The play itself looks normal enough. Third-and-goal, Drew Brees in the shotgun, three receivers to his right, Alvin Kamara flanked left outside Michael Thomas, and motioning in. Brees takes the snap, shovels the ball to Kamara, who goes wide, cuts back between blocks from rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith and tight end Josh Hill, and prances into the end zone standing.
That three-yard touchdown last week made the score Saints 7, Vikings 0. Quietly, it also said a whole lot more about Sean Payton than you might think.
Payton is 54 now, and it’s been almost 13 years since New Orleans hired him. He’s long since established himself as one of the pre-eminent offensive minds of this era of professional football. And he’s not too proud to admit that he stole that play.
“That was a play seen the week before, Patriots vs. Bears,” Payton said. “Great idea. It fit with what we were doing and had nothing to do with the Vikings. And yet, it applied to their defensive structure. And so, certainly, most of the week is spent watching your opponent’s tape, and yet there’s still going to be a part of the week devoted to the league.”
Go ahead and look it up. You’ll find that, indeed, the Patriots’ last touchdown against the Bears in Week 7 looks pretty much identical to the Saints’ first touchdown against the Vikings in Week 8. Tom Brady in the shotgun. James White motioning in from his left, three receivers to his right. Easy money. A two-yard touchdown, scored, again, standing up.
New Orleans won’t see either of those teams, New England or Chicago, until the postseason, if they see them at all. And yet here’s Payton, in the middle of a game week, with the much-ballyhooed divisional playoff rematch against Minnesota on the horizon, and he’s watching their tape, and applying it days later.
Think of this as Payton’s own school of professional development, and know that it isn’t something he and his staff see as a luxury. It’s a necessity.
“We have to. Yeah, we have to,” Payton continued. “The last thing you want is some trading tip that’s going hot on the floor, and you just didn’t pay attention to it, and everyone else is. Very quickly in our league, a new thought or an idea shows up.”
Now, what’s really cool about this? Payton has a group of offensive coaches from around the league that he makes sure to watch every week. And that list now includes a certain 32-year-old whom he’s up against on Sunday.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll give you a wrecking ball to watch in the LSU/Alabama showdown, a freak to see elsewhere in the SEC, and a bunch of pros to keep an eye on, including Golden Tate’s de facto replacement in Detroit and the Raven who best matches up with Steelers star Antonio Brown. And as always, we’re going to get to your questions.
But we’re starting with Payton, and his 6-1 Saints, and their showdown with the Rams on Sunday at the Superdome, and how Sean McVay and Payton relate to one another, in a way that McVay might not even know about.
As the Saints coach and I were talking on Thursday morning, he was getting ready to go through a folder of red-zone cutups from across the NFL—“and there’ll be four things I write down that will apply to this week’s game, and it won’t be necessarily just against the Rams.” Coaching assistant Kevin Petry puts the package together, as he does reels of all the touchdowns and third-down plays in the league from the week before.
And then, there’s the tape of specific teams that Payton needs to see.
“We have to see the Patriots offensive film each week,” Payton said. “I could go on. I’m not gonna give you everyone, but Kansas City we have to see each week, Philly, there are teams that we feel each week are doing some different things, unique things, that we want to see and we want to capture. And then how does it fit what we’re doing? I think that’s important. I don’t care what age you are, in this league.”
He wants to see, in other words, what the Goldman-Sachs and JP Morgans of the NFL are doing on the league’s trading floor. The Rams, as he sees them, are the new traders of offensive intel. So each week, just as he’ll see what Josh McDaniels and Andy Reid and Doug Pederson are cooking up, Payton has a McVay file ready.
“It’s definitely one of the tapes we’ll look at,” Payton says.
And as he said, as much as the idea is to continue to keep the offense Drew Brees has been running for 13 years growing at frenetic pace, it’s also to keep up with the others that he believes are approaching the race the way the Saints are.
“I don’t think everyone in the league is that way, he said. “But I know if we do something unique, a handful of coaches are watching us.”
In other words, just as he can show you how White’s score in the Bears-Patriots game helped set up Kamara’s touchdown seven days later, he could unearth one of his concepts being cribbed in some other NFL city. And it’s pretty simple, if you think about it. The idea is that you’re only really getting better if you’re getting better at a faster rate than who and what you’re up against.
