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26 Sep 2007

Every Play Counts: Saints Offensive Line

by Michael David Smith

ESPN was running a poll Tuesday, asking who is most to blame for the Saints' 0-3 start: Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, the defense or Sean Payton.

After watching the Saints' Monday Night Football loss to the Titans live -- and then watching it again on tape -- I can assure you, the answer is none of the above. The biggest problem facing the Saints is the offensive line, and until that problem gets straightened out, the best story of the last NFL season is going to continue to be the biggest disappointment of this NFL season.

I generally dislike the mentality of treating an offensive line as one unit, rather than treating each of the five players on the line as individuals. But the fact is, left tackle Jammal Brown, left guard Jamar Nesbit, center Jeff Faine, right guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb all had bad games Monday night.

Plays on which none of the five offensive linemen looked like competent professional football players were common. Consider, for instance, the second play of the second half. On that play, the Titans rushed five and the Saints had seven in to block. That should have given quarterback Drew Brees plenty of time to pass. Instead, Brees was pressured from the right, the left and the middle. Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was the player who hit Brees as he threw, but the other four Titans rushing him all got close.

The worst player on the field Monday night was probably Nesbit, who was brutalized by Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. On third-and-6 on the Saints' first drive, Brees had pressure in his face from both Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch. The pressure came on a stunt, with Haynesworth going to the outside and Vanden Bosch coming inside, but it wasn't trickery that allowed the Titans' front to overpower the Saints' line, it was sheer force. Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch just overpowered Nesbit and Brown.

On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Deuce McAllister was stopped for no gain after Haynesworth blew up the play by easily fighting through a double team of Nesbit and Faine. Nesbit seemed to get more help than the Saints' other offensive linemen, but even when he was part of a double team, he was ineffective -- which is an indication both of his own deficiencies as a blocker and that he's not the Saints' only problem on the offensive line.

Faine had a few solid plays, especially when the Saints had a run called and he was one-on-one against a Titans linebacker. On the first play of the Saints' second drive, for instance, Faine had a nice block on Titans linebacker Keith Bullock in which he drove Bullock back several yards. When his job was to block straight ahead, Faine probably had the best night of any of the Saints' offensive linemen, as evidenced on Reggie Bush's second touchdown run, when Faine overpowered Titans linebacker Ryan Fowler.

But Faine also made some mistakes, including one holding penalty, at least one more play when he should have been called, and twice failing to notice when Titans defenders crossed the line of scrimmage. A center should know to snap the ball and give his team an easy five yards when that happens, but Faine's failure to do so allowed the Titans to get back across the line and avoid an encroachment penalty.

And even worse, when Faine's assignment was to get out in front of the play, he simply didn't have the quickness to do it. On a first-and-10 swing pass to Bush, Faine's responsibility was to get to the second level and block Titans linebacker David Thornton. Faine was far too slow, never got close, and Thornton tackled Bush for a loss of five yards. Faine was so slow to get there that I can't even be sure that blocking Thornton was his responsibility, although if blocking Thornton wasn't somebody's responsibility it was a horribly designed play.

A couple of successful plays succeeded in spite of Faine. On a third-and-1 just before the two-minute warning in the first half, running back Aaron Stecker took the ball over the left guard for a gain of two yards and a first down. But Haynesworth threw Faine aside and got into the backfield almost instantly, and if Stecker had hesitated for even a moment (as Bush probably would have, since Bush so often looks to hit a home run when all he needs is a single), Haynesworth would have drilled him behind the line of scrimmage.

Both of the Saints' tackles struggled, although Brown probably had a better game than Stinchcomb. Brees' first interception came on third-and-14, and he hurried his throw when Titans defensive lineman Antwan Odom looped to the outside, mixing up Evans and Stinchcomb. The Titans only rushed four on the play, and at first Brees looked like he'd have time to set up in the pocket and scan the field, but it Evans and Stinchcomb had a breakdown in communication. That happened a lot, with Evans, in particular, struggling any time the pass rush didn't come directly at him. Stinchcomb got beaten badly by Odom a few times, including one play on which Stinchcomb got completely destroyed but Odom bailed him out by putting his hand on Brees' facemask, drawing a penalty that gave the Saints a first down.

Brown had some solid blocks on running plays and at times looked like a sturdy pass blocker, but he's definitely better against pass rushers who try outside speed moves than he is against pass rushers who try to overpower him. Haynesworth destroyed Brown and hit Brees as he was throwing on one play. Brown also got called for holding once.

In case it isn't obvious, Haynesworth was a monster Monday night. Most fans still know Haynesworth because he committed one of the dirtiest penalties you'll ever see on a football field last year when he stomped on the bare head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode. But the guy can play.

It must be said that the Saints' offensive line isn't the only problem. In particular, the receivers aren't doing much to help the running game. On a second-and-10 run to the right by Bush, the offensive line actually did a good job of opening up a hole. But wide receiver Terrance Copper, lined up in the slot to the right, blocked absolutely no one, and as a result Titans cornerback Nick Harper came up and tackled Bush for a loss of a yard.

