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04 Oct 2006

Every Play Counts: The New Orleans Defense

by Michael David Smith

If any team has ever been primed for a letdown, it was the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Traveling on a short week, after their emotional Monday night win over the Atlanta Falcons in their first game at the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, the Saints looked exhausted by the end of Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers, giving up two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of a 21-18 loss.

Is the real Saints defense the unit that surprised everyone with that 3-0 start, or the unit that allowed Carolina to run 19 plays for 164 yards and two touchdowns at the end of Sunday's game? After analyzing every play of the loss to the Panthers, I think it's mostly the former, but I also saw some weaknesses that future opponents will no doubt exploit.

The Saints' best player Sunday was linebacker Scott Shanle, who joined the team this season in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. Both Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs were on the Cowboys' staff last year, and they must have liked what they saw of Shanle, who was mostly a special-teams player in his three years with Dallas. I liked what I saw of him on Sunday.

On a third-and-4 Shanle showed a very fast first step when he blitzed up the middle and sacked Jake Delhomme for a loss of 12. Shanle deserves most of the credit for the play, although he got two sizeable assists: First, Carolina rookie running back DeAngelo Williams did a terrible job in blitz pickup, barely laying a finger on Shanle and allowing Delhomme to get drilled. Second, Gibbs called a very well designed blitz. The Saints tackles, Brian Young and Hollis Thomas, acted like offensive linemen, pushing guard Will Montgomery and center Geoff Hangartner away and opening up the A-gap for Shanle to make the play.

Surprisingly, as well as that blitz worked, New Orleans rarely blitzed on Sunday. And despite playing against a banged-up Carolina offensive line that was without starting center Justin Hartwig, starting left tackle Travelle Wharton and, for part of the game, starting left guard Mike Wahle, the Saints didn't put much pressure on Delhomme.

But even though he wasn't often called on to blitz, Shanle played well, not only in the pass rush but also in pass coverage. On Carolina's first play of the second half, Steve Smith caught a pass over the middle, and Shanle was right on top of him, knocking him to the ground for a gain of only four yards. A player who blitzes and covers receivers that well makes a huge difference to any pass defense.

That's especially true for the Saints because their biggest defensive weakness is that the defensive backs, particularly cornerback Fred Thomas, don't play aggressively enough, seeming so intent on not giving up big plays that they can't stop giving up a few yards at a time. Thomas was credited with 12 tackles against Carolina, making him the game's leading tackler. But of those 12 tackles, only two can be called successful plays: One came on a third-and-17 when Thomas (initially lined up on the outside covering Keyshawn Johnson) read Carolina's screen and tackled DeShaun Foster for a gain of only six yards. The other was a tackle of Smith after a three-yard completion on second-and-10. That's it, two tackles out of 12 where Thomas helped his team. Every other time Thomas made a tackle, it was at the end of a successful Carolina play, often with Thomas so deep in the secondary that Carolina easily picked up yardage in front of him. If I were an offensive coordinator preparing a game plan against the Saints, I'd tell my quarterback he could march down the field using six-yard completions to the receiver matched up with Thomas all day.

New Orleans started the game in a dime package (six defensive backs on the field), and used that for much of the game against Carolina's standard three-receiver formation. Combine that dime package with Carolina's regularly using maximum-protection blocking schemes, and it's easy to see why the Saints couldn't pressure Delhomme. Take a look at Steve Smith's diving 22-yard catch (which got overturned on replay) in the first quarter. On that play the Saints rushed four and Carolina kept seven in to block. Delhomme scrambled around behind the line of scrimmage, and New Orleans never got close to him even though he waited a long time for Smith to get open. The Saints figured that the best way to stop Smith was dropping seven into coverage, but Smith is too talented a receiver not to get open, even if he's playing against a dime package.

A few plays later, on a third-and-10, New Orleans again rushed four and Carolina again kept seven in to block, and Delhomme had all day to set up in the pocket and scan the field, eventually finding Keyshawn Johnson for a 15-yard gain. The Saints were too passive and should have done more to try to pressure Delhomme, especially playing behind that weakened offensive line.