That’s why, when I brought up the magnitude of this week’s matchup—it could well determine where the NFC title game is played—Payton wasn’t having it. Nor was he much intrigued at comparing this year’s roster, widely believed to be among the best he’s fielded, against his those of his previous years. Or was he worried much about the win-now message the Eli Apple trade could send to his locker room.
“We’re trying to win, and that’s understood to begin with,” he said.
What Payton did raise was the concern that his team, hot as any in the NFL, had to get better on third down on both sides of the ball. And that it needed to get better in the red zone on defense, and generate more explosive plays on offense.
That’s what all the midweek studying is about to Payton – getting better. So this week, of course he’s watched a ton of Rams defensive tape. And as he does every week, he watched the Rams offense. That means the unbeaten juggernaut from the West Coast may be getting a little of its own medicine on Sunday—which, by the way, is as much a sign of respect, from Payton to McVay, as anything.
“Absolutely,” Payton said. “It’s definitely one of the tapes we’ll look at. You’re always looking for ideas and thoughts. [McVay] does a good job with two or three plays that come out of the same formation. There goes a turbo motion, they hand it to the receiver. There goes a turbo motion, and it’s a zone fallback. Then a turbo motion and a play-action. Then on to the next. Shift, Quick bunch, there at the line.
“They stress you a little bit. As the late [Eagles defensive coordinator] Jim Johnson used to say—some of that at-the-line shift-motion is a way for the offense to blitz the defense. And I think he does that extremely well. Splits are narrow, not a lot of big wide splits, so you get a lot of spray-release routes, routes that expand or routes that come across the field. And certainly the quarterback’s got good command of what they’re doing.”
In short, McVay has given Payton plenty to look at over the last 14 months. And the Saints, to be sure, are better for it. Which is why Rams-Saints should be one of the most compelling games of the 2018 season.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Five NFL names in the spotlight for Week 9:
Saints CB Eli Apple: The Rams are as good at it gets at finding your flaws and cutting them open—and the corner spot opposite Marshon Lattimore would have been where they’d have attacked the Saints before the Apple trade. Now? Well, the reason the Saints traded for Apple is right there for you to watch.
Buccaneers QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: Dirk Koetter had a pretty quick hook last time—Fitzpatrick lasted one half after Jameis Winston’s return before being benched. Will he get more rope facing an aggressive Panthers defense? That much will be interesting, considering all the big-picture strings attached to Winston’s future.
Lions WR Kenny Golladay: Detroit’s promising, physically impressive sophomore has disappeared the last two weeks, after notching 27 catches through the team’s first five games. With Golden Tate now gone, Golladay’s reemergence against the Vikings on Sunday would be helpful as the Lions try to keep up in the NFC North.
Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey: Baltimore held Antonio Brown to five catches, 62 yards and a touchdown in Week 4, and Humphrey was square in the middle of that effort. And while he’s now working off the bench behind Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, he’s still the most logical matchup against Brown in the Ravens’ corner corps for the rematch with the Steelers.
Browns QB Baker Mayfield: The rookie is coming off a rough afternoon in Pittsburgh and just lost his head coach and offensive coordinator. And this week, he’ll have the pressure of keeping up with the high-flying Chiefs. So we’ll learn a lot from how he responds.
And two college players to keep an NFL eye on this Saturday:
Kentucky LB Josh Allen (vs. Georgia, CBS, 3:30 p.m.): The Wildcats are 7-1, and Allen is a legitimage candidate for SEC Defensive Player of the Year in a loaded field. He’s a good example of a player who’s benefitted massively from returning to school—Allen would probably have been a late second-round/early third-round pick last year, and he’s now looking at going in the middle of the first round. Athletically, he’s a specimen, and his production is starting to line up with that. Through eight games, has 35 tackles, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles. “Really high character and really athletic,” said an AFC exec of the 6’5”, 250-pounder. “He’s not the most natural pass-rusher, but he’s a twitchy athlete with size and speed.” He projects to the NFL as a Tremaine Edmunds or Anthony Barr-type linebacker hybrid who can play all over your defense. And he should make plays this week, given the youth of the Bulldogs’ offensive line.
