Film Room: Sean Payton

Film Room: Sean Payton
Film Room: Sean Payton
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

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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.

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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

1 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

I am a Seahawks fan. I expect a close game on Saturday. But I don't find the analysis of "if the Saints can duplicate the Seahawks' worst half of football they can do well" to be particularly compelling (another example was Doug Farrar's bit on how to beat Richard Sherman by diagramming the blown coverage on TY Hilton, as if offenses can duplicate that one play on command).

For example, Tampa Bay scored three points in the second half. Did they forget how to block, or how to hand the ball off? Or did the Seahawks make adjustments? What were the adjustments? Will those adjustments work against the Saints, or are they somehow exploitable by Drew Brees?

That's the kind of breakdown I'd like to see. This whole article might as well say "if the Seahawks play their worst and the Saints play their best New Orleans can win," which doesn't really add to my understanding of the game.

2 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

To be a bit fair, it perhaps would have been more "accurate" to write a piece that says something like "The Seahawks are quite a bit better than the Saints, they are at home, and their strengths match up well against what New Orleans does best. If the Seahawks play well, they'll win." That might be more true, but it's also not much of a read.

3 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

I'm a Seahawks fan too, and I definitely enjoyed this article. All you typically get when talking about the Seattle defense is how great they are, and any struggles that get mentioned are always about the run defense. It's not like the pass defense forced 65 interceptions and allowed 0 touchdowns this year. San Francisco's passing game plan in the second game, for example, was very impressive, and they could've dealt even more damage if Kaepernick had been more accurate.

17 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

You make a good point, but if you'll recall back to that Tampa Bay game Tampa Bay played extremely conservative in the second quarter. Every drive ended in a punt except for the one field goal, because they played to protect the lead rather than extend it. Because of that, their defense, which was already overextended gave up the lead to that explosive Seattle defense. So, all in all, Seattle was the better team and Tampa Bay panicked with the lead.

The Saints need to replicate that first half gameplan throughout the game. Brees is, obviously, a better quarterback than Glennon. The Saints have to use different running schemes (I'd expect man blocking when Khiry Robinson is in and zone when Ingram is running, as they suit the backs' needs) and run a lot of counters and draws to use the Hawks' aggressiveness against them, before going to play action to beat them over the top with Graham. The running game and patience is so important against a defense like Seattle's, a lot of drives will end in punts, but as Coach Fischer told Jameis Winston, make sure every possession ends in a kick. Extra points, field goals, punts. Field position will determine who wins this game.

4 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

FWIW, part of the deal when Graham was working against "a linebacker" is that said linebacker was K. J. Wright, who did an excellent job in coverage. K.J.'s not especially fast or particularly quick, but he's big and long, and he consistently prevented Graham from getting open for any length of time.

That's one of the reasons for concern on the part of 'Hawks fans -- K.J.'s out with an injury this week, so Seattle will have to do something else.

5 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

So, echoing Jake's concern with this article, and backing it up with some data. (Full Disclosure: I'm a Seahawks fan.)

The Seahawks had two really bad games stopping the run. Week 8 vs. St. Louis, and the Week 9 game against Tampa mentioned above. (20.1% and 23.7% DVOA, respectively.) Before that, in weeks 1-7, the rushing defensive DVOA ranged from -6.2% to -39.7%.

In, I believe, the Monday press conference after the Tampa game, Pete Carroll stated that they've isolated what they'd done wrong against the run over the prior two games, and they were going to correct it.

In weeks 10-17, the rushing defensive DVOA ranged from -8.2% to -76.8%. (For comparison, SF's season defensive DVOA against the run is -8.1%.)

Those two weeks are obviously outliers. If the pattern hadn't been so consistently obvious it would be one thing, but this has all the earmarks of "play well, get sloppy/play like crap, stop getting sloppy/play well." Saying the Saints have to model their game plan against a defense that doesn't seem to behave like it did against Tampa doesn't make for much of an article.

What I was hoping to see was things like:
- What New Orleans has done successfully against other fronts similar to Seattle's,
- How they can try to isolate Graham with KJ Wright inactive, and
- What might happen when the best screen offense goes up against one of the best screen defenses.

