"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
05 Sep 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
No one really knows whether the New Orleans Saints can overcome the distractions and fallout of "BountyGate." Their situation –- head coach Sean Payton suspended for the entire year, interim head coach Joe Vitt suspended the first six game, general manager Mickey Loomis suspended the first eight -– is unprecedented. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will get the rare interim-interim tag as the team waits for it's real coaches to be allowed back.
That said, the Saints have had time to prepare for this mess and, as you’d imagine, they’re approaching the 2012 season with a "make no excuses" attitude. Their unique journey will be uphill -– it’s just a matter of how steep the incline turns out to be. The Saints, of course, are confident they can make it; in the spirit of optimism, here’s a case for why they can.
Sean Payton was (is? we’ll say "was" for now) very valuable to this organization. Not because he was a great game-day coach (though he was), and certainly not because he was a shrewd play-caller. In fact, last season, in the 10 games where Payton turned the play-calling over to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, the Saints averaged 476 yards and scored over 40 points six times.
Payton’s value stems primarily from the offensive system he’s designed. That system won’t just disappear while he’s away. And the main man executing it, quarterback Drew Brees, isn’t going anywhere now that he has (finally) been given the richest guaranteed contract in NFL history. Brees and most of his current core weapons and their coaches have been together for several years now. Payton’s presence will surely be missed in meetings and film study sessions during the week, but Brees has always played an integral role in those meetings. And most of the Saints assistant offensive coaches have been in the program for at least five years.
On the other side of the ball, BountyGate may have involved the Saints defense, but the fallout from it is mostly irrelevant to their current unit. By the time the BountyGate axes fell, Gregg Williams had already joined the Rams, and Saints defensive players were already learning new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s vastly different scheme. Suspended linebacker Scott Fujita had already joined the Browns. suspended defensive end Anthony Hargrove had already joined the Packers. Suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma was reportedly already being phased out of the plans, which is why Loomis signed his replacement, Falcons free agent Curtis Lofton, to a long-term deal. So, really, BountyGate’s only true impact on this 2012 defense is the loss of end Will Smith for four games and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six. Painful? Maybe a little. Devastating? Not even close.
No crying over spilt milk. The 2012 season is here. Sean Payton is not. But the Saints can keep marching.
In order to understand why the Saints offense can function just fine with coordinator Pete Carmichael handling most of Sean Payton’s duties, you must understand what makes the Saints’ system so effective. For starters, quarterback Drew Brees has mastered it. The 12th-year veteran has good, but certainly not amazing, natural tools. His arm strength is respectable but not astounding; he’s mobile but not in a frightening way; he’s strong in the pocket but, at six-feet-even, not always able to easily see over the line.
None of these "limitations" are a problem, though, because Brees has perfected all of the quarterbacking traits that don’t come directly from God. He processes information before and after the snap as swiftly and effectively as any passer in the game. He’s also mechanically sound, particularly in the pocket, where his footwork and balance always mask New Orleans’ iffy front five.
With a maestro like Brees under center, the Saints’ system has grown into arguably the widest-reaching, most varied offense in the NFL. A lot of people think of it as a speed-oriented spread, but it’s not. Despite the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham and addition of running back Darren Sproles last season, the Saints mostly used a base personnel offense. That’s what makes them magical; defenses have no idea how to treat Graham and Sproles because both players can be explosive out of their traditional spots or in any of the wide receiver slots.
Having versatile base personnel allows New Orleans to use a panoply of different formations. It’s not uncommon for them to line up 15 different ways on the first 15 plays. There simply isn’t enough time during the week for defenses to prepare for everything the Saints throw at them. So, defenses must instead prepare for general concepts, which can sometimes water down their own scheme and make players passive.
Even if the defense can correctly identify the Saints’ concepts, there’s still no promise of getting a stop. Brees processes information so quickly he can work through as many as five reads on one dropback, which makes every eligible Saint a genuine threat. New Orleans’s play designs are cutting edge and fairly easy to execute; most of the pass plays are built to hit the inside receiver, which is why so many of the outside routes aim to stretch the defense vertically or horizontally. The Saints are very hard to play zone against. Of course, they’re also hard to play man against, not so much because they have great players but because the formation diversity naturally creates a lot of mismatches and favorable angles.
Keep in mind, everything the Saints do is at an accelerated pace. That helps them immensely. They don’t technically run a hurry-up, though, because they change personnel so frequently. That’s the other key: the personnel. Just because the Saints frequently operate out of base doesn’t mean they’re always using the same group of guys. This team is deeper than Socrates (your forgiveness, please).
