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Observations of the New Orleans Saints' defense

Examining matchups against the Cowboys, Bears and Dolphins

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Among the top five offenses by DVOA, four teams have defenses that range from below average to barely functioning:

Team Defense, total DVOA (higher numbers are worse):

Denver: +0.3% (17th)
San Diego: +25.1% (32nd)
Green Bay: +13.6% (29th)
Philadelphia +8.6% (26th)

Only the New Orleans Saints are good on both sides of the ball, with the 3rd highest offensive DVOA (+20.0%) and a respectably 10th-ranked defense (-5.6%).

So what's up with that? Are the just good, or "scary good"? I did a little film study to see how they were getting it done, and what we might expect when matched up against the Seahawks. NFL Rewind, by the way, is useful. And that's all the praise I'm going to offer because I don't want to hurt my future leverage for a potential endorsement deal.

What to watch?

While it would be tempting to watch the high-powered Patriots offense put up 30 on the Saints, or the low-powered Jets offense pull off a win, I decided that the best "threat assessment" would be achieved by watching games where (a)The Saints played a decent opposition offense, and (b)The Saints won:

Week 5 @ Chicago (+10.8% offensive DVOA), 26-18

Week 10 vs Dallas (+6.3% offensive DVOA), 49-17

Week 4 vs Dolphins (-1.9% offensive DVOA), 38-17

The Dolphins are slightly below average, but after watching the Bears and Cowboys games I wanted to see the Saints in action against a more mobile quarterback.

Quick Hits on the Offense

* Drew Brees is no Russell Wilson. His release is neither as high nor as quick, and by the proverbial literal "eye test" he doesn't have quite the arm strength as Wilson (but easily enough to hit the deep ball). He moves well enough to side-step pressure, but is not a big threat to run wide and extend the play or take off and pick up yardage with his legs.

The biggest similarity is in their mechanics. Watching Drew Brees from one pass to the next gives the impression that the film is faked, because his motions are so perfectly identical on each throw.

Where Brees excels above Wilson (at this point) is his ability to monitor 10-15 players, offensive and defensive, in the short-middle part of the field. Remarkably, he seems to go through his progressions using just his eyes and his brain, requiring very little head movement. He finds the openings for short passes not just in space, but in literal space-time.

* Pass timing: When we talk about optimizing run after the catch, we usually refer to a play which is designed to hit a receiver with several yards of clear space ahead of him in which to make his juke/cut or sprint to one side for a big gain. The Saints do this, too. But more significant is the quality of Brees' timing on routes which are not specifically designed as catch-and-run. By simply placing the ball at the right point in space-time, 4-yard gains are turned into 7-yard gains. These are not explosive plays, but the extra yardage adds a lot over the course of the game.

* Tight end Jimmy Graham and running backs Pierre Thomas & Darren Sproles are the Saints' three leading receivers, totaling 169 catches on the year. Their top four wide receivers have just 97 receptions.

* The Saints will run the ball. Statistically, their rush percentage of 38.7% is 27th in the league (average is 43.1%, Seattle is 55.6%). But that number is misleading. The Saints don't have many called pass plays recorded as run plays on QB scrambles like the league's most run-heavy teams (Seattle, San Francisco, Carolina, NY Jets, Philadelphia). Furthermore, they continue to throw the ball even while ahead. When up by 10+ points in the second half, excluding QB runs and kneel-downs, Seattle has 76 rushes to 35 passes (68.5%). Under the same parameters, the Saints have 79 rushes and 73 passes (52.0%). They don't use a power running game, but they have the significant advantage of fielding their run personnel while still having their five best receivers on the field (with Graham and the running backs).

* The offense helps the defense. Probably more than any other team in the league. Despite being a pass-first team, the Saints excel at chewing clock and giving the other unit time to rest:

yards/drive: 36.8 (2nd)
plays/drive: 6.2 (2nd)
1st downs/drive: 2.03 (3rd)
Seconds/play 28.54 (6th most)

drives/game: 11.36 (8th fewest)
plays/game: 61 (2nd fewest)

Cowboys at Saints, 49-17

Not a knock on the Saints, but the Cowboys brought a lot of ineptitude to the game.

Dallas Offense:

* The Cowboys had 11 penalties total for 82 yards.

* Romo missed on several passes and his receivers dropped several more.

* The Cowboys totally gave up in the 4th quarter when they were down by 18, 25 and 32 points. A modicum of effort wouldn't have given them a win, but they certainly could've put up more than 17 points if they'd tried.