9 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

Great point, I didn't realize the numbers were so stark.

Honestly, I expect things to be close because Sean Payton is a great coach and Drew Brees is a great quarterback. But every article I've seen by the experts trying to argue in favor of the Saints has been completely unpersuasive.

I mean, it's not compelling analysis to pick out the low points of the Seahawks's season and say "just do that." As if the Seahawks will do the exact same things that gave them their worst results of the season, and as if the Saints have the pieces they need to "do that."

Why not look at the worst half of Saints football and assume things will go that way? At least we know the Seahawks have the players who can make it happen.

I'd like to see a little bit more analysis of why the Saints are in a position to do better this time. Personally, I think the absence of KJ Wright is a little worrying, and it seems like Brees and Graham will at the very least see some regression to their mean performance and always have the possibility of blowing up.

Pointing out that Sherman doesn't intercept literally every pass thrown his way (per Farrar), or that the previous game would have been close if every Seahawk big play didn't happen and the Saints capitalized on every opportunity they had (per Barnwell on Grantland)... that's not telling me anything new or particularly suggestive about what will happen on Saturday.

15 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

He's on the verge of writing what he should have written. He says it comes down to establishing a run game and having Graham be more of a factor. Well, with KJ Wright out, Graham could very well become more of a factor. The article should have shown how Wright shut Graham down last time, who Graham is most likely to face this week and what the Saints need to do to get him the ball this time around. Also, if they need to run to win, don't go to the Rams or TB games to give examples that amount to, "if the Hawks regress to the two weeks they abandoned gap discipline while testing out blitz schemes" as your example of what to do. Show how the Saints beat other teams with similar run defenses and how the Hawks got beat in the other 14 games of the season even when they did stick to their gaps. Show what the Hawks are doing now and how the Saints can beat that, if possible.

How will the Saints attack that secondary? Bunched sets have given the Hawks the most problems due to the confusion it causes their press man coverage. Can Brees exploit that?

This author has the talent and knowledge to make those kinds of analyses. Would like to see him take his writing to that level.

P.S. Someone kill that spam filter. It's more insidiously evil than sharks with laser beams.

6 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

In the same way Farrar's article was flawed because it was basically "have All-Pro caliber defensive players" that the Saints don't have, this one is flawed: Seattle had two bad run defense games and in both cases, Bobby Wagner was playing with a high ankle sprain. No one has approached that sort of run play efficiency since. Seattle played St. Louis again, and St. Louis had negative yards rushing at the end of the 3rd quarter. I bet Seattle's run defense DVOA would look pretty darn elite if you took out the Tampa Bay and earlier St. Louis game, and that DVOA would be far more representative.

7 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

New Orleans can win this game, obviously. It's supposed to be super rainy and windy, so it would probably look like New Orleans's defense appearing much better than usual due to an assist from the weather, plus Brees taking max advantage of short rhythm passing offense and not making any mistakes.

8 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

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.

Wow, is that damming with faint praise for Arizona. They held Seattle to 3.6 YPP and won the game even with 4 interceptions, two of which occurred in the end zone and one of which occurred on the edge of field goal territory. While Seattle's secondary is exceptional, it's not THAT exceptional; had Palmer played better Arizona would have won easily.

I know the point you are trying to make is that NO most likely can't stifle Seattle's offense as Arizona did. You can make that point though without diminishing Arizona's dominant performance.

10 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

"Had Palmer played better Arizona would have won easily."

Had Palmer played better Seattle would've played more aggressively than they did. When has anyone beaten Seattle easily?

14 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

So what, the Seahawks were just holding back and were okay with playing terribly on offense all day? Taking more risks doesn't guarantee greater success anyway.

13 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

"The Buccaneers benefited from multiple pass interference calls against the Seahawks"

That is one thing that the Saints should definitely not count on this week.

16 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

In order for the Saints to win, their defense is likely going to have to hold Seattle to less than 20, maybe less than 17. Which also means that the Saints offense likely can't give the Seattle offense a short field more than once, if even that.

18 Re: Film Room: Sean Payton

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