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‘He was ready for the moment’: Why Taysom Hill’s first career start at QB for Saints was a success

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) runs off the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans.
Tyler Kaufman, Associated Press

Taysom Hill made the most out of his first chance to start an NFL game at quarterback Sunday, helping lead the New Orleans Saints to a 24-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The fact the win came against a NFC South rival and kept the Saints in the running for the NFC’s top seed just added to the moment, as Hill — who’s developed a reputation for his jack-of-all-trades abilities — passed the test in his first opportunity to earn a win as a starting quarterback in the pros.

“To be able to come out and get a win in my first start was gratifying, more than anything,” said Hill, who told reporters after the game he spent time reflecting this week on his NFL journey. That journey has included going undrafted, joining the Saints off waivers from Green Bay and spending much of the past four seasons as a utility player on offense and special teams.

The opportunity for Hill, of course, came after teammate and friend, All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, went on injured reserve this past week with a reported 11 fractured ribs and a collapsed lung. How well Hill performed Sunday would be a reflection of how much could be expected of the former BYU quarterback, if he’s given the chance to stay in the starting lineup while Brees is out.

“He played tremendous,” said Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who caught a game-high nine receptions from Hill for 104 yards. “I could tell all throughout the week, his preparation, I could see the look in his eyes. He was ready for the moment, every day. He found a way to win today.”

What did Hill show against the Falcons?

Hill’s dual-threat ability was on display

Hill, whose speed and strength have become his trademark, is known for his ability to make plays in the run game. The question, though, was how he could handle the pressure of being in the pocket and delivering passes at the pro level, which he largely hasn’t been asked to do much of until now.

Hill passed the first test, completing 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards, good enough for a 108.9 QB rating with a 78.2% completion percentage. In addition to connecting with the All-Pro Thomas many times throughout the day, Hill completed a 44-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders — even if the pass did float on him — that set up the Saints’ first touchdown, and helped New Orleans rally from an early 9-3 deficit to score the final 21 points of the game.

Another pass to Sanders — a 57-yarder for what looked like a touchdown — was wiped out by a holding penalty.

“We featured some heavy play-actions,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We felt like it was going to be a lot of down-safety defense. I thought that we threw the ball downfield well. I was proud of the execution.”

On one second-half touchdown drive, he completed 4 of 5 passes for 54 yards, including a 25-yard connection with running back Latavious Murray that moved New Orleans deep into Atlanta territory.

“I was proud of him to just lean on the guys around him. You know, don’t take all those hits running the ball,” Thomas said of Hill’s passing-game efforts. “You know, lean on us, allow us to make it right. Let’s compliment each other. And I feel like that’s what we did.”

Hill said the game plan was to cut back significantly on the number of designed runs for him. “What you saw at the game in terms of carries is about what I expected,” he said.

Still, by game’s end, Hill’s ability to make things happen running the ball came into play, as he scored two rushing touchdowns in the second half in helping the Saints build a two-score lead. The first came on a fourth-and-goal from the 2, when Hill charged up the middle for a touchdown. The second showed off his scrambling abilities, as Hill ran left out of the pocket and beat a defender to the pylon for a 10-yard touchdown.

“I always know that I have the ability, if things break down, that I can make a play,” Hill said.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) carries past Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen (37), defensive end Steven Means (55) and defensive end Charles Harris (92) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.
Butch Dill, Associated Press

He showed the ability to shake off mistakes

Hill and the Saints offense got off to a slow start, as the team had a pair of three-and-outs in its first four possessions. He was sacked three times, including on the first three-and-out to start the game.

Hill nearly threw an interception at the goal line on New Orleans’ second possession as well, when the Saints scored their first points on a field goal. Even then, New Orleans settled for three after reaching the Atlanta 4.

The most glaring mistake for Hill came in the fourth quarter when Hill — on a rare designed run — gained 20 yards before having the ball stripped at the Atlanta 21. The Falcons recovered, and the Saints missed the opportunity to turn a 24-9 lead into more.

“I felt that was a drive where we could have just put the game away,” Hill said.

Still, Hill found ways to keep the Saints offense moving, as New Orleans put up 378 yards of total offense. He also converted multiple third-and-shorts in the second half with his legs, running for 6 yards on a third-and-3 on New Orleans’ final scoring drive and converting two third-and-1 plays on the Saints’ final drive to help New Orleans run down the clock.

The Saints defense played a huge role in the win, sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan eight times and intercepting him twice. While the veteran Atlanta QB put up similar passing yardage numbers to Hill — he finished with 232 — Ryan completed just 19 of 37 passes as Hill and the Saints offense thrived in the second half, while the Atlanta offense didn’t score in its final six possessions.

“I thought he played well,” Payton said of Hill. “Had the one turnover late in the game in the four-minute (offense), we had a big touchdown pass called back. But it was a good team win. ...

“Your first start ever in the NFL — I think he called one formation flipped around the wrong way — and all of that kind of calmed down and he got very comfortable with the flow of the game and did a good job. We did a good job up front, I thought, blocking them.”

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) drops back to pass in the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.
Butch Dill, Associated Press

How the win could impact the Saints going forward

New Orleans entered the day tied with the Packers at 7-2 this season, though Green Bay had the tiebreaker with a head-to-head win over the Saints earlier this year. New Orleans moved into the top spot in the NFC playoff race, though, with the win and Green Bay falling to Indianapolis in overtime.

Up next for Hill and the Saints is a matchup at 4-6 Denver, followed by a road game at 3-7 Atlanta. Brees is guaranteed to miss those games — he will miss at least three games, being on injured reserve.

Hill showed gratitude for having the 41-year-old Brees there to help as he prepared for the start this week.

“I didn’t fully understand what it took to be a starter in the NFL until I got here and had the opportunity to learn from Drew,” Hill said. “Drew was with me every step of the way this week as we watched film. He was constantly asking me what I needed and how he could be helpful. He was so critical, such a comfort for me to have around.”

The win, too, appeared to help bolster trust in other teammates as well, following a week in which many outsiders wondered if Hill would start Sunday, or if it would be Jameis Winston, the fellow backup quarterback who was a five-year starter in Tampa Bay before joining the Saints this offseason.

“I feel like me and Taysom have the same chip on our shoulder,” Thomas said. “We’re always trying to come out here and prove people wrong … Taysom’s a dog. Who cares what anyone else says? He’s a baller.”