Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Saints Offense

Film Room: Saints Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

The recent woes of Jared Goff have gotten lots of attention, but the Los Angeles Rams' offense is not alone in its fall from grace. Across the country, another offensive juggernaut in the New Orleans Saints is struggling as the regular season comes to an end. A three-game road trip has seemingly sucked the life out of Sean Payton's offense, deflating quarterback Drew Brees' MVP hopes and forcing the defense to step up, which they fortunately have. Still, the Saints' offense clunking into the playoffs with tires falling off and the check-engine light flashing is not the condition they hoped for.

FO Head Honcho Aaron Schatz recently noted the decline of the Rams and Saints on Twitter:

Through the first three months of the season, New Orleans rivaled all of the top offenses outside of Kansas City, who sit so far above the pack that it is almost unreasonable to compare. Over the past three weeks, on the other hand, only a small handful of offenses have been worse than the Saints. It should come as no surprise that the past three weeks count for all but one of the Saints' four negative offensive DVOA ratings of the season, with the other coming during Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns. That Browns game was easy to brush off as an early-season fluke, but this recent stretch is tougher to ignore.

Part of New Orleans' issues come with a simple diagnosis. For example, the offensive line has been noticeably worse in the absence of left tackle Terron Armstead. Armstead has been out of the lineup since Week 11, just before the team's offensive spiral begun. Generally speaking, offensive lines are only as good as their weakest link, so now having Jermon Bushrod in the lineup in place of Armstead dampens an otherwise great unit.

Many of the Saints' other recent troubles either layer on top of a deteriorating line or are rooted in its shortcomings. The Dallas Cowboys in Week 13, for instance, were able to be more aggressive up front and with their coverages than they may have been otherwise because they had more confidence that they could get home versus this crippled version of the Saints' offensive line, as well as a secondary that could effectively press. Even if the Cowboys' pass-rushers did not get to Brees on every play, the increased threat of pressure allowed the secondary (specifically Byron Jones) to press the Saints' key receivers freely.

via Gfycat

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This was the first of many battles between Jones and Michael Thomas that evening. In this play, Jones (31) follows Thomas (13) and lines up directly over him at the tip of the bunch set. Jones jabs Thomas and directs him outside as Thomas tries to stem into his route. Thomas does his best to bend outside and burn past Jones, but Jones' advantage from the start of the route allowed him to keep up with Thomas and contest the catch point, leading to a confirmed incompletion after replay review.

via Gfycat

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Later in the contest, Jones shut down this Saints' red zone trip with perfect press coverage on Thomas' slant route. Typically, Thomas has the size and savvy to win this route versus the best of 'em, but Jones can match his athletic ability and technical skill when in press. As he has done to many others, Jones bullies Thomas on the slant route and collapses on the catch point for another incompletion.

All throughout the contest, Jones moved around the formation in press coverage to disrupt everything the Saints wanted to do. Be it following Thomas, pressing an isolated Tre'Quan Smith on the backside of the formation, or pressing the front man in a stacked-receiver set, Jones was pressing New Orleans out of the game.

Not every team has an elite press cornerback such as Jones, but that only serves to make the Saints' shortcomings versus poor Bucs and Panthers defenses even more perplexing. Neither of those teams can match the talent the Cowboys have in either the secondary or defensive line, yet they still found ways to keep the Saints' offense down.

What stuck out in the Saints' past two performances against these weak defenses is how ineffective their screen game has become. The same was true versus Dallas, but it was drowned out by the handful of other things that went wrong for New Orleans that night. It may have been due to the divisional "boost" in understanding a rival team's tendencies, but the Bucs and Panthers were all over the Saints' screens, no matter the receiver.

via Gfycat

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The Saints attempted to fool the Bucs on this play by moving running back Alvin Kamara to the slot to the left of the formation. In previous instances, Kamara has caught screens and other passes from that alignment, so it may have been fair to assume that was their plan this time around as well. However, linebacker Adarius Taylor saw through the facade and snuffed out the Saints' true intentions: a screen to running back Mark Ingram, who was crossing from Brees' left toward the right hash. In addition, the Bucs' defensive line crashed toward the screen side of the play, which disrupted the timing of the Saints' offensive linemen getting off their blocks and into space to deal with second-level defenders such as Taylor. Between Taylor's intuition and the defensive line's overload, Brees was rushed and baited into throwing a painful interception behind the line of scrimmage.