Early in the game, the Saints did a good job of shutting down the Panthers' running attack. On second-and-8 on Carolina's first drive, linebacker Scott Fujita attacked up the middle and ran into DeShaun Foster at the line of scrimmage. What would have been a good play for the Saints turned into a great one when, instead of just accepting that Fujita had him stopped, Foster foolishly backtracked. Middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, who had been trailing the play, tackled Foster for a loss of 10. It was a good play by both Fujita and Simoneau, but it was mostly a bad play by Foster.

Tackle Brian Young and end Will Smith made a couple of key stops on runs up the middle. On one first-and-10, Young overpowered Carolina guard Evan Mathis, shoving him into the backfield and hitting Williams for no gain. That was the best play I saw any Saints lineman make on the day. On a third-and-1, Carolina handed off to Brad Hoover up the middle. At the snap all four defensive linemen took a hard step to the left, which put right defensive end Will Smith in perfect position to hit Hoover in the backfield for no gain. It was clear on that play that the Saints defensive line wanted to force the action, rather than simply reading what Carolina's offensive line did and reacting to it. The Saints should have done more of that.

However, Carolina ended up having a very successful day on the ground. When Foster picked up a first down on second-and-4, defensive tackle Hollis Thomas couldn't hold his position against a Carolina double-team, and Foster ran behind it. Thomas got doubled on most running plays, which means Simoneau, playing behind him, was often unblocked and should have made more plays.

A big part of Foster's success was that New Orleans dime defense. On a first-and-10 with four minutes left in the second quarter, New Orleans had only six in the box. Foster had an easy run up the middle for 12 yards, especially because Simoneau took a first step in the wrong direction and opened up space in the middle of the field. Foster's yardage total also benefited from the Saints' deploying a rarely used but correct end-of-game strategy in allowing him to run for a 43-yard touchdown after he picked up a first down on third-and-7. It was after the two-minute warning and New Orleans was out of timeouts, so if Foster had simply gone down after gaining seven yards, the Panthers could have kneeled down and secured the victory. Instead, Foster's score gave the Saints the ball back with 1:45 left. The Saints promptly scored, but they failed to recover the ensuing onside kick.

In their dime package, New Orleans usually counted on strong safety Roman Harper to help out in run support, and he struggled in that role. On a second-and-3, DeAngelo Williams took a handoff up the middle and broke it for a 31-yard gain. The key to the play was the way Harper, who came into the box and lined up in perfect position to stop an inside handoff, was abused by center Geoff Hangartner. Harper ought to know that when you're a defensive back, the key to beating an offensive lineman is evading his block. Instead Harper allowed Hangartner to get his hands on him, and at that point it was over. Fortunately for New Orleans, cornerback Mike McKenzie made a nice play in catching the speedy Williams from behind in the open field and preventing a touchdown.

In fairness to Harper, he did a good job of covering Carolina's tight ends. Delhomme only threw to tight ends three times Sunday, and all three fell incomplete. On one third-and-3, Harper blanketed Kris Mangum completely and kept him from getting in place to catch Delhomme's pass. Harper also showed that he can blitz effectively, even though the Saints rarely tried it. On a third-and-12 when New Orleans rushed six, Harper got in Delhomme's face and forced an awkward throw off his back foot into traffic. Saints safety Josh Bullocks missed what should have been an easy interception. Harper is a rookie from Alabama, and although he needs to get better against the run, I think he showed with his coverage Sunday that he's going to be a good player.

In fact, the veterans in the Saints secondary could learn a thing or two from the more aggressive way that Harper engages with the player he's covering. Perhaps afraid of being beaten deep, Thomas gave Smith too big a cushion all day. On first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Smith was split wide to the left. Thomas lined up five yards off him and had no other Saints around to help. The television camera showed Delhomme's face just before the snap, and you could almost see him licking his chops at that coverage. Delhomme took a three-step drop and fired to Smith, who ran a slant, reeled in the ball at the four-yard line and strolled into the end zone. Near the goal line, a cornerback can't afford to allow Smith to get halfway there without challenging him at all. Coverage in goal-to-go situations is something the Saints clearly need to work on. When Delhomme hit Drew Carter in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Omar Stoutmire got confused when Carter and Johnson crossed paths before running their routes into the end zone and left Carter open.

