Saints Preview: Beating the 'Blueprint'
The word “blueprint” is grossly overused in pro football these days. But if ever it were apt, it’s in the case of what the Seahawks defense did to the Saints offense last year. On Monday night in Week 13, with deafening noise cascading down at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 yards, blowing them out 34-7. Six weeks later in the divisional round, in front of an even louder CenturyLink crowd and under angry rain clouds, it happened again, as Drew Brees had just 34 yards passing in the first half.
So what “blueprint” did Seattle draft? For one, the home-field advantage helped. As Brees has pointedly told the media, contrary to popular belief, the Saints offense is almost as prolific outdoors as it is in in the Superdome. But the offense, thanks to myriad personnel packages, is very dependent on communication. Bad weather and an uncommonly raucous crowd hinder that.
More than that, though, much of Sean Payton’s play designs attack the middle of the field, which is exactly where Seattle’s defense is designed to swarm. With dominant one-on-one outside corners compressing everything, the Seahawks have extra bodies to use in a smaller area of space. As the Saints found out, that can be overwhelming.
Not every defense has the personnel to play this way, but the Saints also don’t have the dynamic outside receiving weapons to discourage defenses from at least attempting it. Another element of the blueprint: no blitzing. Brees is way too fast at processing information, and Payton is way too committed to giving his so-so offensive tackles chip-block help, creating seven-man protections early in the down (i.e. when most blitzes are built to work).
Defenses can still get pressure on Brees with a four-man rush. It’s often nullified by the 35-year-old’s unbelievable ability to move in the pocket, reset and throw. But if Brees is unable to reset, his arm strength plummets – something we saw more than usual last season. With Brees being too quick of a progression reader, the key becomes eliminating his reads. If you can compress the outsides then a basic coverage scheme—either man or zone, whatever the defense is most comfortable—does the trick, just as long as it’s well-executed.
A simple coverage concept is actually almost mandatory, in fact, because New Orleans’ breadth of different formations and personnel groupings is too immense to constantly react to. There’s not enough time during the week for a defense to design an answer for everything, so it must focus on perfecting a method for stopping general Saints concepts. Hence, the blueprint of crowding the middle of the field.
Doing this is the best way for the defense to force New Orleans to win with individual playmakers. With Payton’s craftiness and Brees’s brilliance driving this juggernaut offense (it has ranked sixth or better in yards every year since the two teamed up in 2006, and second or better five times), that’s what you want to do. Besides Jimmy Graham, who is often the key in a lot of the formation variations, the Saints don’t have players who can consistently win tough matchups on their own.
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Recently, Graham’s versatility was amplified by the versatility of Darren Sproles. The shifty veteran caught 232 balls in his three years in New Orleans and, on the field with Graham, presented nightmarish variables for defensive coordinators to consider. That factor obviously vanished in March when cap-strapped GM Mickey Loomis dealt Sproles (and his $3.5 million salary) to Philadelphia.
Needing a replacement, and needing a playmaker who can create his own opportunities, Loomis dealt a third-round pick to swap pick 27 for pick 20, which he used on Brandin Cooks. The electric 5-10, 190-pounder can provide the lateral agility, speed and quickness that Sproles presented horizontally and underneath. (At least, the Saints hope he can.) Even if Cooks fully blossoms, there will be one stark negative difference between him and Sproles: the ability to come out of the backfield, which Cooks lacks. With this facet diminished, we’ll see more traditional three-receiver formation concepts from Payton.
Included in the formations will be 3 x 1 sets featuring Marques Colston in the tightest slot on the “three receiver” side. This is where the former seventh-round pick has made his career. Often, the alignment creates a favorable mismatch against a linebacker, allowing Colston to dominate with zone-sitting routes and on his meticulously practiced seam patterns. When aligned outside, Colston is a significantly less impactful player.
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Which gets back to the problem of the blueprint. It’s important that second-year wideout Kenny Stills (who has been fighting a quad injury) becomes a more precise vertical route runner outside the numbers. He doesn’t play as fast as his 40 time, but he has enough speed to make it work. Cooks also must bring potency outside.
More than this, though, the Saints can force defenses to alleviate the middle by having more balance from their ground game. Typically, Payton is excellent at staying true to the run, but last season he trended too much towards extremes. At times he got completely away from the run. Other times, he’d go with heavy two-tight end, two-back personnel and commit relentlessly to it. There’s a happy medium to be rediscovered, and when it is, the Saints will get more dimension from their play-action game. It’s a myth that you must run the ball to set up play-action, but having balance from the ground game certainly makes play-action’s execution more natural. It’s bound to force middle defenders to bite at least a little harder.
