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Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

01 Feb 2010

Cover-3: Super Bowl Edition

by Doug Farrar

In 2007 and 2008, the New Orleans Saints finished 11th and fourth in Offensive DVOA, respectively. They did not break .500 in either season for one simple reason: their defense was atrocious. The Saints ranked 29th and 26th in Defensive DVOA in those same seasons. Going into his fourth season as the team's head coach, Sean Payton knew something had to be done. When the team interviewed Gregg Williams at Payton's urging, Williams was impressive enough for Payton to give back $250,000 of his own salary to ensure that the Saints would outbid any other team for Williams' services.

Going into the Super Bowl, it looks to be the best quarter-million Payton has ever spent. The Saints exhibit a "same as it ever was" sense about their offense with the valuable addition of a dynamic rushing attack, and the overall defensive efficiency has improved tremendously. Free agents Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper helped radically overhaul a secondary that needed it, and Williams' own pressure-based schemes have allowed existing Saints defenders to thrive.

In his final NFL victory, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner enjoyed perhaps his greatest game as a professional, famously throwing for more touchdowns than incompletions against the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round. That game gave Warner an ungodly 382 DYAR, and put the Saints on notice -- the playoff version of Kurt Warner was ready to kick that much more ass.

NFC Divisional Playoff
Arizona Cardinals 14 at New Orleans Saints 45
Saturday, January 26, 2010

And for all the talk of Williams' crazy blitzes, he showed some of the same deference to Warner that Rex Ryan showed to Peyton Manning in two Jets-Colts matchups this season. The Saints would bring five or six to the line, but they'd drop middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma in coverage and flare Scott Shanle out to the flats instead of bringing the house. Williams knew far too well how Warner could beat the blitz (just ask the late, great Jim Johnson), and he also knew that in Arizona's precision-based passing game, zone blitzes bring up vulnerabilities in his game (just ask James Harrison).

In this game, and as it may be against Manning, Williams dialed up more coverage-friendly schemes, which did the job but left New Orleans' defense even more vulnerable against the run. Both Cardinals touchdowns came via the run -- both in the first half -- and Arizona scored no more when the Saints' offense started racking up the points and Warner had to throw it around pretty much all the time. The Cards ran eight of their 15 times in the second half, but four of those runs came late in the fourth quarter, when Matt Leinart was in the game and the outcome was beyond decided. In that sense, the Saints' offense is perhaps their best run defense, and this is why I believe a close game (which I think it will be) favors the Colts ever so slightly.

Even when the Saints brought extra pressure, they were conditioned to back off and read Warner at the first sign of real resistance. Warner found this out the hard way with 5:58 left in the first half. Down 28-14, the Cardinals lined up on second-and-6 from their own 32-yard line. The Saints brought a five-man front with Vilma dropping back from the line. Will Smith hit a double-team up the middle and backed into "read mode" as Warner stepped up in the pocket to avoid the Saints' edge pressure. It's the kind of throw Warner has made successfully a thousand times, but Smith caught the low-thrown ball at the line of scrimmage and returned it to the Arizona 27. Warner then got completely debacled by end Bobby McCray while trying to make the tackle.

Figure 1: Kurt Warner's Interception

In reviewing the play, it struck me that one of the Saints' best tools is their ability to seamlessly switch from three- to four-man fronts. This was a three-man base with Smith as the right end, Sedrick Ellis as the tackle, and McCray at left end. Arizona ran double tight twins out of the shotgun (Fig. 1). Usama Young was originally set to fire through between Ellis and McCray, but he flowed back into the middle as Vilma stepped up. But at the snap, Vilma dropped again to help with Arizona's right-side receivers. Those two backouts impeded Warner's reads to the right, and Williams wasn't concerned with the left side, because he was sending Roman Harper (41) and cornerback Randall Gay from that side. This took halfback Tim Hightower out as an option on the left flat, forcing him to block. Warner may still have had somewhere to go after he stepped up had Smith not stepped back (designated by the red line, post-double-team). As Warner lay on the turf, looking up at his trainers as if they were aliens, one got a sense that the competitive phase of this game (if not Warner's career) was done.