But those coverage problems may have been mostly just a problem covering Steve Smith: As the Saints repeatedly lined up six defensive backs and made them all play with more caution than aggression, it looked much different than the defense we had seen six days earlier against Atlanta. In that game, the Saints played close, man-to-man coverage, thinking (correctly) that no Falcons receiver had Smith's ability to beat them deep. As the season goes forward, I think we'll see more of that, more aggressive pursuit from Shanle, more clogging of the middle of the line by Hollis Thomas, and more improvement from Harper. If that happens, a team that made off-season headlines by building its offense will earn a reputation as one of the league's top defenses.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 04 Oct 2006

26 comments, Last at 08 Oct 2006, 4:42am by zrude1


by Waverly (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 11:27am

not last!

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 11:44am

The bigger problem that I saw on Sunday was the lack of pressure that the Fresh Prince and Charles Grant applied on Delhomme while going against that patchwork line.

Watching the Saints this season, it seems that Thomas has played better than McKenzie, but that may be because McKenzie more often than not draws the opponent's #1 WR.

Still, good analysis. I'll refrain from using the Form on you guys for one week.

by James C (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 12:16pm

Am I understanding it correctly that the Saints deliberately allowed Foster to run the ball into the end zone once he had picked up the first down.

Under these circumstances shouldn't Foster have run up to say the two yard line and knelt down and wait to be tackled in order to prevent the Saints getting the ball back?

by Ryan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 12:18pm

Surprisingly, as well as that blitz worked, New Orleans rarely blitzed on Sunday. And despite playing against a banged-up Carolina offensive line that was without starting left tackle Travelle Wharton and, for part of the game, starting left guard Mike Wahle, the Saints didn’t put much pressure on Delhomme.

They were also without starting center Justin Hartwig and had RT Jordan Gross playing LT to cover for Wharton's injury. The only lineman playing the same position as he was in week 1 is RG Evan Mathis, who was benched in week 2 for being less than effective against Atlanta in week 1. The only reason he was back out there at RG in weeks 3 and 4 is because his backup, Will Montgomery didn't do any better in his place against Minnesota in week 2. New Orleans should have been able to pressure Delhomme a lot more than they did Sunday. It seemed like they were able to get to him every time they actually made the effort to do so.

by zip (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 12:54pm


Yep. Anywhere after the first down marker would work, and he can down himself by taking a knee.

by Michael David Smith :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 12:55pm

Thanks, Ryan. Forgot to mention Hartwig. He's in there now.

by blahblahfalcons (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 1:07pm

regarding overly-cautious coverage... were these situations where they were playing 'soft' zones at the behest of the coordinator, or did they just look timid overall? great piece btw.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 1:36pm

From my vantage point, it looked like they were playing off by design, not because of a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

by Jesus Christ (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 1:50pm

Shanle was much more than just a special teamer last year for Dallas - he was in on 45 tackles last year and chipped in one and a half sacks. He flashed lots of potential, but he and fellow former Cowboy Scott Fujita were buried in the depth chart on a Dallas team with an embarassment of riches at the LB position: DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis, Akin Ayodele, Bradie James, Kevin Burnett, Al Singleton, and Bobby Carpenter. Add Fujita and Shanle, and Dallas had 9 starter-quality LB's in camp this year.

by BlueStarDude (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 2:45pm

It's great to read about Shanle doing well in New Orleans. It's a real surprise though. IIRC, FO's (accurate) take on the Dallas LBs last year was that they struggled in pass coverage. Shanle became a big part of the D last year once Nguyen went down, as he became the starting Jack in the base 3-4 and also played a lot in the nickel package. The year before that he started a bit (when Singleton went down) in the 4-3 the Boys were playing - but their D was awful that year. Shanle seemed like a smart player who didn't quite have the physical tools.