The Saints have perhaps the game’s best tight end in Jimmy Graham -– he’s involved in virtually every package. Behind him, there’s a flexible movement-oriented blocker and short-area receiving weapon in David Thomas. Thomas can line up as a traditional tight end, as a fullback, H-back, or even shallow slot receiver. The Saints also added a vociferous blocking tight end in Daniel Graham, who will boost the goal-line package and maybe even supplant backup offensive tackle Charles Brown in the frequently used six-offensive-linemen sets.
New Orleans’s depth is even more impressive in the backfield. Darren Sproles is the weapon who keeps defensive coaches up at night, but Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas are the focal points in the ground game. Many are expecting big things from Ingram coming off a rookie season that was hindered by injuries. If healthy, Ingram has the power and subtle interior elusiveness to close out games week in and week out. He mainly plays in two-back sets –- with either starting fullback Jed Collins or, occasionally, backup Korey Hall –- which is why it’s important he get sharper at reading his blocks and timing his bursts.
Thomas often gets the nod in single-back sets. He doesn’t have the quick-twitch prowess to consistently create his own space, but in the flow of a play that involves movement-oriented blocking, he can be very good. His pass-catching ability is also a plus, particularly on screens, which the Saints love to run. Of course, for primary receiving duties, the Saints turn to the devastatingly shifty Sproles, who does have the ability to create his own space.
Sproles’s 86 receptions last season were second most on the team to Graham’s 99, but that doesn’t mean the eighth-year running back is Brees’ second-favorite target. Wide receiver Marques Colston is. A lot of New Orleans’s offense is centered around drawing one-on-one matchups for the veteran inside. As a former seventh-round pick, Colston doesn’t quite have dynamic enough athleticism to consistently win battles outside, though he is still more reliable on the perimeter than speedster Devery Henderson.
With Robert Meachem leaving in free agency, the Saints spent a fourth-round pick Wisconsin’s Nick Toon. The son of former Jet Al Toon has good size and physicality. Alas, he landed on IR with a foot injury, so the fourth receiver job will be retained by incumbent Adrian Arrington. The No. 3 duties will go to Lance Moore, who isn’t a star, but is perfect for this system as of the best zone-beating intermediate route runners in the NFL.
The Saints’ front five is built to accommodate, not carry, the offense. Because Brees is short and so good at stepping up in the pocket, the Saints have taken the unusual approach of investing heavily at guard and just modestly at tackle. There’s a limit to their interior spending, though. Three-time Pro Bowl right guard Jahri Evans was given a seven-year, $56.7 million contract in 2010, but this past offseason, Loomis wouldn’t break the bank to keep two-time Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks. He, did, however, spend $36 million over five years to sign former Raven Ben Grubbs. Grubbs doesn’t have Nicks’s size, but he’s an athletic all-around force who should be able to get almost as much movement in the run game as his predecessor. Between the two guards is decent-sized, but unexciting, center Brian De La Puente.
Jermon Bushrod earned Pro Bowl honors last season, but that was because the NFC was thin at left tackle and fans are uneducated voters. Bushrod improved his footwork, especially in the ground game, but he only survived in pass protection because he was given a lot of chip-block help and his quarterback has perfect pocket mobility and ball-release timing. At right tackle, it’s the same story with Zach Strief, only without anyone voting him to the Pro Bowl. The hope was that Charles Brown would have claimed Strief’s job by now, but the 2010 second-round pick has poor body control and pass-blocking mechanics.
Some have used the phrase "night and day" to characterize the differences between Gregg Williams’s system and Steve Spagnuolo’s. In short, Williams’s system is largely man-based, while Spagnuolo’s is largely zone. The zone concepts should help the Saints secondary, especially strong safety Roman Harper, who is an excellent player when not having to play man-to-man deep coverage. One of the reasons Williams played so much man coverage was that he blitzed a lot.
Williams blitzed a lot because his defensive line could barely generate a lick of pass-rushing pressure on its own. This will be a problem for Spagnuolo. His system worked wonderfully when he was coordinating a Giants defense that had one of the best four-man pass-rushes the league has ever seen. It worked only modestly well when he had a middle-tier front four in St. Louis. How will it work here, where his front four is clearly a cut below the Rams’?
