A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
09 Jan 2014
by Cian Fahey
The Seattle Seahawks obliterated the New Orleans Saints in Week 13 of the regular season. The scoreline was 34-7 and even that didn't do the massacre justice. After that trip to Seattle, the Saints have rebounded. They didn't win the NFC South, but they made the playoffs as the sixth seed. In the wild card round, they beat the Eagles in Philadelphia to set up a rematch with the Seahawks in Seattle.
Entering CenturyLink Field is daunting for any opposition. They have finished first in DVOA over the last two seasons and they have lost just one game at home since Russell Wilson became the starting quarterback. While competing with their loaded roster is tough, you also have to compete with the crowd noise. The fans are rabid and the stadium was designed to trap their excessive noise. For Sean Payton's Saints, that is the toughest task.
The Saints excel when they enjoy home-field advantage, but their frailties are often exposed on the road. Hostile atmospheres make it tougher for the offense to communicate, while adverse weather conditions can dramatically affect the offense's timing and execution. The Saints base their success as a team off of their offense's ability to score points. In the Super Dome, their offense regularly slices defenses up with ease. In places such as CenturyLink Field, it can look disjointed.
Payton is considered a great offensive coach with a very creative mind for the game. His task this week is phenomenally difficult. There isn't a clear flaw to expose on the Seahawks defense and any plan he concocts will require near-perfect execution from his personnel to work. When you face a team with an excellent pass-rush you can negate it by establishing the run, using quicker passes, screens, bootleg play-action or rolling pockets. When you play a team with a poor pass rush but a good secondary, you can ask your quarterback to hold the ball longer and look to use mismatches on the second level for big plays.
The Seahawks have an exceptional pass rush and a terrifying secondary. Their one supposed weakness is that they struggle against the run, but they rank eighth in run defense DVOA. The Saints could try to play conservative and win this game on defense, but that is very unrealistic. Given their depleted secondary and Seattle's balanced offense, the Saints will likely need to raise their normal expectations for their offense rather than lower them.
One team has successfully managed what Payton is trying to do this week. The Arizona Cardinals went into Seattle and beat the Seahawks in Week 16 of the regular season. However, the Cardinals didn't really create any blueprint for the Saints to follow. Carson Palmer and the offense were very fortunate with the turnovers they did have and fortunate to avoid the ones they didn't. The Seahawks didn't take over the game when their defense took the ball away, largely because the Cardinals defense played well and the Seahawks offense wasn't as sharp as it usually is.
Instead, Payton must look to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers played the Seahawks in Week 9. They lost 27-24 but that was after establishing a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. The Buccaneers built that lead by relying heavily on rookie running back Mike James. James had 28 carries for 158 yards in the game. He wasn't consistently keeping the Buccaneers ahead of the down-and-distance, but he was able to break off a number of big runs. Of James' 28 carries, 11 gained at least five yards and eight gained at least eight yards.
James isn't a star back. He didn't even have an exceptionally impressive display on the day. What he did well was take advantage of opportunities and use his brute force on the second level to make Seahawks defenders miss or gain forward momentum. He was able to regularly get into the second level because of the excellent play by the Buccaneers offensive line.
As Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar pointed out after the Seahawks and Saints last faced off, the Seahawks defense is excellent at dictating what they do on the field. Farrar explains that the Seahawks stuck to their own defensive alignments and played the way they wanted to play regardless of the situation or what the Saints did on offense. Because of the setting and the personnel on the defensive side, this stunned the Saints.
It didn't stun the Buccaneers because they used their offensive line in a variety of ways to create hesitation in the Seahawks front seven. This allowed the Buccaneers to dictate the play and forced the Seahawks front seven to become reactive, instead of proactive.
The Buccaneers ran different types of running plays from different formations and executed well. Even with less talent than their counterparts, this allowed them to be successful running the ball. When the Saints played the Seahawks in Week 13, they ran the ball just three times before they fell behind 17-0. They opened the game with a run, but a blown assignment saw that play result in a 4-yard loss. From that point onwards, they didn't look to establish the run.
Pierre Thomas was the Saints' starting running back that day. Thomas is their most well-rounded back, but he is not similar to Mike James. Instead, Mark Ingram is the closest comparison that the Saints have to the bruising Buccaneers back. Thomas has better vision than Ingram and is a better receiver, but Ingram is more likely to break tackles on the second level in the same way James did. That is the best way to gain yards against the Seahawks because they have too many athletes who swarm to the football on the field.
Suggesting that Ingram would be the key to a potential playoff victory in previous seasons would have been unbelievable. However, the former Alabama star has run well this year. He appears to be slimmer and has greater burst with a more tenacious running style. He is by no means the superstar he was drafted to be, but the idea that he could be very productive in this game isn't crazy.
Ingram started for the Saints in Philadelphia last week, because Thomas was injured. He finished with 97 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. The Eagles defense may not have the same intimidating factor as the Seahawks, but they finished 12th in run defense DVOA, just four spots behind the Seahawks.
