Taysom Hill started strong, Jameis Winston closed strong in Saints' preseason opener

BALTIMORE — The first live action of the 2021 season allowed the New Orleans Saints a real look at how their offense might perform depending on whether Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston win the job.

In keeping with the Saints even-handed approach to this competition, both Winston and Hill attempted 12 passes Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens, and Hill played 20 snaps compared to Winston’s 19 snaps. Both quarterbacks had issues with ball security.

The biggest difference then was what they managed to do with those snaps.

New Orleans scored a pair of touchdowns with Winston at the helm, including one beauty of a drive near the end of the first half that Winston capped with a strong touchdown pass to Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Hill twice led the Saints into Ravens territory, but was unable to put points on the board.

The first-team offense belonged to Hill on Saturday night, and the fifth-year pro got off to a tremendous start, completing four of five pass attempts on the opening drive for 62 yards, pushing the ball deep inside Baltimore territory.

Hill was throwing on target and in rhythm — his lone incompletion on the opening drive being a sideline throw he ripped to Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who was not able to corral it after Marcus Peters sneaked a hand in to break the pass up.

The most encouraging part of the drive was the connection Hill established with up-and-coming second-year receiver Marquez Callaway. The pair linked up three times on the opening drive, with two of those plays converting long third downs.

The first was a gain of 10 on third and 9, when Callaway beat Pro Bowl corner Marlon Humphrey on an out-breaking route and Hill pumped a strong throw to the sideline. On the next play, Callaway beat Marcus Peters on the other side of the field, and Hill found him for a gain of 28. Finally, Hill found him one more time, converting a third and 7 with a 23-yard gain that set the Saints up inside the 10-yard line.

It was a strong start, but the rest of Hill’s night unraveled a bit after that last pass to Callaway.

That opening drive resulted in zero points after a Latavius Murray fumble inside the 10-yard line. On the ensuing drive, receiver Ty Montgomery appeared to stop his route when Hill expected him to keep running, and Hill’s throw went directly to Ravens safety Geno Stone.

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Hill’s final drive included another near-interception, and it stalled out near midfield when former LSU linebacker Patrick Queen dropped Hill for a 12-yard loss.

In total, Hill directed three series with the starting offense — one that did not include All-Pro tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, nor offensive weapons Alvin Kamara and Deonte Harris — and twice directed the Saints into Ravens territory. None of those were scoring drives, and two ended in turnovers.

If Hill started fast and petered out, Winston took the opposite approach. He stumbled when handing the ball off to Devonta Freeman on his first snap, and Freeman ultimately fumbled, the Saints’ third turnover of the first quarter.

His two possessions were not especially strong either. Running back Tony Jones was largely responsible for the Saints’ first touchdown drive of the game, accounting for 63 of the 80 yards the Saints covered while Winston completed two of his four attempts. New Orleans followed that up with a three and out that ended with Winston taking an ugly sack.

But Winston was brilliant when the Saints took over near the end of the first half.

After starting the drive with a shaky pass near the sideline to Chris Hogan, Winston caught fire. He completed five consecutive passes to close that drive, including two impressive, consecutive downfield strikes to Ty Montgomery and Juwan Johnson that gained 26 and 33 yards, respectively.

Winston closed the drive off by hanging in the pocket and delivering a strike to Humphrey, who used his big frame and strong hands to box out the defender and make the catch.

It would’ve been a fine end to the half for Winston, but after a quick Ravens turnover he was given one more shot at operating the two-minute warning. He took a deep shot downfield for Humphrey and slightly underthrew the pass. Humphrey, working back through a defensive back to make the catch, tipped it up into the air, leading to the Saints’ fourth turnover of the first half.

It was an imperfect night for both passers, mixing sublime moments with mistakes that could cost the team once the real games arrive.