (Week 13 of the 2012 season).

  • The Saints have gone back-to-back games without a TD for the first time since 1997.