Week 8: the week of the backup QBs. In New Jersey, Mike White, making his first career start for the Jets, beat Joe Burrow. In Minnesota, Cooper Rush, making his first career start for the Cowboys, beat Kirk Cousins. P.J. Walker got the save for Carolina in relief of the concussed Sam Darnold to beat Atlanta. Geno Smith got his first post-Russell Wilson win in Seattle against the Triple-A Jaguars.
In Louisiana, Siemian had the toughest task of them all.
But it wasn’t impossible. On Saturday night, Siemian sat in on the weekly Dot Meeting that Payton has with his quarterbacks. That’s the meeting Payton and his coaches discuss with Winston what he likes and what he wants called in every section of the play sheet. Payton takes Winston’s input and, with a black sharpie, puts a bold dot next to the plays Winston wants to run. Usually Payton dots about 40 to 50 plays on the big laminated piece of oak tag and calls most the next day. But there’s also info about the foe that’s valuable. On this day, for instance, when singled against a Saints receiver, well-traveled Tampa Bay corner Pierre Desir would be a New Orleans target.
One other thing when the third-stringer’s in the game: Some of the guys on the scout team might suddenly be in favor. Why? Because those are the guys a Siemian is used to throwing to. White, for instance. And tight end Garrett Griffin. “I guarantee you, early in the week, there was no play in our gameplan that tried to get the ball to Griff. But weird things happened in this game.” On his first full possession, spawned by a Cam Jordan strip-sack of Brady, Siemian found Griffin (one career reception) for 12 and then for 14 over the middle; those helped get in position for a field goal and a 10-7 Saints lead.
Again Brady helped the Saints’ cause two minutes before halftime, throwing an interception that gave Siemian a 35-yard field to lengthen the lead. Siemian hit the speedy Tre’Quan Smith—singled by Desir—for 15 on the right sideline. With 30 seconds left, the Saints had a third-and-goal at the Tampa four-foot line. “Big third down here,” Troy Aikman said on TV. “Big.”
“We’re in goal-line offense,” Payton said, “but Tampa doesn’t get subs in for the base defense.” The interesting thing is, not subbing was good for Tampa, because the Saints had no plans to run it; the more cover guys the better. Lavonte David, Devin White, Antoine Winfield Jr., all were ready if Payton called a pass. The logical receiver was tight end Adam Trautman, tight left. What was interesting here: Payton called for Mark Ingram (he’s back) deep in the backfield and little-used fullback Alex Armah in front of him. Siemian under center. The Bucs loaded the middle of the defense, respecting Ingram. At the snap, Armah didn’t block and didn’t pretend to. Instead, the pride of the University of West Georgia sprinted left, toward the pylon, while Ingram got a play-action fake. It was like the defense said, Alex Armah? Who? He hasn’t been targeted once all season.
I don’t want to overrate Payton, or overstate his importance. But look at this play. Siemian, the third quarterback. Ingram, acquired in trade for a pittance from Houston last Wednesday. Armah, a September practice-squad player with zero targets all season. This is the weaponry Sean Payton threw at the mighty Bucs, the Super Bowl champs, on a vital play in a 10-7 game just before halftime.
“Bill Parcells used to say, ‘Know who you’re throwing to,’ “ Payton said. “Trevor’s throwing to a classic fullback. Any inaccuracy with the throw, and it’s not a touchdown. Cool and calm. Right in stride.” With David and White in pursuit, the only throw to Armah this season was a classic strike. At the half, Tampa led 16-7.
If you had Trevor Siemian throwing a TD Pass to Alex Armah on your bingo card, check it off now
— PFF NO Saints (@PFF_Saints) October 31, 2021
Now, time for West Virginia Big 20, 85 Delta Go. That’s Kevin White’s play. “West Virginia” is for White’s college, where he played for two years before being Chicago’s first-round pick in 2015. Yes, Kevin White, with all of 25 catches in his NFL career entering Sunday, has a play. Payton likes players on their last NFL legs. They’re desperate, and they aim to please. “Kevin knows this is probably it, and I kinda like him,” Payton said. The Saints were getting the second-half kickoff, and if Payton got the look he hoped for on first down, he wanted Siemian to pick on Desir.
So here it was, first play of the second half, Tampa Bay never expecting Siemian to air it out. But White split out right. Desir was on him one-on-one. No safety help.
This was gold.
“Kevin’s one of the guys I get some reps with on the scout team,” Siemian said. “If there’s a receiver on the team I’d have some chemistry with, Kevin would be one. I love throwing him the ball.”
White got by Desir maybe 15 yards into his route down the right sideline. By that time, Siemian had already let it go, 39 yards in the air from quarterback to receiver, the ball perfectly nestling into White’s arms. Gain of 38, Siemian’s longest of the day. On FOX, play-by-play man Joe Davis was stunned: “KEVIN WHITE! KEVIN WHITE, OF ALL PEOPLE, WITH HIS FIRST RECEPTION IN THREE YEARS! WHO ARE THESE GUYS!”
Trevor Siemian to Kevin White for 38 YARDS!!! 🙌#TBvs NO | 📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/RZB9nOkx9a
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 31, 2021
Trevor Siemien, Alex Armah, Kevin White. Those are the guys who slayed the dragon Sunday in the Superdome. They had help in Saints 36, Bucs 27. Where does this leave the Saints? They’re 5-2, a half-game behind Tampa Bay. The Bucs have a bye this week and New Orleans hosts Atlanta, which means the Saints could be tied for the NFC South lead at 6-2 with Tampa Bay a week from today. Payton wasn’t discussing his quarterback situation going forward Sunday night. But he could have a decision to make if Winston, as expected, will be gone for the season. Siemian or Taysom Hill, the annual Saints’ bridesmaid, coming off his concussion? Could be a tough call for Payton.
That wasn’t a worry for Payton, or Siemian, Sunday night. All in all, it’s hard to imagine a bigger regular-season victory for the Saints since Payton took over in 2006. Not the most significant, maybe. I’m talking against all odds, with the third quarterback matching up against the great Brady, the third quarterback against the Super Bowl champs.
“I don’t know,” Payton said, asked if this was his biggest regular-season victory of the 148 he’s won. “I don’t really focus on things like that. I’ve got a closet with game balls and old stuff. I’ve got the Super Bowl pictures. None of it’s displayed. It’s just in bags. Someday, when I’m done . . .”
Payton’s voice trailed off. One last thing.
“Got a text from Mike Krzyzewski tonight,” Payton said. “All about adversity, and winning the games you’re not supposed to win, and when coaching really matters.
“I’ll save it forever.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column