I was just as interested in the Cardinals drive that began with 2:24 left in the first quarter, and ended less than two minutes later with Warner on the sideline, barking at anyone within earshot. On the first play of that three-and-out, the Cards had trips right motion to three-wide from their own 27-yard line, with Larry Fitzgerald as the motion man to left slot. The Saints brought six this time, with Vilma on the delay up the middle, and Hightower picking up the blitz too late. Vilma shot a gap and got there just a hair before everyone else, as the pocket collapsed completely. This was a great call because it took away Warner's ability to step up, avoid the rush, and hit his reads. There was nobody underneath -- Williams' blitzes seemed to take the backs out altogether as receiving options -- and the intermediate stuff was covered too well for Warner to make any quick decisions.

Beanie Wells was tackled on a pitch to the left for one yard on second-and-18, an unsuccessful play exacerbated by a holding call on tight end Ben Patrick (sold exceptionally well by the target of that hold, Mr. Will Smith). The penalty was declined, and on third-and-17 from his own 20, Warner stepped up and found ... nothing. Once again, too many of Williams' defenders had backed into coverage, and Warner had to dump the ball off to Hightower, who gained 13 underneath before all those Saints in various zones ran over to stop the drive. The Saints were exceedingly concerned with possession of the middle of the field, and whether it was by intermediate coverage or flooding the interior gaps to take away his escape route, they dominated everything Warner could see without turning his head.

NFC Championship
Minnesota Vikings 28 at New Orleans Saints 31 (OT)
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Williams was far less cautious with Brett Favre, sending six on the first play from scrimmage. Now, the tone was not to confuse the quarterback with different reads, it was to beat the crap out of him whether he completed a pass or not, and hope that such battery would affect him late on the game. On the NFL Network this week, Sharper talked about reading more three-step drops late in games -- not with Favre, but in general -- because "guys are tired of getting hit". Favre threw that first pass incomplete to Visanthe Shiancoe, and Scott Fujita gave Favre a good whack from his blind side after the ball was released. Favre countered with quick throws to Jim Kleinsasser for 11 yards, Percy Harvin for five, and Bernard Berrian for six. Williams seemed to favor five-man fronts with a creeping or late sixth blitzer early in the game.

The Vikings knew what they were going to get -- blitz-heavy defensive schemes in a hostile environment -- and planned the short stuff accordingly. It was an aspect the Cardinals seemed to lack -- Warner would have benefited from a game plan that allowed him to make those short throws underneath the Saints' coverage. Now, Favre thrived against that more aggressive defense. Favre made a great stick throw to Berrian for nine yards on the next play, first -and-10 from the Saints' 48-yard line. Williams brought the house against Minnesota's empty backfield set, and Favre hit Berrian over the middle with a bullet. Later in that first drive, when the Saints would drop a side into coverage or Vilma would back off into the seam, Favre simply continued to hit the short stuff underneath. When the Vikings got to the Saints' 25, it was all Adrian Peterson from there -- New Orleans' run defense getting washed out again, and a 7-0 Vikings lead. The first play was a six-yard delay as the Saints got cute with the coverage again.

Figure 2: Adrian Peterson's Touchdown Run

Peterson's 19-yard touchdown run was actually a pretty good example of how a team can get too creative against the run, and wind up paying for it. The Vikings went with I-formation and two tight ends on the right. Pre-snap, Kleinsasser motioned left as Sharper started coming down from safety like a bat out of hell, reading run all the way. The Saints' front line bit on the initial direction of fullback Naufahu Tahi, and when Peterson cut back (Fig. 2), Sharper had been taken out by a Kleinsasser block. Smith was so concerned with getting in the backfield and attacking Favre, there was no backside defense to speak of. Peterson had a straight-line run to the end zone, one of the easiest he'll ever have in his career. Since the Minnesota line has been vulnerable all season, and Kleinsasser's probably the team's best blocker when Steve Hutchinson isn't 100 percent, that was an interesting gambit by Williams.

