Can C.J. Spiller Help the New Orleans Saints' Offense?

With the defense struggling again, the Saints offense has to find ways to outscore opponents.

The New Orleans Saints need help.

The offense  has a minus-five turnover ratio on the season and has trouble sustaining drives. The defense has been floundering for years under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Watch any Saints game, and you are almost guaranteed to witness a shouting match between head coach Sean Payton and Ryan.

The offense has been solid this season, ranking 10th in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play while averaging 387 yards per game. Though the yardage is there, the Saints have trouble putting points on the board, ranking 21st in the NFL at 20.6 points per game. Their Adjusted NEP per play score suggests they should be putting more points on the board than they are.

The offense isn’t the juggernaut of seasons past, but the defense is as bad as ever, currently ranking last in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. The Saints defense allow a 29th-ranked 28.6 points per game and a league-worst 409.0 yards per game. It is shocking Ryan hasn’t been sent packing yet.

According to our nERD metric, which indicates by how many points a team would be expected to beat or lose to an average team on a neutral field, the Saints currently rank 26th in our power rankings.

Based on our algorithms, the Saints have just a 4.6% chance of making the playoffs. Sitting in last place in the NFC South, our algorithms give the Saints just a 0.4% chance of winning the division. Currently atop the division at 5-0, the Atlanta Falcons have a 65.4% probability to be division champions.

The odds are against them, but the Saints still have a slim chance of making the playoffs. Facing the undefeated Falcons on Thursday night, this may be the Saints' last stand to save their season.

The Spiller Effect

Running back C.J. Spiller signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Saints this off season. Unfortunately, Spiller can’t play corner back or take over defensive coordinator duties from Ryan. But could Spiller be the playmaker the Saints' offense needs?

Spiller was expected to be the uber-Darren Sproles for the Saints, after five up and down seasons in Buffalo. Missing Weeks 1 and 2 after arthroscopic knee surgery in the preseason, Spiller’s usage was expected to rise each week, according to Payton. That has yet to happen.

After ripping off an 80-yard game winning touchdown reception in overtime in Week 4 versus the Cowboys, Spiller’s usage was again expected to increase last week. Instead he saw just 6 total touches -- rushing for 10 yards on 3 carries and turning 3 catches into -8 yards.

Yet to receive the touches needed, Spiller has failed to make a weekly impact on offense. He has just 20 touches on the year for 163 total yards and 1 touchdown. Take away Spiller’s 80-yard game winner, and he has just 83 yards on 19 touches. Not good numbers for a player with his speed and breakaway talents.

Spiller’s Rushing NEP per attempt is -0.09, while his Reception NEP per target is 0.92. 

Producing just two positive Rushing NEP seasons out of five seasons with the Bills, Spiller has been declining analytically since 2012. In 2012, Spiller netted a Rushing NEP of 25.45 on 207 carries (0.12 per carry) with a very high success rate of 49.28%. In 2013, those marks dropped to -12.74 (-0.06 per carry on 201 carries) with a Success Rate of 34.83%. On 77 carries in 2014, they got even worse: a Rushing NEP of -15.70, -0.20 per carry, and a Success Rate of just 31.17%.

His best season statistically was, unsurprisingly, in 2012. Spiller rushed for 1,244 yards on the ground, caught 43 passes for 459 yards, and finished with 8 total touchdowns. Those numbers dropped dramatically in 2013 as he battled a high ankle sprain for much of the season. Spiller failed to rush for 1,000 yards, had just 185 yards receiving, and just 2 touchdowns. In his final season in Buffalo, he played in a career low 9 games after breaking his collarbone, ending his season early.

Spiller has never been the most consistent runner in the league, and has battled his share of injuries. Offensive mastermind Sean Payton was expected to fix Spiller’s inconsistencies. Instead, Spiller never sees the field.

The Need for a Playmaker

Rostering perhaps the worst receiver corps in the NFL, someone has to step up for the Saints to help quarterback Drew Brees. The loss of Jimmy Graham had many anticipating the Saints offense to take a step back.

After a shoulder injury that forced him to miss Week 3, Brees has put the team on his back again, producing his best Passing NEP per drop back (0.30) since 2011. Brees has thrown for more than 300 yards in 3 out of 4 games, passing for 6 touchdowns but also turning the ball over 5 times.

The Saints were expected to rely more on the run with the loss of Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills, and former number one receiver Marques Colston aging rather quickly. Emerging last season after many had written him off, Mark Ingram produced his first positive Rushing NEP per carry of his career last season at 0.04. Ingram rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games. He has stayed consistent year over year with a 0.05 Rushing NEP to start this season. The problem is, because of the Saints' horrible defensive efforts each week, they are usually forced to abandon the run. Ingram’s passing game usage has increased this season, catching 24 passes after only 29 receptions last year.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks has yet to step into the lead receiver role the Saints need from him. Coming off his first 100-yard game of the season on Sunday, Cooks has caught 25 of 40 targets for 322 yards and 1 touchdown on the year. Not terrible production but not the numbers the Saints need from him.

Second-year wide receiver Willie Snead has seen his usage increase each week and appears have taken over as the number two option in the passing game. Snead has 381 receiving yards and a touchdown on 22 receptions. Among 63 receivers with at least 20 targets through Week 5, Snead ranks 21st in Reception NEP (30.42) and 9th in Reception NEP per target (0.92). Cooks (25.26 and 0.63) ranks 29th and 40th.

Preseason hype machine Brandon Coleman and over the hill and now injured Marques Colston have failed to make much impact on offense. 

Although the sample size for Spiller as a Saint is small, he can be a difference maker. He has demonstrated that ability when with the Bills. The problem for Spiller has been staying healthy. The Saints have been relying on a dink and dunk offense to move the ball and need Spiller’s breakaway speed and playmaking ability. The only way is to give him the ball. At his current usage rate there was no reason for the Saints to have paid Spiller in the offseason.

Because the defense wouldn’t be able to stop a Terry Bradshaw-led Fox Sports crew on the field, the offense is going to have to outscore opponents. A big test coming at home against division leader Atlanta Thursday night, Spiller could help take some pressure off Brees. Underutilized by Payton up to this point, Spiller has to be more involved on offense.