Though the Panthers never generated a turnover off of it, they also had success in shutting down the Saints' screen passes. In fact, one Saints offensive series in that game featured back-to-back tackles for loss on screen passes, first to Thomas and then to Kamara.

A final, more subtle setback the Saints have run into is Brees' unwillingness to be aggressive until necessary. No, this is not a call for Brees to revert back to the early- to mid-2010s Brees that had to be more aggressive to carry the team on his back, but Brees' apparent reluctance to throw deeper than 15 yards save for a small handful of designed shot plays has hindered the offense. Brees is not showing enough willingness or creativity to attack intermediate to deep passing windows until the game is on the line, which is a conundrum considering that same unwillingness is part of the reason the game is on the line to begin with. This was more so the case in the Cowboys and Bucs games than the Panthers game, but it has still played a part in this poor stretch of production.

via Gfycat

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Here is one such example of Brees hesitating on an intermediate or deep route. As Brees hits the top of his dropback, he appears to be looking for Thomas on the dig route cutting toward the inside over the left hash marks. An offensive lineman has been pushed back near Brees, but it should be routine for Brees to hitch up and make the throw. Granted, this 18-yard throw is not an easy one, but it is one we all know Brees can make. Instead of pulling the trigger when he had the opportunity, Brees holds onto the ball and takes the checkdown option for a small gain.

Now juxtapose that play with Brees' heroic effort to close out the game in Carolina. On a third-and-14 with about seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Brees came through with a rail shot down the seam. The Saints were up in the game, but had they not converted, the Panthers would have gotten the ball back with decent field position, all their timeouts, and plenty of clock to work with. It was a "gotta have it" moment for Brees.

via Gfycat

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Brees puts this throw on a rope between multiple defenders. No quarterback should be expected to complete this pass, but Brees is one of the few guys that does not surprise you when he hits the mark.

Furthermore, Brees ranks above lauded deep passers such as Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers with the top independent quarterback rating on passes beyond 20 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. He is clearly capable of still attacking down the field and into tight windows, even if he currently is not doing it at the same capacity that he could be.

The sudden collapse of the Saints' offense becomes a bit more complicated when accounting for Brees' history of being markedly worse on the road, particularly outside of domes, but it would be foolish to chalk up this three-game stretch solely to poor home/road splits. The offense has experienced legitimate roadblocks that extend beyond Brees' typical drop in play when away from the Superdome.

Luckily for New Orleans, it would take an unlikely scenario for them to lose the No.1 seed in the NFC at this point. According to Football Outsiders' Playoff Odds Report, the Saints have a 94.2 percent chance of securing the No.1 seed. That would give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which is perfect for a team (and quarterback) that seems to inherit super powers when playing in the comfort of their own stadium. Payton and Brees need to call on their strong repertoires and rapport together in order to get this offense right come playoffs, and they should be thankful they built up a 12-2 cushion in order to do so comfortably.


5 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2018, 12:11am

1 Re: Film Room: Saints Offense

I have argued the OL point and the 2nd WR point very recently; the OL point in the DVOA thread this week, and i forget where I mentioned the other.
Having said that, with reports stating that Ted Ginn is back practicing, and possibly being active for this week's game, I don't know will make a great impact in the offense this week. If the Saints win, they may rest players for week 17 b/c of having clinched HFA.
One interesting thing that may happen: 2009 when the Saints won the Super Bowl, they went 13-3, and had 3 losses--DAL, home against TAM, and CAR (week 17 after clinching HFA). [They lost at home against DAL, and away against CAR, whereas the reverse would be true this year--provided they beat the Steelers and then rest their starters and lose to CAR in week 17.] So to complete the eerie parallel--would they then beat the Colts again in the SB, or another all-time great QB (Brady)?

2 Re: Film Room: Saints Offense

Is the Panthers defense actually bad now that Rivera has taken it over? It seems to be reverting to where it should have been, based on the past several years, after losing their past two defensive coordinators. I guess we will see in Atlanta.

3 Re: Film Room: Saints Offense

The Saints have never held alone the best record in the NFL in 52 years. This week they do. I think you're missing the forest for the trees.

4 Re: Film Room: Saints Offense

Some of the problems extend to Saints receivers just simply dropping balls, as you can see in a couple of GIFs in my column this week: