Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Oct 2007

Any Given Sunday: Saints over Seahawks

by Ned Macey

Two former NFC powerhouses met in Seattle on Sunday. A game that was nearly the NFC Championship a season ago featured two less-than-imposing squads this season. The Saints, winless the year after their Cinderella season, finally adapted to a simple defensive scheme that had limited them all season. Seattle, meanwhile, remains too wedded to an approach that nearly won them a Super Bowl two seasons ago.

New Orleans: Learning to Take Short Gains

Sunday's game is being spun as a return to form for the Saints. Everyone played a part. Reggie Bush busted loose on the ground. Drew Brees threw no interceptions. The defensive line picked up five sacks. Their own offensive line allowed none.

If the Saints are truly a competitive team, however, it will be because they diversified beyond their 2006 model, particularly in the passing game. The Saints were always in search of their next big play a season ago. This created an odd combination of deep throws and tricky formations hoping to create an exploitable mismatch. The seven-yard checkdown was definitely not a part of the offense unless it was an attempt to get the dynamic Reggie Bush an opportunity to make someone miss.

On Sunday, Drew Brees did an outstanding job of just taking what the defense gave him. Brees averaged less than 10 yards a completion and had only one completion longer than 20 yards. Still, he completed more than two-thirds of his passes, did not get sacked, and helped keep the chains moving. Out of the game plan were Marques Colston and the explosive Devery Henderson, replaced instead by tight ends and veteran third receiver David Patten.

The Seahawks defense has been an improved unit this season. On Sunday, they executed their game plan appropriately. They eliminated Colston from the game and contained Bush in the passing game. That strategy has been successful for the Saints' other opponents this season. It is a credit to New Orleans that they found other ways to create offense.

Brees and head coach Sean Payton were forced into this offense by opponents' keeping their safeties deep. They did not want to get here, and it took four inept offensive performances to change the focus. The big plays were already gone, but Brees still forced passes down the field, leading to nine interceptions in his first four games. He had only 11 all last season.

On Sunday, the Saints benched the ineffective Henderson for Lance Moore, who is more adept at the intermediate routes. Teams have taken away Colston with double coverage, and the Saints need a viable alternative to develop as a reliable threat. Moore caught three of the four passes intended for him. The first was a crucial 20-yard catch that led to a touchdown. The second two catches were more indicative of what a receiver other than Henderson can provide: a nine-yard catch on first down that helped start a successful drive, and a six-yard reception on third-and-5 when the Saints were playing keepaway.

Moore will probably most remember this game for a touchdown on an end-around, but that play is emblematic of what is holding the Saints back. Sean Payton appears to come from the Mad Scientist line of offensive play-calling that concocts overly-complicated plays at every opportunity (see "Saunders, Al"). Seemingly every play has some sort of misdirection. A hand-off up the middle requires either a fake end around or at best a delayed draw. Brees has a designed pump fake on a number of routes, and the Saints seem incapable of just having their tight end go five yards downfield and make a catch in front of the linebackers.

Gadget plays are a useful part of any offense (just ask Pittsburgh). At the end of the day, however, execution, not trickery, will win far more games. With the Saints offense struggling, the problem is not a lack of creativity but a lack of patience. A few drives marching the ball methodically down the field is more important than drawing up the next big play. Teams are no longer fooled by the misdirection, and since opponents play constant zone, the option for the big play is reduced.

The lack of an interior run offense is particularly galling. Reggie Bush had his best game of the season, but almost all of his damage was in the first half. He gained 73 yards on eight first half carries. Bush likes to dance a bit behind the line, but this dancing has led to few big plays. His two carries over 20 yards on Sunday were the first of his career. Payton seems afraid to just run Bush up the middle. With Deuce McAllister injured, however, some basic lead plays should be in the game plan. Bush has the ability to run up the middle if the coach can remind him that four yards is a successful play.

Seattle: Time for a Spread?

Seattle longs to play conventional, smashmouth football, but they no longer have the personnel in place. Shaun Alexander averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 1,049 carries between 2003 and 2005. In 368 carries since, Alexander has averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Last year, injuries were a convenient excuse for Alexander, but he is no better one year later.