The Colts don't have a rushing attack like Minnesota's, although it's better than people imagine, especially recently -- they're showing an ability to get stuff going up the middle behind zone slides, and they will bounce Joseph Addai and Donald Brown outside from two-tight end sets. Peyton Manning is obviously more likely to audible pass from run, but I wouldn't be surprised if he does the opposite in the Super Bowl after watching how the Saints open themselves up to certain rushing concepts via their blitz packages. Warner wasn't going to test it after a certain point, because his team was too far behind. The Vikings did go after it, and succeeded in the sense that they were able to make consistent gains on the ground in a closer game. Turnovers killed them -- their offensive approach didn’t.

I don't usually make a big deal of coach-speak in the week before a game, and I would make even less of Williams' comments about Manning this week than usual. I expect that he will go after Manning to a point, but back off just as much, and try to hide his initial pressure/coverage looks more than anything. In my mind, the winner of the Williams-Manning back-and-forth will hoist the Lombardi Trophy when it's all over.

On the other side of the pass-rush equation, there's Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- or maybe there isn't Dwight Freeney. The Colts' star defensive end is dealing with a torn ligament in his right ankle, and may be limited at best in the Super Bowl. Whether Freeney plays or not, the Saints will benefit from the use of certain protection concepts.

Against the duo of Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, the Saints used a few different methods of keeping Drew Brees upright. Brees likes to roll out right to protect his blind side, Sean Payton endorses the use of screens to get things going underneath, and I really liked how they used tight end David Thomas in different ways. On the fourth play of their first drive, with first-and-10 from their own 36, the Saints started off with an I-formation look and Thomas as the fullback. Thomas then motioned to right H-back and did a great job of blocking Edwards at the line, giving Brees enough time to find Marques Colston over the middle on a dig route for 13. On run plays, they will try to have Thomas engage the strong-side linebacker and allow a cutback.

Figure 3: David Thomas Seam Route with Moving Guards

The Saints will use Thomas as a fullback in I and offset-I formations, but they will also put him at the line and have him take out a linebacker in pure coverage. This was the case on the 38-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Pierre Thomas that tied the game at 7-7 (Fig. 3). The Saints came to the line in a shotgun, two-tight end set, and the Vikings setting up in man under, two-deep (Matt Millen's favorite coverage!) Colston motioned from right to left, which stretched Minnesota's defense by forcing Antoine Winfield (26) to break out from a linebacker set and cover Colston in the slot. On this play, Thomas' seam route froze cornerback Benny Sapp (22) and then took him out of near coverage. At the same time, right guard Jahri Evans did a great job of pulling right ahead of Thomas and clearing room at the second level. Left guard Carl Nicks also blasted out and upfield. By the time Thomas hit that level, the combination of formation diversity and downfield protection (not to mention some sloppy tackling on the Vikings' part) cleared the way for him to run to the end zone.

It's been discussed in previous Cover-3 articles -- the Colts probably have more defensive speed on the outside than any other team, and that's with or without Freeney. Because of that outside speed, they ranked better in Defensive DVOA against running backs catching passes than any other receivers. But against Payton's constantly evolving formations, the short stuff will always come in different packages. You take away his screens, he'll go four-wide and use square-ins from the slot as his quick reads. And once he softens you up with that, he'll send his top-ranked rushing attack after your front seven. In a game that feels more and more like a pick-em, these little schematic battles make all the difference as you add them up.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 01 Feb 2010

10 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2010, 11:42pm by mediator12


by Sophandros :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 2:09pm

41 for the Saints is Roman Harper, not Usama Young.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Doug Farrar :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 3:05pm