Still, that play was among a tiny minority of plays on which I can say the offensive line opened a hole. For the most part, there was nowhere to run.

The obvious question all this raises is: How did the Saints play so well on offense last year, with the same offensive line they have this year? I'm not sure I have the answer to that question, but I will say that Payton's offensive game plans always include a lot of counters, misdirections and trick plays. Plays like that, when they're executed well, can sometimes hide problems on the offensive line. Perhaps a full season -- and a full off-season -- of film study has allowed opposing defensive coordinators to figure out some of the tricks of Payton's offense, and that makes problems that always existed on the offensive line more apparent. The Titans' defense never seemed fooled by anything the Saints did.

With McAllister out for the season, what's next for the Saints' offense? For the rest of the year, it will probably have a lot of plays that look like Bush's first touchdown of the game. On that play, third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Titans' defensive line pushed the Saints' offensive line back into the backfield, but Bush raced to the outside and scored. If the Saints are going to pick up many third-and-1 conversions this year, they're going to need Bush to race to the outside a lot. But that's a hard thing to build an offense around. It's going to be a long year.

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 26 Sep 2007

32 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2007, 12:31pm by Sophandros


by Eli Manning: Karaoke Superstar (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 10:11am

Being a Giants fan, I remember Payton's time there as OC well. One season he'd look like genius, and the next year it was like everyone had him figured out. I didn't understand it then, I don't understand it now, but that just seems to be how it goes for him.

by Disco Stu (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 10:21am

Fellow Giants fan here. Can't belive we didn't see the Sean Payton Second Year Slide coming. This might backtest better than the Curse of 370.

by crack (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 10:52am

Isn't Tennessee's line pretty good? Wasn't that mentioned in their opening day win against Jax? I'm not saying NO has no blame, but I think the Titan's prove to be a bad matchup for NO.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:01am

The shame of it is that Bush likely is going to be saddled with some accusations of being a bust by year's end. Yes, he has deficiencies which the hype surrounding him obscured coming out of college, but with a better offensive line, the guy really would an extremely entertaining player to watch.

If any Saints fans get frustrated and become inclined to try to run Brees out of N.O. before the trade deadline, hey, feel free to go ahead and send him up river to Minneapolis.

by Mike W (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:02am

I'm sure your analysis is correct, but damn, Brees looks like a completely different guy. A lot of his poor throws and poor decisions seemed to come when he wasn't being particularly pressured, and not just Monday night, but in the other two games as well.

by mactbone (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:05am

Re 3:
That doesn't explain NO's first two weeks though.

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:12am

I had two thoughts from the game:

-The Saints really miss Joe Horn. Last year Colston was a monster when Horn, Bush and McAllister were the main concerns of the defense. Now Colston's the main man and while he's doing OK there is noone else. They don't send Bush downfield (and now they can't because Deuce is out and they need him in the backfield) and Henderson has completely dissappeared. Horn would have been a reliable target downfield, even if he's past his best.

-Someone will pay big money for Haynesworth this ofseason and regret it. He's going to be the latest in a long line of big, lazy defensive tackles that only play well in their contract years (Dana Stubblefield, Shaun Rogers etc). It's not that he isn't a very good player, he's just lazy but this year he's playing for cash.

by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:21am

This was a GREAT piece. I tried my best to figure out how much of the game was the Saints' poor play and how much was the Titans' strong play, but -- despite the fact it was obvious to me and three million other NFL fans within 10 minutes of the game that the Titans were going to dominate the line of scrimmage -- I could never have broken this down so thoroughly.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:30am

Re #7
I was yapping about Horn last year, and how he was the guy who caught the intermediate stuff that helped open up the short stuff in space and the deep stuff to Henderson-I know the Saints did ok with Horn out in the regular season last year, but aside from a couple passes when they found a hole in the Titans zone, they didn't get that Monday night.

Also, I object to the characterization that Haynesworth is only playing well because it's his contract year. Pretty much his whole time in Tennessee, he's had the rare monster game, the occasional big series, the frequent lazy plays, and coming out with an injury when he may well be just tired and wanting a break. He'll get overpaid because people like the first two and think they can eliminate the latter two.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:31am

I was watching Jammal Brown as part of my attempt during games to focus on one player from each side, and I agree with the comments here.

It also seemed that NO was calling plays that allowed Brees to get rid of the ball very quickly. Often it was hard to tell how the OL was doing because he threw the ball so fast. Usually that's a sign the coaching staff is trying to cover up for a weak line.

by Bob Mozitis (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:46am

If you are going to pick one saint to watch during a game, make it #58, Scott Shanle. He never even attempts to make a play. He either seems to purposely allow himself to get blocked, or just kinda jogs around with no intent on every play. I can not possibly understand how he is in the NFL, let alone a starting linebacker.

by Joseph (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:48am

Good analysis--BTW, I listened to the Saints radio via Fieldpass @nfl.com, and the Saints color analyst, Hokie Gajan, has hammered this point the last two weeks. I know PFP talks about continuity being a good part of the O-line, but I think this year's Saints are going to be the exception to that analysis.
Supposedly Brown is dealing with a dislocated finger or something, but what about the other 4 guys? Last year I think they gave up 18 or 19 sacks in the 1st 15 games (not counting the season finale when back-ups played). This year, I think Brees will reach that number in 2 more games. I have this bad feeling that the Saints and Chiefs lines will have much to do with "offensive ineptitude" this year.