The decline of the Seahawks' running game has innumerable sources: the departure of Steve Hutchinson; the decline and now retirement of Mack Strong; the aging of Alexander and Walter Jones; inconsistency on the right side of the line. To go from one of the league's best rushing attacks to the worst is rarely the result of one factor. The decline, however, is very real and must change what the Seahawks do going forward.

The obvious solution is to spread out teams and mimic the Green Bay Packers offense. When healthy, the Seahawks have as deep a receiving corps as any team in football. On Sunday, however, they were down Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett, the Week 1 starters. The Seahawks still got good production from Bobby Engram and Ben Obomanu, but much of Engram's production came well after the game was out of reach. Furthermore, the unfamiliarity with receivers forced Hasselbeck to hold the ball too long.

The problem with this proposed change to the offense is that it will lead to less and less Alexander on the field. Average as a pass blocker and never a threat as a receiver, Alexander's usefulness was tied strongly to his superior running skills. With an above-average run blocking line, Alexander likely could still be productive, if no longer dominant. Without said line, Alexander is a liability and should be used only sparingly. He has averaged over 4.0 yards per carry only once all season, against the porous Cincinnati defense.

The Seahawks' struggles on the ground were extremely predictable against New Orleans, which has excelled in run defense. The happier development for the Saints was that their pass defense held up in the period where the game was competitive. By the time New Orleans had built a 21-0 lead, Hasselbeck was only six-of-13 for 52 yards. An injury to Jason David has "forced" Jason Craft into the starting line-up. "Forced" is in quotes only because Craft has been the Saints' second best cornerback for the past two seasons but was held back, first behind Fred Thomas and then David.

Craft is no Pro Bowler, and the Saints have other problems in pass defense: The safeties and linebackers both can get lost in coverage. Still, since Craft's insertion last week, the Saints have held two opponents under 20 points. Their first three opponents all topped 30 points.

This game is being hailed as the potential turnaround by the Saints, but the rest of the season should show us that it was merely a blip in the road for a mediocre team against a poor team. The Saints scored one touchdown on a fumbled punt snap and another after they gained 15 yards on their own fumble when multiple Seahawks had an opportunity to cover it. Meanwhile, Seattle should welcome back Branch and Hackett in the coming weeks to form an explosive passing offense.

The escape from my dire prediction could occur if the Saints offense can overlook the razzle-dazzle and develop a workmanlike approach. If an opposing team plays zone, the offense has to take what the defense gives it. Underneath throws and runs up the middle are the key. Long passes and outside runs should be shelved until they force opponents to shift their strategy. The Saints should have a chance to show patience in developing this offense the next few weeks. They get the offensively inept 49ers and Falcons before a real test against Jacksonville. Win the next two, and the Saints will at least have salvaged relevancy.

For Seattle, the news is much better. The NFC West is horrible, with the one real contender in Arizona facing injuries at the quarterback position. Only one of Seattle's remaining games comes against a team that currently has a winning record: Baltimore in Week 16. A trip to Philadelphia could also prove difficult, but the Seahawks in all their mediocrity should win more than half their remaining games. That should be enough for another NFC West title. When the playoffs, come, however, the Seahawks will likely be overwhelmed unless they shelve their running game and focus on developing a dominant spread offensive attack.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 16 Oct 2007

22 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2007, 7:01am by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers

Comments

1
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 12:49pm

Nice piece Ned. The short version then, is that the Saints should become the Seahawks, and vice-versa?

2
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 12:58pm

This analyis seems to be missing something, namely a the Saints O-line vs the Seahawks D-Line. Brees seemed to have a lot more time in the pocket during this game, and I'd like to know if it was because of improvements on the Saints side, an ineffective Seahawks pass rush, or if limiting gadget plays gave the Saints more blockers and faster-developing plays.

3
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 1:50pm

#2 The Saints' offensive line looked very good. Jamal Brown looked healthy and mobile. He threw a key pull block on Lofa Tatupu that Bush then ran behind for 19 yards. Seattle's defense relies on the pass rush--especially pressure from their front four. With Rocky Bernard ineffective because of a lingering ankle injury they were unable to generate the essential pass rush that allows John Marshall's defense to work. Bernard and the Hawks' D suffered the same problem last season.

