While talking with Peter King for an article that ran in Sports Illustrated's 2011 NFL season preview issue, Saints coach Sean Payton pulled up tape of a play from his team's game with the Jets in 2009, Rex Ryan's first season as head coach.
King's description of the play: New York had a left defensive end over New Orleans's right tackle, no one over the right guard, center or left guard, a defensive end over the left tackle and a standup linebacker on the end's right shoulder. Quarterback Drew Brees stood at the line figuring what to do. Linebackers and defensive backs moved around, showing nothing. "And here they come," said Payton. "They knock at the front door with one guy, then shove 10 through the back."
The Jets' unexpected alignment was even more extreme on the play before, generating enough pressure up front to throw Brees' timing off-kilter. Just as on the play that Payton showed King, the Jets lined up with two defensive linemen, three linebackers and six DBs.
Here's how it looked, pre-snap:
"Football," Payton told King, "has become the battle of confusion."
Fast-forward to this past Sunday, and a game between the Falcons and Payton's Saints. Trailing by four in the final minute, the Falcons marched all the way to the New Orleans' 3, where they faced a third-and-goal. Matt Ryan proceeded to throw an incompletion and then an interception, securing the victory for the Saints.
It was far from a by-the-book defensive alignment that got the job done for New Orleans on that final play. The only player on the line for the Saints just prior to the snap was OLB Junior Galette (circled below), over right tackle Lamar Holmes. Next to Galette, from top to bottom in this photo, were LB Ramon Humber, DE Cam Jordan and LB Curtis Lofton.
Galette, Jordan and Lofton formed a three-man rush, with everyone else dropping into coverage.
Another look at what Ryan had directly in front of him at the snap. Jordan, from a three-point stance two yards away from the line of scrimmage, charged into the A-gap between center Peter Konz and right guard Garrett Reynolds. Aided by a running start, Jordan split those two linemen and pressured Ryan up the middle.
The fourth Saints defender mentioned, Humber, faked a blitz of his own, then drifted to his left to cover Jacquizz Rodgers out of the backfield. New Orleans had seven defensive backs defending Atlanta's four other options on the play: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez.
Douglas eventually came open, after a collision of five players -- three Saints defenders, White and Douglas -- resulted in two Saints tracking Jones and a third tumbling to the ground. The only other eligible receiver who found himself in one-on-one coverage was Rodgers, who was blanketed by Humber well outside the end zone.
Ryan did not have time to wait for Douglas to come free, due to the pass rush generated. Instead, he tried to float one up to a double-covered Gonzalez. Kenny Vaccaro tipped the ball into the arms of Roman Harper, who secured the interception for a Saints victory.
The Saints were less successful (though produced a similar result) on Ryan's 3rd-and-goal passing attempt. Jordan was further to his right before the snap, but the setup was essentially the same, with Galette lining up as a DE and the rest of the Saints' front disguising their plans.
Ryan beat the scattered look there, finding Steven Jackson out of the backfield at the goal line for what should have been a touchdown. Jackson, however, dropped the pass, setting the stage for the failed fourth-down attempt.
The Falcons themselves have used a similar "amoeba defense" -- basically, a defensive set with less than the traditional three- or four-man fronts and a lot of movement pre-snap. Atlanta beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 2 last season by turning to that unique approach constantly, often putting six-plus defenders at the line, then dropping at least half back into zone coverage.
The attempt to disguise defenses certainly is nothing new in the NFL, nor is it restricted just to Atlanta and New Orleans.
In fact, the Saints' Week 2 foe, Tampa Bay, got a taste of it on Sunday from the Jets -- still under Ryan's leadership, with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in tow. One such play resulted in a costly interception from QB Josh Freeman.
Tampa Bay had a 14-5 lead when it occurred, just prior to halftime, but the Jets eventually turned that miscue into a touchdown. The Buccaneers were facing a 3rd-and-7 at their own 44 on the play in question. New York started to line up with just two down linemen, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leger Douzable.
After Freeman dropped back from the line and set for the snap, though, the Jets pushed five more guys up front, showing a heavy blitz. Three of the defenders then dropped out after the snap, while corner Isaiah Trufant sprinted into the backfield to Freeman's throwing side. That pressure forced Freeman to get rid of the ball a little more quickly than he might have preferred.
The dropping linebackers wreaked havoc downfield, too. David Harris and Demario Davis, even with their backs turned to Freeman, were in strong enough to limit Freeman's window. Instead of being able to zip one in to Vincent Jackson (in red below), Freeman tried to float one over the second-level linebackers and in front of safety Dawan Landry (in yellow).
The ball sailed right into Landry's arms for the INT. Freeman's best option on the play probably was Kevin Ogletree, up at the top of the picture in one-on-one coverage. However, the blitz disguise from Trufant -- who initially showed a press look on Ogletree -- and the subsequent pressure from that direction lured Freeman elsewhere.
These constantly-changing schemes have helped defenses counter the advantages provided offenses over the years. For a team like the Saints, they are extremely valuable because they can help mask some of the deficiencies on the roster. New Orleans had the league's worst defense in 2012 and was battered by injuries before Week 1 even rolled around. Rather than try to play straight-up on defense 100 percent of the time with a depleted cast, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan opted to mix and match against the Falcons .
That formation from Atlanta's final two snaps allowed Ryan to keep a couple of his most athletic DE/OLB-type players (Jordan and Galette) on the field, while also giving him enough numbers to counter a four-receiver look and get in Ryan's face. Those strategies will not always work, as Ryan and the Saints nearly found out on third down. But when defenses can confound a quarterback and his teammates to such a degree that there is chaos in all areas -- at the line, in the backfield, downfield -- it unquestionably shifts the pendulum in their favor.