Taysom Hill proves rushing ability, but throws four picks to doom Saints

NEW ORLEANS – For a minute there, it looked like Taysom Hill’s legs might just inject some life into the New Orleans Saints’ flailing offense on Thursday night. But then the wheels came off when he threw three interceptions of his four total in a fourth-quarter implosion, allowing the Dallas Cowboys to run away with a 27-17 victory.

The Saints (5-7) have now lost five consecutive games in the same season for the first time in the Sean Payton era. The only glimmer of hope left for their playoff chances is that they’ll have nine days off before visiting the New York Jets in Week 14. And by then, offensive stars like Alvin Kamara, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk might be back from injuries.

But it’s hard to expect a miracle finish after New Orleans has been regressing at such a rapid pace over the past five weeks.

The Saints kept things relatively close Thursday night during Hill’s first start of the 2021 season at quarterback. But once they were forced to play catchup in the fourth quarter, that didn’t suit Hill’s game as well.

“I feel like we did some things really well tonight, and then we did some things really poorly,” said Hill, who admitted that “you start pressing” toward the end of the game, which included a pick-six by defensive tackle Carlos Watkins with 2:52 remaining in the game when New Orleans was trailing by 10.

Hill said he was trying to throw a shallow cross on that play, but Watkins hung back instead of rushing.

“Obviously it’s tough to win a game turning the ball over four times,” Hill said. “That’s obviously the thing that jumps out to you that’s disappointing.”

QB breakdown: Hill finished 19 of 41, passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns (including a 70-yarder to Deonte Harris in the final minutes). He threw four total interceptions (including a deep ball in heavy traffic in the second quarter that tipped off receiver Kenny Stills’ hands). And he finished with 101 rushing yards on 11 carries (including a spectacular hurdle over a Cowboys defender).

Chances are, Hill will get another chance to start, especially considering that he was dealing with a partially torn plantar fascia that he suffered in Week 10 and then a new injury to the middle finger on his right throwing hand in the first quarter Monday night that required a splint. Hill said the splint took some getting used to, but he said it didn’t affect his throwing too much.

Regardless, Hill will need to improve his accuracy going forward to stick in the role.

“I thought he played with a lot of heart, a lot of guts. We didn’t help him any in the first half,” said Payton, who suggested that he thought Stills should have caught that first interception.

Payton also said he tried a number of ways to help out the Saints’ two backup OTs. But Hill completed just 1 of 12 passes for 12 yards with an interception when he was pressured, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Expect Hill’s running ability to continue to be a big part of the plan going forward after he ran for 75 of his yards in the third quarter Monday.

“I made a comment to Coach at halftime, ‘Hey, I like some of those QB runs,’” Hill said before laughing. “I didn’t know we were gonna call ‘em all on the next drive. But I felt like that was just kind of nice to get into a little bit of a rhythm, get the ball moving and just get going. You know, I’m a physical player.”

Pivotal play: Cowboys running back Tony Pollard broke the game open with a 58-yard touchdown run on a toss to the outside that gave Dallas a 20-10 lead late in the third quarter. Up until that point, Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott combined for just 20 yards on 11 carries against New Orleans’ normally stout run defense. But the Saints missed some tackles early in the scrum, then deep safety Marcus Williams took a poor approach near the end of the play instead of trying to chase Pollard down near the sideline.

Pivotal misplay: The Saints squandered a great scoring opportunity on the first play of the fourth quarter when they were facing a third-and-2 on Dallas’ 26-yard line. The Saints dialed up a screen pass -- but the Cowboys were all over it, and rookie sensation Micah Parsons didn’t even give Hill a chance to throw the ball away. He was sacked for an 11-yard loss, forcing a punt instead.

Troubling trend: For the second time in four weeks, the Saints were victims of a dubious personal foul penalty that had coach Sean Payton livid and yelling at officials. This time, it was an illegal blindside block penalty against Saints tight end Garrett Griffin, nullifying a first-down pass and leading to a punt when the Saints were trailing 13-10 in the third quarter. Three weeks ago, it was a controversial roughing the passer call in a two-point loss at Tennessee.

Eye-popping stat: Slow starts have been one of many issues for the Saints offense this year, regardless of the quarterback. They have scored three total points on opening drives this season -- lowest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Falcons are the only other team with zero touchdowns on opening drives.