On another note, I would like to say that it would be unnatural for Mike Holmgren to employ a spread offense like what Mike McCarthy does in Green Bay. First, McCarthy uses a zone blocking system, whereas Holmgren employs a power blocking system, wherein linemen are assigned specific "line routes" on runs. I.e. the guard doesn't have a zone to block, he instead runs a specified path not unlike a wide receiver. Further, Holmgren's offense is predicated on using the pass to set up the run. They are already employing multiple wide receiver sets (3+ on roughly two thirds of all plays) to spread out the field. The missing element is an effective running game. As much flack as the Seahawks' run blocking has received, Shaun Alexander is the undoubted weak link. Be it injury, age, the curse of 370 or a finicky run style he can no longer make work, his play has kept Seattle in bad down and distance and allowed opposing defenses to key the pass from snap one.

4
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 2:13pm

Good piece, Ned.

One thing I noticed is that Bush was generally better at actually going forward this game, rather than his usual side-to-side dance routine. If that can continue (and I'm not sure it did for all of Sunday's game), that'd be a great help to the Saints going forward.

5
by Aaron (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 2:50pm

Maybe Payton doesn't want to run Bush up the middle because he has more fumbles (3) than TDs (2) already this year.

Man I hate Reggie Bush.

6
by coltrane23 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 3:55pm

"The problem with this proposed change to the offense is that it will lead to less and less Alexander on the field."

Right now, as a 'Hawks fan, I don't see that as a problem. I'd like to see Morris and Weaver get more touches. I'll give Alexander props, he did run harder on Sunday night than I'd seen in previous weeks. The boos cascading down from the stands might have had something to do with that.

IMO, spread offense with Hasselbeck at the controls could be problematic. I like him at QB, as long as the running game is productive, but he's feeling the burden of the offense right now and he's clearly pressing.

7
by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 4:15pm

The Saints O-line vs Seahawks D-line doesn't require much analysis--Seattle didn't blitz because the Saints have been a big-play based offense, and blitzing leaves you vulnerable to the big play, and the Saints did a better job picking up a 4-man rush than the teams Seattle has beaten this year, largely because Brees didn't hold the ball and try to force big plays against a soft zone. At least, that's what it looked like to this unhappy Seahawk fan. The O-line gave Brees what he needed to execute--but if they've really adjusted, I think you can expect to see more up-front, and/or edge pressure on the Saints in their remaining games this year than they've gotten so far, and particularly than the Seahawks showed.

8
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 5:41pm

Very good article, and #3 & #7, your analysis was just as good IMO.

9
by coltrane23 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 7:17pm

Ditto to what Jacob said. I love coming to this site for the analysis not only by the authors, but also by the commenters. Good stuff.

10
by Mike Harden (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 7:47pm

As a Seahawks fan, I just have to say, the Hawks suck. Good thing they can win the division with a 3-13 record...

11
by mm (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2007 - 8:52pm

I think you missed the key change in the Saints defensive plan--blitzes.

The Saints came into the season thinking they should get good pressure from their front 4 (Will Smith and Charles Grant have played better than they have this year), but it didn't happen through the first 4 games. Despite this, the Saints called very few blitzes. In an interview last week, Haslett said they only blitzed 5 times against the Panthers when their quarterback was playing hurt.

The problem with blitzing is that it leaves you vulnerable to the big play. For the first four games, the Saints were not blitzing, and still giving up big plays. So why not blitz? They started blitzing against the Seahawks, who looked totally unprepared for it (why would they? though they should have adjusted quickly).

Future opponents will be ready for it, but I hope they keep a heavy blitz package in the plans, at least until the front 4 starts getting pressure without the help. We'll take giving up some big plays if they stop some drives, and give the offense a chance to outscore the other team (providing the O-line continues to improve).

12
by Scott (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:47am

Although some of the analysis posted in the comments makes my Cliche Detector go off, I can't really refute any of it.

If that Haslett quote is true, it amazes me. I can't believe a big-boy NFL team would blitz so rarely. Maybe they're afraid of getting beat on the pass, as they so often do? Then again (cliche coming up), if they don't get any pressure how are they supposed to stop a halfway decent quarterback from killing them anyway?