I wouldn't be too high on Fujita. He wavered between terrible and adequate last year when Singleton (again) went down. His best plays came when he was unblocked (e.g., his sack and forced fumble which helped beat the Chiefs).

by princeton73 (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 3:01pm

Under these circumstances shouldn’t Foster have run up to say the two yard line and knelt down and wait to be tackled in order to prevent the Saints getting the ball back?

the answer is yes, and it's amazing that all players don't know this

granted, the play doesn't come up that often (up by 1, other team has no TOs, under 1:30), but ALL players should know that the LAST thing you want to do in that situation is score a TD; it's the only way the other team has a chance

by BillWallace (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:14pm

I love that situation. But did NO actually intentionally let him score? If so that's great, teams never do that. Even though the 100% situation doesn't come up often, there are often situations which aren't quite 100% but teams should probably still let the other team score, and the never do.
How about tied with less than 2 mins inside the 15 yard line and no TOs for the defense? Let them score a TD! But they always let them run 3 times and kick the FG at 0:03.

by Just Another Falcon Fan (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:19pm

Re: 11

Well, the offense could fumble, which is the only other chance the other team has. The defense should go for the strip, but if they can't get it, let the man run free.

by Adam, VA (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:23pm

Re: 13

They couldn't fumble unless it was on the play where the RB should be let go for the TD, b/c after that play it's all kneel downs.

by kibbles (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:27pm

Excellent work, MDS!

Can we request an EPC here? If possible, I'd like to see one for Champ Bailey. By my humble count (and I'm no game charter), he's been targeted something like 7 times all season, and the longest completion against him went for 8 yards. That's very Sanders-esque in an age that's supposed to be bereft of "shutdown CBs" thanks to the rules emphasis. I was curious if Bailey was really playing that well, or if teams were afraid to test him after he got defensive MVP consideration last year despite never being healthy.

by Mike B. (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:42pm

I think we've come to expect it, but I still need to say - very nice, in-depth job, Mike!Interesting that the Saints were that soft in coverage while using that many defensive backs - I wonder what the thinking was there?

by Brann (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:46pm

MDS, excellent article. I didn't really understand why the gameplan seemed to call for a non-aggressive D, especially after seeing how well the Saints played with man coverage and an attacking D in the box. Delhomme and Smith are a good combo, but like most combos, if they get time, it's not a matter of if they hook up, it's a matter of when and for how much yardage. With such a patchwork O-line, I half-expected the Saints to blitz on all passing downs instead of playing Smith with the large cushion they were giving him. By doing what they did, it allowed exactly what you described...basically a WCO. Delhomme is decent, but he has a tendency to crumble under a good pass rush. And the Saints have a much better one than they showed in that game. Again, though, fantastic article and great analysis. You've just gained a regular reader.

by Kachunk (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 4:54pm

RE 15: I thought there had been one. But I went through the archives, and I can't find it. Anyone know where this was, I swear MDS did a piece on champ bailey.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 5:10pm

11: DeAngelo Williams did it earlier.

Of course, Aikman said that it was a "veteran move" by Brown Sugar, but last time I checked, the rules of football don't really change that much from level to level, and the clock doesn't stop if you are in bounds (even when you account for the chain moving in college, the clock isn't stopped for a time out).

by Ferg (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 5:40pm

18: Maybe you're thinking of the guest column by Sean McCormick? (Link on my name.)

by JimK (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 10:54pm

Speaking of taking a knee, I was thinking as the Jets return guy was scoring on the kickoff, "Well, that's great, but they're giving Peyton too much time." The Colts were out of TO and the return put them down 4 with over 2 minutes left.

After the fact I wondered if he should have downed it at the one and run some clock. Worst case scenario is a fourth down FG for OT. Best case is Manning gets no time left and is down by 4.

Okay, worst case scenario is Pennington panics and throws a desperate endzone interception ... But that seems a little far-fetched.

by dbt (not verified) :: Wed, 10/04/2006 - 11:24pm

Don't forget the halfback option pass... there are always worse options. :)

by noah of the ark (not verified) :: Thu, 10/05/2006 - 1:36pm

21: I personally like those kind of strategies very much. I think they could win you a lot of games otherwise lost. However, if they failed even once, the amount of heat that would draw on the head coach would be so bad, that they probably don't try them for that reason.

by Nate (not verified) :: Thu, 10/05/2006 - 5:06pm

Another EPC request - The play of the Jets' rookie o-linemen (Mangold and Ferguson).

by morganja (not verified) :: Fri, 10/06/2006 - 5:32pm

I still don't see in the replay the Saints letting Foster score. Can you point to a little evidence?

by zrude1 (not verified) :: Sun, 10/08/2006 - 4:42am

it was a missed tackle,come on guys!