Oh, I see -- I mistakenly referred to Young on that side. Thanks.

by Temo :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 2:42pm

Sharper and Greer had more to do with the secondary fix, but hiding that atrocious D-Line of the Saints (and it really is atrocious) is equal parts the Offense being able to keep opponents passing rather than running and Gregg Williams coming up with enough schemes to keep NO in the middle of the league in pass pressure.

by Joseph :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 3:21pm

It's not atrocious--it's just not as good as Minnesota's. In fact, it is built a lot like the Colts' D-line--get a lead, make the opponent one-dimensional, and have regular meetings at the QB. Obviously, the Saints blitz a lot more than the Colts. But if either D-line gets pressure on the QB consistently early, this will cause the OC to keep a back/TE in to block--which against both offenses is going to be key. Neither defense has enough weapons in the back 7 to cover all those WR's/TE's/RB's.

by displaced_saints_fan :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 3:46pm

It might not be atrocious, but it's certainly one of the weaker areas of the team. Smith is solid and Ellis has yet to live up to his billing (but I still have hope). The rest can't be much better than replacement-level.

by Sophandros :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 3:35pm

Will Smith's numbers compare favorably with the numbers of more than one pro bowler at his position, and Sedrick Ellis is excellent at absorbing double teams and creating a push up front.

If anything, the D-line is more than the sum of its parts, but I've only watched every snap of every Saints game this year (though with more than a little bit of a bias...).

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by jmaron :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 4:01pm

I remember when the Saints drafted Smith just before the Vikings took Udeze. I was really hoping Smith would fall to the Vikings. I've always thought of him as one of the better DE's in the league.

I only watched the Saints a few times this year (Minn, Dall, NE, Wash), but when I did I can't say I was impressed at all by their defence.

I really see this game with Indy as a major mismatch. Anything can happen in one game. But I think Indy is 10-14 pts better than NO.

by Temo :: Mon, 02/01/2010 - 4:05pm

I've watched quite a bit of the Saints this year, especially defensively, though certainly my opinion is of no great import.

I was thoroughly impressed by the secondary, and Greer in general, as well as the LBs in coverage. I hated their D-Line, especially on run plays.

While probably not atrocious on a league-level, I am of the opinion that they are probably in the bottom third of the league in talent and would be more thoroughly exposed without the benefit of a great offense and a good coordinator.

by Anymouse (not verified) :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 2:28am

If the only Saints games you saw were against Minn, Dall, NE, and Wash, you saw 3 games in which their top 2 CB's were out with injury. Only against Minn did they have their full complement in the secondary.

by mediator12 :: Tue, 02/02/2010 - 11:42pm

Doug, on your last point about taking away screens being able to be attacked by formations. All that depends on how the defense reacts to the formations and whether or not you can get the other defense in mismatches from using so many different formations and variants. The thing about the Colts defense is that the Saints RB's and TE's are not as much a mismatch in space as they are with other teams. They can hold their principles and not have to adjust to keep mismatches on the perimeter. They can play more out of their base and nickle versus NO than most other teams would even think to try.

That being said, Larry Coyer has a little bit of an advantage having been in TB the last 2 years and playing these guys 4 times in that span. Yes, there are some different pieces this year, Thomas being one of them. However, Coyer is quite familiar with how Payton calls the game. Payton does not have that insight from a playcalling perspective that Coyer does watching tape and dissecting situational responses. Kiffin called the plays in TB, but Coyer was able to gameplan and then watch how he would counter the adjustments with the Colts personnel.

This is the game within a game that stats can not predict. Payton is a great playcaller, one of the best in the NFL right now IMHO. However, Coyer has a much more diverse playbook and formation principles than the previous Colts regime. It will truly be a chess match on this side of the game as much as Manning and Williams will be on the other side of the ball. Everyone loves to tout the Manning versus Williams matchup, but this side will be just as intriguing if not more to me.