The Saints have the personnel to win on the ground. Their offensive line is well-sized and, with green but intriguing second-year pro Terron Armstead at left tackle, plus perhaps the league’s best guard tandem in Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, it’s athletic enough to expand some of their zone-blocking designs that have typically been only north-and south-oriented. At running back, Pierre Thomas, one of the best screen players in the league (a critical component of Payton’s system), remains a respectable between-the-tackles runner. Still, he’s been supplanted on the depth chart.
Ahead of Thomas, Mark Ingram hasn’t fulfilled his first-round billing, but in part because there haven’t been enough touches for him. (Why did Payton and Loomis trade up to draft him?) A fresh Ingram did, however, provide a boost down the stretch last season. When he’s on, there’s a liveliness to his game.
It might be difficult once again for Ingram to get consistent touches, however, as many are excited about the potential of Khiry Robinson, an undrafted second-year pro whom Bill Parcells, a longtime confidant of Payton’s, has compared to Curtis Martin.
There is no blueprint for facing the Saints defense. Rob Ryan isn’t married to any core scheme; he’s an extremely opponent-specific game-planner. That’s why you’ll see the Saints take an almost pure coverage-based approach one week (something they’ve done a lot more often than people realize) and come out the next week with a barrage of different slot and safety blitz designs.
This style requires versatile athletes. Ryan’s personnel package of choice is dime, where he can replace two linebackers with an extra corner and safety (or, sometimes, with two extra safeties). Verifying the significance of this, Loomis mustered up a pile of cash and spent heavily on upgrading at free safety—a position where the Saints were relatively strong to begin. Malcolm Jenkins was allowed to walk, with three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd getting $26.3 million in guarantees to replace him.
Byrd is experienced in Mike Pettine’s system from his days in Buffalo. Pettine, who recently came up under Rex Ryan, runs a lot of the same concepts that Rob Ryan uses. Loomis would not have signed Byrd if he weren’t convinced that Ryan would use him in a litany of ways.
One thing Byrd, however, can’t do as effectively as Jenkins is defend slot receivers man-to-man. That shouldn’t be a problem, though, because 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro is proving to be sensational in this sense. If Vaccaro bounces back from the fractured ankle that felled him last December and avoids a third concussion in his young career, he’ll give the Saints the most physical slot presence in football. That physicality applies not only to jamming receivers and tight ends, but also defending the run.
Vaccaro’s multidimensionality gives Ryan options for how to employ his dime package. Included in that package is vicious-hitting safety Rafael Bush and sturdy corner Corey White, who, with Champ Bailey coming aboard, will likely now be the nickel back inside. Opposite Bailey and White is Keenan Lewis, an emerging No. 1 man-to-man corner (just ask Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson).
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With many of Ryan’s pass rush ploys centered around creating the illusion of pressure early in the down, White, Lewis and, someday (though maybe not as early as this season) second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste must be well-honed at jumping shorter passing lanes.
Regarding the rest of the Saints pass rush, many believe it to be ferocious because of this defense’s swarming nature and Cameron Jordan’s breakout 12.5-sack season. But several of Jordan’s sacks were coverage sacks, and it was regularly apparent that the front seven doesn’t have enough speed outside of Junior Galette to consistently generate its own pressure. In a scheme like Ryan’s, there’s nothing wrong with coverage sacks. They illustrate the relentless energy that the system demands, plus they tend to come on three-man rushes, which Ryan loves, especially just inside the red zone.
Jordan is a better run defender than pass rusher, but he plays second fiddle in this department to Akiem Hicks, another movable defensive end who offers thunderous power and, when using proper hand-technique, rare forcefulness in collapsing blocking schemes. Occupying blockers between Hicks and Jordan will be veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and impressive 2013 third-rounder John Jenkins. Behind this group are inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, two fast, attack-minded players who have erupted in Ryan’s scheme.
Shayne Graham was re-signed to a one-year deal after coming aboard late last December and going 4 for 4 (including the game-winner) in the wild-card win at Philadelphia. Punter Thomas Morstead’s 42.3 net average was third best in the league. With Sproles gone, Travaris Cadet, a bottom of the depth chart running back with speed, will take over the return game.