I've been scouting the Saints this week, in stats and in film. I watched their most recent matchups. Carolina who knows them, and Pittsburgh who is good. I saw the Steelers game live, and went through all the highlights I could find of both this week. I wanted to understand how their offense works.
I've always been fascinated by Payton's offense, from Dallas to New Orleans, looking for the keys to how offenses can be so prolific. Of course the QB makes all the difference, but we've seen some known, great QBs render quite different results in different systems.
McDaniels with Brady spread the field horizontally and vertically. He had the deep threat and the YAC possession receiver to bring the spread to the NFL in a historic way. Brady's been great, before and since, and not just with differing personnel, but different systems.
Moore with Manning used the most peerless quarterbacking skills ever to base an offense off running the same personnel and formation over and over and giving the QB the latitude to call plays and routes dynamically according to what the defense does, and capitalize through superior execution. The QB is among the best ever, but the Colts offense is far from "it works because the QB is good." It's very unique.
Payton is in some ways similar. The biggest key to his offense has been establishing a platform where the QB can decide, execute and capitalize. He gives Brees options. It looks and feels complicated but in some ways the Colts and Saints offenses are a lot more simple than the typical NFL offense.
That was the extent that I really knew about what makes the Saints go. I knew they often go with a lot of routes, but it's not pass wacky. I looked at stats, watched highlights but got no closer, really, to understanding. And then one play jumped out at me, and based off what I already know, while the Saints have a lot of variety in their plays, for my understanding this play exemplifies the core principles of the offense, and it's possible to see how the rest of the offense is built off of it.
This is the Saints offense:
This is the Steelers defense. 3rd & 4 or less and LeBeau doesn't blitz. The box is filled, sure, maybe even Polamalu is in the box. They'll key the run. It's not a blitzing down & distance.
But this is 3rd & 5. On your own 20. Blitzburgh is going to send extra men. They keep 2 deep, they'll set up at the 1st down marker, and the zone blitz means someone you assign protection to will instead drop back. This is the Steelers defense.
The Saints offense sends a lot of routes from the backfield. That's a nice feature, but it's merely corollary to one of the core principles of Payton's offense. We acknowledged above the truism that good QBs and good offenses are strongly correlated, and then endeavored to look closer to see what we can unpack underneath that. Well, the other truism about offense is protection makes all the difference. The Saints' pass blocking is very functional, and we know that is always impacted by the QB directly and the threat of either facet of the offense indirectly. The Saints' pass blocking is very functional, but it's not really executed very well. I don't know if it's a talent thing but I suspect it's coaching complacency because fundamentals and execution and beating your assignment is not imperative to this offense.
The core principle of Payton's offense I am referring to is schemed protection. Teams scheme protection when their line is bad or a particular matchup, say Jared Allen, figures to cause problems. We've seen the Seahawks scheme protection for both, and we've seen it be pretty effective. We don't know exactly what that means or exactly what they did, but it worked.
3 plays after the one above is run, Brees is strip-sacked by McFadden. Steelers feign a stunt and then edge rush and bull rush to create a blitzing lane. Ladell Betts looks like he's in blitz pickup, and in position, but he makes no read. He crosses the pocket to chip the RDE. Bushrod as it turned out didn't need the chip. Although it looks like he was containing the inside move as though he would be getting edge chip help by design. Schemed protection.
The Saints backfield can be weapons or can provide protection, from any formation. Keying on the personnel wastes a man if they stay in to block. Draws and play action are built off this. Betts ran the same cross-pocket chip move on a handoff fake near the goal line, and ran a legitimate route from it as well.
Cute. An adorable little hummingbird outside my window. On such a miserable, wet and windy November day. How can a quarter ounce little ball of flesh float mid air and stay warm enough to survive this weather? 1 second has passed:
Max protect. It's not necessarily relevant to the outcome of this play, but the beauty in which they can dial it up without personnel or formation changes that tip their hand is remarkable.
Saints still have 3 against 5 downfield. So how does the Saints offense kill secondaries. The routes aren't complicated, there's no zone busting, and separating cuts don't decide the play. The receivers must still get open of course, and the one that does, Brees throws to. Brees threw to Meachem on this play. 50 yards. Hasselbeck could have made the throw. WATCH.
This is the Saints offense. A good QB, kept clean, given options. Basic power running game, empty backfield at times. But all of that stems from these core objectives, all of that works because these objectives are met, and done so with this kind of use of the backfield personnel.
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There's one more factor here. It's less to do with the Saints, more to do with the down and distance and the Steelers' response and the league's basic response by proxy. This is of even greater interest to me and what prompted me to post. The screenshot at the snap, one more time:
Like most teams, the first down marker dictates where the pass defenders line up, especially on 3rd down. I couldn't find it, but I recall an old Football Outsiders article that showed completion percentage on 3rd downs dips right around where the first down marker would be.
Look again and witness the conundrum the Steelers created for themselves. It's got nothing to do with the Saints. Nothing to do with how many eligible receivers are to the left (three) or how many defenders are in the vicinity (two). Josh Wilson was alleged to have given up a big 28 yard screen TD to FB Jason Snelling last Thursday, but he was assigned coverage to 2 receivers split out to the right (one of them Snelling). It was 2nd & 14, and like the Steelers the 1st down marker dictated where Baltimore pass defenders lined up. Josh had 8 yards in front of him, and about a dozen to 15 yards radially inward toward the middle and back to the deep safeties, of open field where no other Ravens tread. Coaching. Fail.
The Falcons faced 2nd & 14. Presumably a hole. Fixation on the 1st down marker spread the field for them vertically. League coaching fail.
Again, look at the picture above. 2 wideouts and a TE in the backfield to the left. Imagine the kind of routes any of the 3 might run. Imagine the reading & reaction responsibilities for Ike Taylor and William Gay for routes that might be run in front of them.
Now imagine the kind of routes they might have to defend behind them. And how the former might affect the latter. Or if you can't imagine, let me illustrate:
Remember the pass took Hasselbeck long to get there. Ike Taylor isn't fast and Robert Meachem is, but this wasn't a matchup problem or an assignment problem. The DB needs to execute, and he didn't. Ultimately that was the problem. But he needs to be cognizant of plays in front of him, and he did do that. And look where that got him.
This is football, and this is what pass defenders need to contend with on every snap. I don't think that will change. But so many big plays, every game, we see the huge difference made in spacing. Roddy White's 1st TD on Thursday came because Ed Reed was about 10 yards from the sideline of the end zone. White ran an out.
Coaches let the 1st down marker dictate spacing for them. It created additional strain for the Steelers, here. Mike Martz has always used defender spacing to determine the angle of the receivers' posts, and without looking up any numbers that's been evident to me as I've seen his offenses be more successful on longer 3rd downs than shorter 3rd downs.
Thought I'd wrap this up with a parallel of that hummingbird, but nothing comes to mind. Anyway, it fascinates me watching the 1st down marker make such an impact.