Alabama DL Quinnen Williams (at LSU, CBS, 8 p.m.): The Tide’s NFL prospect machine churns all over the field, but nowhere more efficiently it does than along the defensive line. Williams is a great example—a first-year starter who’s already a monster and expected to declare after this, his redshirt sophomore season. Going into 2018, Raekwon Davis gave Bama a very good shot at having an interior D-lineman go in the first round for the third straight year, following Jonathan Williams and Da’Ron Payne. Williams is now making it seem like a forgone conclusion that it’ll be four in three years in April. “Totally different skill set than [Davis]—this guy is more an upfield, disruptive penetrator. You explosive, blow s--- up type … the Ed Oliver type, but he’s a bigger body. Just a superior athlete who’s hard to block because he’s so quick.” He’s listed at 6’4”, but the expectation is he’ll come in at around 6’2” and 290 pounds and project as a 3-technique. The big question: What happens when a team runs right at him? LSU should give us answers on Saturday night.
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From Lord Viking Gylltur (@LGylltur) With all the trades, which player will have an immediate impact? Learning a new system or schemes, which player has landed in the best situation?
I love the Redskins getting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Green Bay. Jay Gruden has built his roster through the lines and up the middle, and Clinton-Dix, on paper at least, should free the coaches to be more aggressive in using D.J. Swearinger (in the midst of a career year) toward the line of scrimmage. And while Clinton-Dix has had an up-and-down career, he’s playing for a contract, so he should be locked in.
The other one who jumps off the page at me is Golden Tate in Philly. With LeGarrette Blount gone and Jay Ajayi on the shelf, it feels like the Eagles have lost a little of their offensive edge—and that’s exactly what Tate brings. The Lions coaches loved what Tate brought to the table. Letting him go was matter of getting a strong return for a player they were probably a few months from losing anyway.
How do these two do fit? Clinton-Dix is probably playing a pure centerfield role in D.C. And Tate, while ideally a slot, can be moved all over the place. The league leader in YAC over the last two years, he should really help an offense that’s struggled some on third down.
From John Kliewer (@johnkliewer): Who can the Chiefs trade for to improve their defense?
You want the bad news or the really bad news, John? The bad news is that Kansas City’s swings for guys like Earl Thomas and Landon Collins didn’t connect. The really bad news is that the trade deadline has come and gone. So they can’t trade for anyone. Sorry to let you down there.
Now, there actually is some good news. The Chiefs’ defensive teardown (outside of the injuries to Justin Houston and Eric Berry) has come largely by design. They decided after taking it on the chin from the Steelers (again) last January that they needed to get tougher and more athletic on that side of the ball. And they knew that meant getting younger, which meant taking some bumps.
The upshot is that there’s reason to believe they’ll improve as they go along. The staff has faith that rookies Breeland Speaks, Dorian O’Daniel and Derrick Nnadi will ascend in the front seven over the course of the next few months. All three are already entrenched in significant roles—Speaks played 92 percent of the defensive snaps against Denver, Nnadi played 49 percent and O’Daniel played 38 percent.
From Matthew Jeronimus (@geronimosince84): Can the Jaguars still make the playoffs after a disastrous first half of the season?
Of course they can. They’re only two games out in the AFC South with a loaded roster, a good coaching staff and playoff experience. And I think the trade of Dante Fowler is exactly what the team needed. The bottom line is the old Seattle-like mix of personalities in the locker room has become volatile. It’s why Doug Marrone suspended Jalen Ramsey in August. It’s part of why the Jags dealt Fowler.
That’s not to say Fowler’s a bad guy. He’s not. But his maturity issues contributed to the problem—even as he’d grown since his first couple years in the league, when he incurred fines like I lose my keys—and he made more sense as the one to offload than Ramsey or Yannick Ngakoue. The Jags plan to re-sign those two, and they weren’t going extend a former third overall pick playing 32 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
And yup, much of this still rides on Blake Bortles’ ability to get his act together. But his play hasn’t been the only thing wrong in Jacksonville, so we’ll see if fixing this other problem has the affect the Jags are hoping for.
From Gary Zwick (@garyzwick): Any near-term hope for Raiders fans? Asking for a friend.
Gary, yes! Watch college football. There’s a lot of hope for you there. The Raiders, as it stands now, would have the second, 12th and 21st picks in the draft. And if you want a replacement for Khalil Mack, this year’s class—positively loaded with defensive linemen—is a good place to find one. So take a look at Houston’s Ed Oliver, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Allen. Or you could watch this right here.
