by Doug Farrar
Stone Cold Bush
In his estimable 10-year NFL career, Drew Brees has had two different four-interception games. The first came on September 24, 2007, against a Tennessee Titans defense that finished first in DVOA against the pass that season. The second time? Last Sunday, against a Cleveland Browns defense that ranks 24th, even after the effort. Saints fans can only hope that Brees' four-pick day in a 30-17 loss will be the worst part of a season in which the team's formerly diverse and ruthlessly efficient offense has been tripping all over itself. Brees has never been an interception machine, but the next pick he throws in 2010 will match last year's total of 11. Last year, Brees ranked fourth in DYAR and third in DVOA. He's at fourth and ninth, respectively, in 2010, but the team's passing offense DVOA has dropped from fifth to 14th, and the dynamism seems to be gone. An offense that featured a great deal of formation diversity is far more static --- the Saints seem to like the same approximate percentage of twins and trips, but one factor is clearly missing from that formula.
When Reggie Bush went down in the second game of the season with a fractured fibula, everything changed. The offense designed so painstakingly and to such great effect by head coach Sean Payton is keyed on the relationship between routes run out of the backfield, and various motions to the line via various changing receiver groups. Bush has never lived up to expectations from a statistical standpoint -- you generally want more out of a second-overall pick than the numbers he's put up to date -- but there are instances in which players provide extremely high value from a playbook perspective that aren't represented in their numbers.
I had my own ideas about what Bush meant to that offense, and what his absence has done to it, but I decided to get an expert's take. So, it was back to the well with Friend of FO Greg Cosell, the Executive Producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup show. I shared my theory that without Bush as the main moving part, the Saints' offense had no equivalent weapon.
"Their whole offense is based on what we call 'receiver distribution and location,'" Cosell told me. "How many receivers are on each side of the formation, and who those receivers are. Because that's what dictates how defenses play. And Reggie Bush presents a burden to a defense in terms of how they choose to match up with receiver distribution and location. Without Bush, the Saints are limited in their formation usage. They were probably the offense that had the most formation usage of any team in football. But I also think it's how teams react. There was an incompletion against the Browns -- I believe it was on the second series, and they played two-man and matched up Ladell Betts with a linebacker in Scott Fujita. And by the way, they were playing dime, so they matched up their sixth defensive back to Jeremy Shockey. And that's a perfect example. Would a team match up a linebacker in man coverage on Reggie Bush?"
The assumption: "Not for long."
Of the four picks Brees threw on Sunday, only the fourth showed any semblance of pre-snap motion or formations intended to spread a defense out. It seems far more obvious this year that defenses can line up against the Saints without the fear of having their initial reads blow up in their faces. That's the inevitable product of personnel sets that dictate a more limited offensive flexibility.
"One crucial defensive concept, especially when you're playing zone defense, is to understand routes and route combinations, based on distribution and location," Cosell said. "Because the Saints are more limited in that without Bush, I think teams have a much better feel for what routes are coming, based on the alignment of the receivers. And I think that the Browns, just to use the most recent example, did an unbelievable job of that. They were very willing to jump intermediate routes, and they sat on a lot of those. Brees is a timing thrower -- he takes his shots to be sure, but it's a three-step, five-step passing game. And what the Browns did really well is that they won early in the down. They took away those quick timing throws, and that's when the Saints' offensive line, which is not very good on the outside with Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb, gets exposed."
After reviewing this game and the four picks specifically for Scout.com's Cleveland Browns site, I'm convinced that as much as "enemy intel" is an overcooked concept when a player faces a former team, there's something to the way the Browns had a bead on what Brees and the Saints' offense were doing that speaks to Cleveland (former New Orleans) linebacker Scott Fujita's expertise on the subject. Brees and Fujita played together from 2006 through 2009, and his interception early in the second quarter (Fig. 1) may have revealed some of those tells.
|Figure 1: Fujita's interception|
The Saints had second-and-7 from the Cleveland 11-yard line, and they lined up in shotgun and a tight bunch right. Cleveland responded with a four-man front with two deep safeties and tight cornerback coverage. But the interesting move here happened before the snap, when Fujita (99) directed right defensive end Kenyon Coleman (90) into an intermediate drop. The Browns then closed ranks in a three-man line, and Coleman's positioning allowed Fujita to cover the left flat as running back Ladell Betts ran a flare route to the weak side. Fujita was able to jump the route and pick the ball intended for Betts because he knew the middle zone was covered.
The Browns used the same basic idea on the second of two picks by linebacker David Bowens. With 3:49 left in the game, the Browns had cornerback Mike Adams drop back from a 3-3 stack, and Bowens read Brees on the underneath route when he tried to get a quick pass to Betts. It's pretty clear on these types of patterns that the Saints are scheming for a man who isn't there; Bush's speed to the flats and seams, and his quickness in short areas, are not easily replaced -- or replaced at all.
"It's an incredibly scheme-based offense, and when elements of that scheme are taken away, it becomes easier to defend," Cosell said. "The Saints can't just line up and say, 'Our guys are going to win.'"
