The Saints Offense Is Ludicrously Complex, And At The Same Time Runs On Some Simple Ideals.
Every week on Sunday morning I tweet out a few things I will be looking for during the game. Generally, these are things I feel will be good barometers for how well the game is going. This week I thought I would post them here first, to give our audience a bit more detail than 140 characters allows. I sat and watched all four New Orleans Saints games from the 2017 season. There are some notable trends in what they do, and gaps in the abilities of their personnel. Every offense and defense has tendencies. Here are the things I think need to be done by the Detroit Lions to beat the Saints on Sunday.
I will start with the obvious: The Saints offense runs through the mind of quarterback Drew Brees. Brees has always lacked the ideal height and arm strength for an NFL Quarterback, but he makes quick decisions that are correct more often than not. He has a throwing motion that is every bit as quick as his decision making. The Saints have built an offense around these two traits.
The Saints offense is the brainchild of head coach Sean Payton. It is a variant of the west coast offense, a style of play that uses some incredibly complex verbiage. The reason for that language that sounds like a poorly programmed artificial intelligence is a very complicated offense. The Saints run one of the least specifically predictable offenses in football. When the saints fake a play, they incorporate more than one player as a matter of course.
When the saints fake a play, they incorporate more than one player as a matter of course. Often the entire offensive line will move as though the offense were running a completely different play. The line, running backs, and strong side receiver will all motion as though a stretch outside zone to the strong side were the call, and Brees will fake the handoff before rifling the ball to the weak side wide receiver who has not moved. They will perform the hallmarks of the counter trey, only to create a pocket for Brees to settle in to after all that motion. This is the overly complex symphony Joe Lombardi was trying to present during his time in Detroit. It is being orchestrated by its composer and performed by a virtuoso in New Orleans.
The Nuts And Bolts Of The Saints Passing Offense
Conceptually at its base the Saints offense is not hard to understand. More often than not on a Saints passing play at least two receivers will be fifteen yards downfield two seconds into the play. They are running option routes. The quarterback and receiver are both required to read the coverage. The route assignment for the receiver changes based on what the defense presents. Most of the time this is when Brees will throw. If he likes the receiver’s chances to be open when the ball gets there he lets it rip. This pushes the safeties back and opens up the field even if the receivers are well covered.
The second hallmark of a Saints passing play is the shallow routes directly underneath those deeper routes. Either a running back or tight end will slide out to the flat, or one of the outside receivers will be on a very short crossing route. If the first read is not there, Brees simply dumps the ball off to one of the underneath routes. The Saints are perfectly happy with a four-yard gain. If that second read is not there, Brees throws the ball away. He almost never delays for long enough to get hit. Not losing yards is the core ethos around which the Saints offense is wrapped.
When the Saints offense does run a called screen they almost always do so past the line of scrimmage, to avoid tackles for losses. Their screen obfuscation is tops in the league. There will often be multiple rapid fakes before the throw. An example plays out as follows. The offensive line and tight end all block for an off-tackle play to that side. The guards pull, the center and strong side tackle fake a poor job of down blocking before sliding out for the screen. The weak side receiver also appears to have done a poor job of blocking anyone. He has coincidentally ended up just underneath the two linemen that failed so miserably in their run blocking assignments. Brees keeps the ball, turns around, and as gently as you might set a baby into a cradle puts the ball into the outstretched hands of the receiver.
The defensive linemen think they have a free shot at chasing the running play down. Even if they sniff out the play-action fake they think they have a free shot at Brees. No defensive lineman is disciplined enough to then sniff out a screen. Ted Ginn gets the ball two yards downfield with two blockers and nothing but defensive backs between him and the end zone.
Running the Ball
The Saints do run a lot of zone concepts, but they do it in a way that attacks the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible. Rather than making Drew Brees run all the way to the running back four yards behind the line, the Saints have the back take a trajectory that gets him to the line more quickly. There are no multi-cut prior to getting to the line of scrimmage plays in the Saints playbook. Their running game is predicated on making a choice, and hitting the crease. If the wrong hole has been chosen, just get back to the line of scrimmage. As with the passing game, the Saints running game starts with ensuring that they do not lose yards.
Not getting with that program is a large part of the reason that Adrian Peterson just found himself traded to the Cardinals. Saints running backs have the first priority of getting to the line of scrimmage. If they want to get cute, they can do it on the second level of the defense. This is how the Saints have historically been able to run the ball with players like Tim Hightower and Khyri Robinson. Just like Brees, they make a quick decision and go with it. They run the same running plays that the Lions do, the Saints offense just do it faster. Alvin Kamara is a very dangerous player in this offense. He is a good sized running back, but he gets small when weaving his way through traffic.
How Do The Lions Beat That?
Tight coverage on the outside receivers, and disrupting the middle of the offensive line is how you beat that. The timing of a Saints passing play is based on precise route running on the outside. The corners need to interfere with that timing. This will force Brees to hold on to the ball longer than he would prefer. That gives linebackers more time to react to the underneath routes, and the pass rushers more time to get to Brees. Without disrupting the outside receivers patterns, a herculean effort is required of an edge rusher to get home before Brees gets the ball out. When the Saints receivers get a free release their entire offense is dangerous.
The Saints offensive line is terrible at pass blocking up the middle, and Brees is a relatively short quarterback. A player like A’Shawn Robinson feasts on days like this. Robinson pushes the pocket into a quarterback’s face and then gets his hands into passing lanes. If the Lions defensive tackle group can go through not around the Saints interior linemen all that fakery doesn’t matter. It also causes problems for the Saints running game to have offensive linemen in the backfield. Former Lion Larry Warford still can’t zone block, and he’s their right guard now.
The linebackers and safeties need to be incredibly disciplined and not over-pursue. All of that movement along the line is designed specifically to interfere with linebacker reads. Jarrad Davis has never seen anything like this. Sunday is going to be a big test for the Lions defense. The Saints have won two straight, and while their defense has been great, their offense is the primary reason why.