In all seriousness, everyone should have listened closer to what Jon Gruden was telling us in the summer. He felt the roster was a couple years—meaning a couple free-agent classes and a couple draft classes—from being where he wanted it. And if that’s how you see it, making the deals the Raiders made is logical. They weren’t going to pay Amari Cooper. And they couldn’t give Mack the guarantee he wanted.
So if I’m you, I watch Derek Carr closely over the next two months and see how he and Gruden are working together, and whether or not the feeling that Carr is a square (spread QB) peg in a round (West Coast offense) hole is valid. Then, gear up for the draft, which your team is going to control.
From Frank Romano (@Fromano24): Do you buy or sell the fact that Lincoln Riley will head to the NFL (Cleveland or another team) next season? If you buy, will he succeed or will we see yet another transcendent college coach fail in the league?
I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but what I can say with some authority is I believe A) every team with an opening will make at least a cursory call to his camp, and B) he is no rush to leave Oklahoma. The fact is, the job he has is better than most NFL jobs, and he’s got that place humming now. So the opportunities will likely be there in two or three years, the same way they will be in few months.
And from there, I’ll say that just about everyone I know who’s come across him believes he’s absolutely brilliant. In one specific way, his coaching philosophy is identical to Sean McVay’s—he uses formations, personnel groupings and motion to make what’s simple for his players complicated for the opponent. Like McVay, he’s also good with people and humble enough to not think he’s got all the answers.
Would it work in the NFL? I think it would. But again, he’s not going to go just anywhere. I know there are many who believe Dallas (the Jones family loves him, and has background with him from Oklahoma’s recruitment of Stephen Jones’s son John Stephen) will at some point make a hard run at him. That’s the one, I think, that would be tough for him to say no to.
From Elliot Barker (@ElliotBarker6): Will the abundance of D-line talent in the draft affect the money that guys like [DeMarcus] Lawrence, Dee Ford and [Jadeveon] Clowney likely make in free agency?
This is a good question looking forward to 2019—if you need defensive line help, it’s going to be your year. The D-line class in the draft, fronted by Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Houston’s Ed Oliver, is generational. There’ll be front-liners at those spots deep into the first round. And Lawrence, Ford, Clowney, Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah, Seattle’s Frank Clark, New England’s Tre Flowers and new Ram Dante Fowler are up.
Some of those guys probably get tagged. But others (like Ford and Flowers) are less likely to be. So does the unusual supply in the draft hurt free-agent demand? I’m going to say no. In today’s NFL, edge rushers and corners are at a premium on defense, and you can use volume at both spots. The presence of Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch and Akiem Hicks, for example, didn’t make the Bears hesitate in their pursuit of Khalil Mack.
And here’s maybe the best piece evidence to drive the point home—the Rams just sent third- and fifth-round picks away for Fowler, who was playing 32 percent of Jacksonville’s defensive snaps and is on an expiring deal. So expect interest in him and the rest of the free-agent pass rushers come March. NFL teams can’t get enough of them.
From Fitzpatrick's beard (@fitzs_beard): Will the Bills ever figure it out?
I think they’ll be OK, Fitz. I like what Sean McDermott did in Year 1, there’s a foundation there. And I’d tell you the coaches who’ve faced them this year universally say it—the Bills fight their asses off. That’s a good sign of where they are as a program, and that the work that McDermott, his staff, and the 2017 team did didn’t vanish with a good chunk of the talent.
And we’ve been over that part before. The Bills were going to have to do this at some point. They’re carrying over $50 million in dead money, the result of wild spending and mortgaging by the previous regime, which means almost a third of their cap is devoted to guys no longer on the roster. They’ve only got five draft picks that predate McDermott’s arrival, which is crazy. So they’re taking their medicine.
Yes, a big part of this rides on whether or not Josh Allen makes it. That’s the NFL. If you whiff on a quarterback in the top 10, you’re probably getting fired, and the jury’s still out on Allen. But if he hits? There are great signs draft-wise elsewhere (Tre’Davious White and Tremaine Edmunds look like they could be cornerstones). So to me, there’s a lot of room to feel good about where the Bills are going.
Enjoy Week 9, everyone!
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