I mentioned the fake sweep that the Saints love to run when Bush is on the field. The threat of Bush possibly taking a run wide one way or the other takes linebackers and safeties away from their assignments. I also think that Bush presents Payton with an equivalent decoy in the passing game when he moves up from the backfield and hits those short routes -- perhaps a slightly devolved version of what Marshall Faulk did for the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams as a running back/receiver hybrid.
"Absolutely true," Cosell said. "Bush takes coverage with him, and it's always underneath coverage, so you have a passing window opening up. That's what a Lance Moore or a Marques Colston needs, because they're underneath receivers. They're not deep guys. So, Bush absolutely ... I mean, I can think of a couple of examples in the Minnesota game where Bush moved coverage just by what he did. And those will not be big plays -- maybe a 12-yard pass -- but that's what the Saints' offense is. It's a sustaining offense where every once in a while, they'll hit you with their vertical seams. That's a clear foundation of what they do."
I asked Greg if fixing that offense is as simple as welcoming Bush back to the lineup (as the Saints are hoping to do in time for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday), or if there are other factors at play.
"I don't think it's ever that simple when you're not playing well," he said. "You don't just snap your fingers and go back. Bush does give them opportunities and options they clearly don't have now. But even the interception Brees threw to Fujita in the red zone, not the Bowens stuff -- he and Betts were clearly not on the same page. Betts stuck his foot in the ground as if he was going inside, and that's when Brees threw the ball. He got what he thought was the indicator for the route, and then went outside. That kind of stuff wouldn't happen with Bush, because they've played together much longer. I mean, Betts has been there for three or four weeks.
"But I can tell you this from Ron Jaworski -- going into the Monday Night Football games, when they have the Saints, the first thing defensive coordinators bring up is Bush. Obviously, the numbers aren't any good for fantasy people, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about how defenses structure, and what they do based on Reggie Bush."
Cosell also wanted to make it clear that this season has not changed his positive take on Payton and Brees. It's far more that people have been underestimating Bush's value because the numbers don't show it. "Oh, I think he's terrific," he said of Payton as a play-caller. "Over the last couple of years, there hasn't been anybody better at utilizing personnel. And I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but I don't think they have a 'big-time' receiver on that team. So, I think he's done an unbelievable job of maximizing the personnel he has. And a lot of it comes back to Brees, because Brees has a ton of freedom at the line of scrimmage.
|Figure 2: Saints' first offensive play|
"You know, we live in such an immediate-gratification world, people forget how great Brees has been just because he hasn't played that well recently. He's so good at the line of scrimmage, getting everyone into the right protections and moving people around to dictate matchups. But Bush is a big part of that. It's simple stuff, too. Let's say Bush is lined up in the backfield, and all of a sudden, you split him out. Who goes with him?"
That is the question. In fact, New Orleans' first offensive play of the 2010 regular season (Fig. 2) was the one that looked most like the scores that peppered the Super Bowl year. In a shotgun two-back set, Bush forced Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield to stay down in short coverage as Bush bounced into the right hash area, which left linebacker E.J. Henderson to try to catch up with Marques Colston on a 28-yard pass play up the middle. In the post-Bush offense, that backfield-to-downfield threat is a non-factor -- and that's what we saw in the loss to the Browns. Betts, and Chris Ivory, and even Pierre Thomas when he's healthy, can't do those things.
Diamonds and Rust
In this week's Audibles at the Line, we brought up the increased use of the "diamond" formation, in which a fourth receiver is added to the back of the traditional bunch route. The Seahawks, Patriots, and Vikings have run it this season, and the Vikings used it twice in their Sunday night 28-24 loss to the Packers. Generally speaking, the idea behind this formation has been to clear out deeper coverage and leave one of the four receivers at or near the line for a quick receiver screen. But on the first of three Brett Favre interceptions in that game, all four receivers took off into different deeper routes.
|Figure 3: Brett Favre INT off Diamond|
On the play (Fig. 3), the Packers kept two safeties deep -- one for the formation, and one for Randy Moss on the other side. Minnesota had a nice route combo drawn up, but the Vikings ran into an unforeseen problem: Green Bay defended this perfectly. It's clear that right after he takes the shotgun snap, Favre is looking to the right side to see how everything develops.
But when linebacker Desmond Bishop (55) came up to re-route the top receiver outside, and then hung back to prevent Favre from hitting that quick first read, everything fell apart for No. 4. Given time in the pocket, Favre waited for Bernard Berrian to run the deep cross, but A.J. Hawk (50) easily jumped that route. The genius of the coverage was that defensive coordinator Dom Capers drew up his own little diamond to counteract what the Vikings were doing, and everyone ran their assignments to perfection.
Quad and diamond stack formations are used in college football to greater effect, and I'd be curious to see NFL teams run different styles of quad stuff (trips instead of bunch with an extra free or stacked receiver) in different ways. I would like to be able to diagram some different four-cluster receiver sets later in the season as these concepts take hold.