I am formally suggesting the creation of a new award, much in the vein of the Keep Chopping Wood Award.

I have no title, but it would be for a front office dropping the ball on a restricted free agent, or completely failing to assess the future cost of player salaries versus the value of a legitimate Pro Bowler that they pass on. Such as the Steve Hutchinson situation, where just a year after they refused to pay him what the Vikings did, people like Derrick Dockery and Leonard Davis are getting paid like Hutchinson is. Shaun Alexander is looking like trash while people are already filling out Hall of Fame ballots for All-Day. Good job, Seahawks.

13
by guitar zan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 3:15am

Let me say upfront that I agree with most of this article. The following is just a few items with my perspective;
1) Yes a bad snap gave the Saints an instant 7 points, but take that score away and they still win.
2) If you coached the team that had the #1 offense in the league the previous year with the same players, how much would you change your offense?... That's what I thought.
3) This game was over in the 2nd quarter, everything you saw from the Saints after that was conservative control and prevent.
4) The "razzle-dazzle" works for the Saints when blockers make their assignments, and when the "gadget" plays work it seems to hack everyone off but the Saints.
Other than that, good read.

14
by The Broilermaster (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 4:10am

On the topic of zone-blocking:

How significant of a factor is experience in a zone-blocking (or lane- or whatever- style) scheme when evaluating offensive line prospects? For quarterbacks, comments are often made about "so-and-so being an excellent fit for the system", but is this also important for offensive lineman?

15
by B (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 10:23am

12: If you're going to give an award for front office incompetence, you have to name it after Matt Millen.

16
by dgriot (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 12:24pm

#10: The Cardinals lead the division. God, that just doesn't sound right.

17
by erik (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 1:54pm

#11/#12 Doesn't Haslett coach for St Louis now? Did you mean Payton? Gibbs?

18
by mm (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 2:16pm

heh!

Yes, I meant Payton...can't believe I typed that.

19
by Charles (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 6:34pm

#13: They don't have the same offense as last year. First, Colston is getting the double teams that Horn got last year and has become totally neutralized. It wouldn't matter if Henderson was a viable receiver, but as long as he keeps dropping passes that hit him in the hands, the Saints have no vertical game.

Second, without Deuce (or a willingness to run Bush between the tackles), the Saints don't have the grind-it-out element to their running game either. I expected more out of Stecker after the injury to McAllister, but he's shown nothing in his limited action.

20
by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 8:24pm

#13: No game is ever over in the 2nd quarter. A 28-7 lead near half time is good, but hardly decisive. I will agree with you though that it does change your strategy significantly and the 1st half of the game should carry much more weight in the analysis by that token.

And as for point 4, what are you suggesting that FO hates the Saints, or that the USA as a whole hates the Saints? I don't think you are even close on either of those suggestions. I may just be reading between the lines though - you're probably just saying that everyone hates the Saints gadget plays. Yeah gee, I really hate them, bringing the game down like that - get a grip son.

21
by guitar zan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2007 - 10:26pm

#19 - Horn? what? Horn spent half the season on the sidelines last year and the Saints still won games. Devery Henderson had a good season last year, this year he can't catch his fanny with both hands, so he gets replaced with Lance Moore who's first start was stellar.
Do the Saints miss Deuce? you betcha, but if you watched the Seattle game 2 of Reggie`s 20+ yd carries were between the tackles. Is Reggie a hard hitting up-the-middle runner? NO! But can he compensate with speed and get the job done? YES
#20 When I said "everybody" I was talking about the world of elite sports writers and analyst who seem to always have to mention something about the Saints unconventional offensive setups in their game-breakdowns, and when the "gadget" plays work for the Saints they can't use that excuse in their "what went wrong" after thoughts.

22
by Matt Saracen - QB1 - Dillon Panthers (not verified) :: Thu, 10/18/2007 - 7:01am

Ah I get ya. I haven't noticed a lot of that kind of analysis myself, but you would take more notice of the Saints than I would. People are probably just trying to speculate as to what the hell has been going wrong.