* Tony Romo could not escape pressure from defensive linemen, even when it was just one player and he could see him coming. The ability to extend plays that we saw last year against the Seahawks in Seattle was simply absent.


This play could've been extended. It was not.

New Orleans Defense:

* They defend the run surprisingly well for a 3-4 alignment. Just enough players are reactive (instead of proactive) on each snap.

* The pass rush did not look as awesome as their league-high 9.8% sack rate would suggest. Romo was way too eager to throw the ball away.

* They are good, hard tacklers.

* I don't know how talented the individual defensive backs are, but the unit works well together. On passing downs & against passing formations, the secondary had excellent spacing. Also noteworthy is the synergy with the pass rush, as the secondary times its convergence on opposing receivers with the expected timing of pressure. When the Saints rushed five, they moved towards receivers early; when the Saints rushed three, they played off and moved towards receivers later.

* They use lots of pre-snap movement, sometimes having seven guys standing up and milling around just seconds before the snap.


Saints at Bears, 26-18

The best way to tell the tale of this game (Saints defense vs Bears offense) is drive-by-drive:

Drive #1 A fumbled snap on 1st and 10 led to 2nd and 20. The Bears could not recover the extra yardage and punted.

Drive #2 Defensive back Malcom Jenkins blitzed, sacked Cutler, and forced a fumble (recovered by Saints).

Drive #3 Linebacker David Hawthorne blitzed on 2nd and 10, recording a sack for -7 yards. Bears could not recover and punted.

Drive #4 Safety Kenny Vaccaro blitzed on 2nd and 9, recording a sack for -8 yards. Bears could not recover and punted.

Drive #5 Two dropped passes by the Bears killed the drive. Punt.

Drive #6 Bears used two play-action passes and two wide receiver screens to counter the Saints' aggressive pass rush. 80 yards for a TD.

Drive #7 End-of-half.

Saints start the second half with a 13-play, 7-minute drive, kick a field goal for a 23-6 lead.

Drive #8 Cutler does what Romo could not/would not do and runs away from moderate pressure, completing a 42-yard pass. But with 1st-and-goal on the 9-yard-line, Chicago ran three straight obvious passes out of shotgun formation and settled for a field goal.

Drive #9 Using a good mix of run, pass, and QB scrambling, Chicago moves the ball 74 yards to the New Orleans 25-yard-line. On 3rd and 2, they ran two straight passes from shotgun formation and failed to convert. The play calls were predictable, but Chicago's pass blocking was decent. The New Orleans secondary looked very good at playing man coverage in a "picket line" defense.

Drive #10 Prevent defense, surprisingly failed to prevent. Touchdown in less than a minute.

Drive #11 Time expired.

It's pretty obvious that the Saints pressure, achieved with blitzing, killed 3 of Chicago's first 4 drives. The Bears offense looked pretty good the rest of the game (2 TD's, 1 field goal, one turnover on downs in field goal range, and just one punt). Blitzing, of course, is a strength of the 3-4 defense, which provides at least seven potential rushers near the line of scrimmage even without an actual blitz. On David Hawthorne's sack, there are eight potential pass rushers crowding the line and the Saints rush 5 of them:


Rusher #1 works the left tackle, rusher #2 is going to cut all the way across the middle and occupy the left guard, while #4 occupies the center and right guard. The numbers advantage comes from rusher #6, who chips tight end Martellus Bennett before taking on the right tackle. Bennett is then left uncovered, but thanks to the chip he is still behind the line of scrimmage and Cutler has no chance to see him before the blitz arrives. Hawthorne is rusher #3 and comes through untouched (circled in orange because he's hard to see behind the overhead wire camera):


Dolphins at Saints, 38-17

Drive #1 Play-action and the read option are both successful. In the red zone, New Orleans displays a very stout run defense in short-yardage situations and the Dolphins settled for a field goal.

Drive #2 Miami runs a shotgun formation with no intent to run and invites a strong pass rush. Pressure forces incompletions and a punt.

Drive #3 Tannehill completes a 28-yard pass by running play-action from the shotgun formation. But the drive ends on a Tannehill fumble (on a scramble, not a strip-sack).

Drive #4 Shotgun + handoff = touchdown! Are you sensing a theme, here?


Pass rush to the outside, Lamar Miller to the inside.

Drive #5 Saints corner Jabari Greer jumps a slant route for an interception. Not a great throw, but as much credit to Greer as blame to Tannehill.

Drive #6 Time expired.

Drive #7 Inaccurate passes by Tannehill, punt.

Drive #8 All pass rush all the time.