On an 18-yard gain in quarter three, the Saints showed off the ability of their offensive line to move in space. They didn't show off much variety when Ingram was running the ball, but this play stood out. The offense comes out in a heavy-set with two tight ends and a fullback in front of Ingram. The defense replies with eight defenders in the box, but the eighth defender is a cornerback and the front is spread out.
The Saints are running a stretch play to the right side. At the snap, the right tight end turns towards the left defensive end and moves towards him. The left defensive end is watching the ball so he never sees the tight end coming. Meanwhile, the right tackle and right guard are pulling outside of the tight end, with the fullback also running in front of Ingram.
Although the defensive end fights through the block, the tight end does enough to slow him down. Ingram evades the defenders' attempts to drag him down by widening his route to the second level. Once he is past the first tackle attempt, Ingram has a clean lane to run through for an easy first down.
However, Ingram extends the gain by accelerating through the running lane and initiating contact with the deepest defender. Ingram initially made it look like he would try to run outside him, before lowering his shoulder and running through the defender. This gained another three or four yards as the defensive back couldn't match his power.
Much like James was with the Buccaneers, Ingram was inconsistent against the Eagles last week. He had a number of impressive plays into the secondary, but he was stopped for short gains too. Six of his 18 carries went for at least five yards. A repeat of that kind of display, with maybe even a greater workload, would go a long way towards helping the Saints establish their offense.
The Buccaneers didn't solely rely on the run against the Seahawks. Quarterback Mike Glennon made a number of very impressive plays. He made quick decisions and took shots down the field when the opportunities arose. As Farrar also mentions from his review of the Saints last trip to Seattle, Drew Brees couldn't complete a single pass of 15 yards or longer down the field on eight attempts. During the rematch, the Saints will need to set up these deep shots by completing passes underneath and moving the ball with their running game. That is exactly what the Buccaneers did to allow Glennon to take more shots downfield.
On this play, it's first-and-10 and the Seahawks will only rush three defenders after the quarterback. This gives Glennon time in the pocket to survey the field. He gets to the top of his drop with ease, while keeping his eyes on Vincent Jackson running down the middle of the field. As they so often do, the Seahawks leave Earl Thomas as their single-high safety. Jackson's route is going to take him into Thomas' zone.
At the perfect time, Glennon brings his eyes away from Jackson and finds tight end Tim Wright down the seam. Glennon understood that the Seahawks were playing with a single-high safety and both cornerbacks outside, so he put the ball on his target's back-shoulder. This was a perfectly timed, perfectly accurate pass. Against the Seahawks defense, you need your quarterback to be playing to this level consistently for any game plan to work. Brees has the ability to match and surpass Glennon's performance from Week 9.
Jimmy Graham will be key for the Saints. Graham was the only receiver who gave the Seahawks any problems in coverage during the regular season. With his size and athleticism, that is no surprise. But he wasn't playing his best football. Graham couldn't come down with one deep pass down the sideline and there were other opportunities where he couldn't high-point the ball against a defender like he has in the past.
In spite of Graham's talent, the Seahawks won't trail him with their best defender. Richard Sherman is the perfect player to counter Graham, but the Seahawks typically leave him to stay at left cornerback, picking up whichever receiver goes his way. Throwing at Sherman is very dangerous and throwing at him deep down the sideline is asking for trouble. However, the Seahawks don't look to force you to throw at Sherman too often. Instead, they anchor their coverage off of Thomas.
Thomas doesn't cheat to Sherman's side of the field. He truly plays in center field so both cornerbacks are typically equidistant from him. This means that not only will Graham not be covered by Sherman, but if he is split wide against another cornerback, he won't have to face extra coverage. The Saints didn't look to take advantage of these situations last time around. They did force the ball to him down the sideline late in the game when he was working against a linebacker, but the Seahawks gave the linebacker safety help.
For the most part, Thomas will play free safety, but there are occasions when he rotates into the slot and Kam Chancellor drops into center field. On these occasions, the Saints have to attack downfield. Chancellor is a bigger defensive back who can't cover ground anywhere near as fast as Thomas. When a quarterback is smart enough to manipulate him after the snap, he essentially has no chance of success.
The Buccaneers benefited from multiple pass interference calls against the Seahawks. One against Thomas was very questionable, but they were rewarded for being aggressive. This one against Brandon Browner appeared to be a good call, but it highlights how far away Chancellor is after Glennon has manipulated him. Browner wasn't having a good season before his suspension, so the Seahawks were already working more with Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond. Both players have impressed but neither Maxwell or Thurmond are as big as Browner, so they could struggle if matched up with Graham.
Clear solutions or easy plays aren't available against Seattle. Sean Payton is a smart coach and understands that. Risks aren't a problem, so long as they are calculated risks. Payton may have another plan that could expose the best defense in the NFL. From the outside looking in, it appears that establishing the run with Mark Ingram and focusing on Jimmy Graham is their best plan for success.
No matter what plan Payton comes up with, he will need near-perfect execution to overcome this daunting task.
18 comments, Last at 19 Mar 2014, 5:28pm by tektak220