The first month of the season could be particularly rough with Will Smith serving his suspension. The tireless Smith is New Orleans’s only respectable pass-rusher, and he’s actually more of a run-defending end. Smith had just 6.5 sacks last season, after recording 5.5 in 2010. To buttress this front four, New Orleans spent a first-round pick last year on Cameron Jordan. Thus far, the early indication is Jordan will be, at best, another version of Smith. He plays hard and has good lateral strength against the run, but he hasn’t shown the moves to penetrate or the speed to turn the corner. He started 15 games last season, but has just one career sack to his name.
The Saints do have a somewhat explosive pass-rush specialist in Junior Galette, but they’ll likely use the more-rounded Turk McBride as Smith’s fill-in starter. Also in the mix is last year’s third-round pick, Martez Wilson, but having played linebacker in college, he’s little more than a sub-package niche player at this point.
Inside, the prospects aren’t much better. Sedrick Ellis has been underwhelming since being drafted in the first round five years ago. Newcomer Brodrick Bunkley is coming off a stellar season in Denver, but he’s a first-and second-down run-stuffer, not a quarterback chaser. That description could also be issued for third-round rookie Akiem Hicks – someday. For now, the 325-pounder from Regina is presumably too raw to see anything more than spot-duty in 2012.
The good news is, unlike most zone-based 4-3 defensive schemers, Spagnuolo is not at the complete mercy of his front four. He is one of the shrewder blitz-callers in the NFL. Yes, a tepid defensive line isn’t favorable, and yes, Spagnuolo is not as aggressive in his blitzes as the venomous Williams was. But Spagnuolo does a great job of creating advantageous one-on-one matchups against running backs in pass protection, and many of his attacks involve six rushers. If executed properly, Saints defenders will have chances at clear paths to the quarterback.
In New Orleans, Spagnuolo has some of the best back-seven blitzers in the business. Strong safety Roman Harper led the Saints with 7.5 sacks last season. Harper is very swift and very instinctive near the line of scrimmage. Nickel linebacker Jonathan Casillas has tremendous downhill burst when playing in a straight line. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins can also go after the quarterback. Plus, as a former first-round cornerback, Jenkins is capable of lining up in and defending the slot. That’s important because one of Spagnuolo’s hallmarks is using "nickel star blitzes," which involve a linebacker and the slot corner attacking.
Blitzing in front of zone coverages should, theoretically, lead to more interception opportunities, as quarterbacks will be forced to make hasty decisions against defensive backs who can keep an eye on them at all times. This in mind, it’s a little surprising that the Saints didn’t work harder to re-sign Tracy Porter –- especially considering Porter wound up getting only a one-year, $4 million deal in Denver. An optimist might say that the decision to let Porter leave suggests the Saints like what they have in 2011 third-round pick Johnny Patrick.
Patrick, the new nickelback, is essentially the man replacing Porter, given that 2010 first-rounder Patrick Robinson already got a lot of first unit snaps last season. Robinson, who is primarily an outside defender, is developing nicely after a somewhat slow start. He’s still honing his all-around coverage instincts, but he’s already become a phenomenal bubble screen and quick-strike stopper. Opposite Robinson will be Jabari Greer, a perpetually underrated shadow-man defender who should be just fine in this new scheme. It helps all these corners that the man behind them, Jenkins, has arguably the best range of any free safety in the NFC.
As far as the middle of the defense goes, the Saints will endure a bit of a downgrade with Curtis Lofton replacing Jonathan Vilma. Lofton isn’t a stiff, but the Falcons let him go because he lacks range and fluidity in coverage. Against the run, he doesn’t quite have Vilma’s instincts, but he’s smart enough and will be more effective than his predecessor in congested areas. If Lofton is out (he’s missed some time battling a high ankle sprain) newly-acquired Barrett Ruud would fill in. He would be a significant downgrade, just as he was a year ago in Tennessee.
Outside, Scott Shanle returns on the strong side, while former Seahawk David Hawthorne takes over on the weak side. Both are proficient north/south players who show hints of limitations when going east and west. Of the two, Hawthorne is clearly the most dynamic.
Garrett Hartley, who missed all of last season with a hip injury, proved healthy enough to beat out John Kasay. Punter Thomas Morstead has a big leg but won’t be needed often. Darren Sproles handles kick and punt returns, which is a little surprising. Sproles is certainly lethal in this role, but he’s become very valuable to the offense. If the Saints want to preserve him, they can turn to Courtney Roby.
The Saints clearly have great pieces on offense, it’s just a matter of how well they can be organized in Payton’s absence. Don’t expect too much trouble there. More concerning is the defense, which may not have enough firepower to fully run Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.
3 comments, Last at 05 Sep 2012, 3:05pm by Joseph