Drive #9 Saints lead 35-10 at this point; more pass rush without the need to respect the run.

Drives #10-12 Touchdown, two interceptions, but really just garbage time.

Overall, Tannehill's mobility was a huge asset against the Saints. He escaped pressure several times, ran for 48 yards on 4 carries, and served as a decoy on several handoffs. But with four turnovers and a lack of big plays down the field, it wasn't enough.

The empty backfield which I keep harping on is suicide against the Saints. Here, Miami runs a shotgun with a running back. The Saints respect the running threat and keep five men at the line of scrimmage. Miami then has 6 blockers successfully holding off 5 pass rushers, which is pretty darned good. It leaves just 6 defensive backs to cover 4 receivers:


Without the running threat, Miami doesn't have to blitz. Here, they rush just three. But without the need to defend the run (or a running back pass up the middle), the Saints' interior lineman occupies three Miami blockers. The edge rushers are allowed to go one-on-one, creating decent pressure despite having eight players defending the pass:


Alternatively, they can rush four in the same situation. With no running back threat, the interior linemen break immediately to the outside. Notice that #76 heads straight for the right tackle. The Saints get a blitz-quality pass rush without blitz numbers:


Some numbers on the Saints' vaunted pass rush:

Sacks by Score Difference

Score Difference Sacks/plays Percentage
up by 17+ 8/69 11.6%
up by 10-16 0/38 0.0%
up by 7-9 2/28 7.1%
up by 3-6 10/119 8.4%
down by 3 - up by 2 14/124 11.3%
down by more than 3 3/18 16.7%

Sacks by position

Defensive Linemen: 19.5
Linebackers: 14
Defensive Backs: 3.5

When New Orleans has a big lead, their pass rush is effective more in getting pressure than in getting sacks. They rarely blitz in that situation, but are able to rush without defending the run.

When the game is close, the blitzes come unexpectedly. But despite the manner in which their DB's annihilated Jay Cutler, most of the pressure comes with 4 or 5 rushers (it's not easy to tell from the numbers, because a 3-4 defense will always have a linebacker involved when rushing just four).

Matching up with Seattle, Saints offense vs Seahawks defense

* Seattle's goal should be a defensive effort similar to that which we had against the Panthers. In that game, the Panthers rushed 134 yards on 26 carries (5.2 ypc) and Cam Newton completed 70% of his passes. But the Panthers were held to just 7 points because the completed passes were very short-- they accumulated a mere 119 net passing yards, or 5.0 yards per dropback. Of course, Brees isn't the threat to run that Cam Newton is, but the extra linebacker who would've spied Newton will be needed to limit short passes to Graham and the running backs.

* I mentioned earlier that Drew Brees doesn't have an ultra-quick release. On long passes, he cocks his arm back almost as if loading a catapult. It's really not much more than the blink of an eye, but it's enough time for Earl Thomas to cover 10 yards. If Thomas is allowed to play deep facing the line of scrimmage, he should be able to read this and shut down the big plays to the wide receivers.

* So far, the Saints haven't made regular use of any no-huddle offense, preferring to control the ball and let their defense rest. Unless they pull a strategic coup (possible), this will be a huge boon for Seattle's defense, allowing them to rotate defensive linemen during the course of a drive.

Matching up with Seattle, Saints defense vs Seahawks offense

* There will be sacks. But there should also be big plays. If the Saints rush Wilson like they rushed Tony Romo, then Wilson should be able to escape the (relatively) slower interior defensive linemen and make throws from outside the pocket. If they blitz like they did against Jay Cutler, then the key performance will be the ability of Lynch, Robinson, and Turbin to pick up the blitzer.

* Don't expect another Beastquake. The Saints are very good tacklers this year. However, Seattle's penchant for running the ball frequently (and especially out of shotgun formation) should pick up some good chunks of yardage.

* When the Dolphins and Cowboys had to play with 3, 4 or 5 wide receivers, their lack of talent at those positions was very exposed. Even the #1 and #2 receivers dropped balls and failed to win 1-on-1 matchups. In terms of catching deep passes, Seattle's receivers should be the better than any others that the Saints have faced thus far.

On both sides of the ball, Seattle's coordinators need to avoid playing mind games with their counterparts. Imagine yourself playing rock-paper-scissors with a master psychologist. Try to outsmart the guy and you will lose; stick to random calls and you have an equal chance. Sean Payton and Rob Ryan are excellent play-callers, and should not be allowed an opportunity to outwit. If Seattle sticks to unpredictable play-calling without trying to second-guess the Saints, their on-field talent should be enough to earn a win.