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:51am

Shaun Rogers contract year was his rookie season? Or his 3rd season? While he does have a questionable work ethic at times and was downright disappointing his 2002 season-he did suddenly break out in his contract year. So one bad season out of 4 before he signed a contract extension before he became a free agent....followed that by a Pro Bowl year. 2006 was his suspension/injury year and he looks damn good right now.

So 2 seasons that were bad for Shaun Rogers-2002 and 2006...one of which was not his own doing.

by Teximu (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:51am

I get the feeling that Jamaal Brown is injured. Last year he was really, really good, probably one of the five best tackles in the league. Then this year in training camp, there were reports that he had injured his knee. Obviously he's still starting, but I bet that knee has something to do with his play falling off a cliff between this year and last.

And yeah, the Sean Payton manic depressive offense probably plays into it too.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 12:19pm

#10 - Thing is, from what I saw the Saints did that quite a bit last year too. Brees made the line look a hell of a lot better than it was in 2006, but for whatever reason - possibly because real decline in the line has taken its play below some critical minimum level - he hasn't been able to do the same this season.

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 12:28pm

13: OK, I was really just thinking of the reputation Rogers had for being lazy and I couln't be arsed to do any research. My bad. I'll hold to Stubblefield, after his first two seasons he only put up good numbers in the two season when his contract was up, even getting 16 sacks and winning defensive MVP the second time.

You also hear of plenty of big DTs that play well in theiir seniour year in an attempt to get drafted, Gabe Watson for example.

by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 12:42pm

I agree with the general assesment, but Shaun Rogers is one of the few players that Lions fans can sometimes be happy about. He is known to take plays off and can be downright dominant when he wants to be.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 1:01pm

I bitch about the Vikings quite a bit, so I'll now count the blessing of having two very good defensive tackles who rarely take a play off, regardless of their contract status.

by Ron Mexico\'s Bad Newz (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 1:14pm

Re 1 & 2:

If Nawlins hires Fassel to take over play calling for Sean Payton. I am trading for Bush, Brees and Colston.

by Andrew (A.B.) (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 2:51pm

Here's some good analysis that was posted on another forum (saintsreport.com, as quoted on footballguys.com):

"Teams have understood the most effective way to control the Saints is to attack the offense by pressing the middle.

Last year, teams looked to contain Reggie first by being disciplined and keeping their defensive positions. Since all of the linebackers and safeties were taking care of Reggie, teams seemed to either blitz from the outside or simply keep positions.

What teams have learned is that the saints seldom run from the inside. Even Deuce followed the gap between the tackles and guards. Now, instead of waiting for the pay to develop, the opposite teams are bringing the heat from the middle of the line, trying to either disrupt the rythm or simply to block the vision of Drew Brees.

By stocking the middle of the line teams have learned that not only they are disrupting the rythm and vision, they are also pushing Reggie to move out towards the sideline, where the outside backers and safeties are taking care of him.

All of the pressure at the centre of the line is also pressing both Brown and Stinchcomb to held their assignments by themselves, and both are having problems with speedy ends more than with bull-rushers.

I think that coach Marrone has a big problem to solve there.

To me two things have to happen in order to get the offense into rythm now.

1) Find a way to better contend the pressure from the defensive tackles and middle linebacker.

2) Attack the opposite teams by sticking the running back between the guards and centers, even when it doesn't work. We have to start worrying the defensive tackes in the running game, or they will continue to run free to the quaterback every single play."

by Richie (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 2:57pm

How much blame can be given to the competition? Is it possible that Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Tennessee are all teams with good defensive lines?

Does this mean I should rescind my fantasy football trade offer of Jamal Lewis for Drew Brees. (I can afford to lose Lewis.)

by gmc (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 5:50pm

I'd keep Lewis.

Brees will have a couple of good days but NO just isn't a very good team. Brees is, at best, a Jake Delhomme type of quarterback who can successfully make good planned throws. He is not Donovan McNabb or Carson Palmer, killing defenses in two seconds because they lost a step.

This isn't a knock on Brees, Peyton Manning is the same way (althought a gazillion times better at, well, everything). But combine that with the realization by NFL DC's that Reggie Bush looked fast in college because - it was college ball - and in the NFL people can catch him, tackle him, and make him their boy toy, and suddenly Brees can't plan the throws.

by Bill (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 11:41pm

Here's the other possibility: Tennessee is just a darn good team, and the four guys up front on the defense are really good. Few teams are going to control those guys, and the only quarterbacks that that have any success are going to be tall QBs that get the ball out quick to alert receivers. New Orleans definitely does not have that kind of offense.

This year the AFC South draws the NFC South. Anybody care to guess what the final win-loss is going to be? In favor of the AFC South, I bet it's 14-2 or 13-3 ...

by Jorge (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 12:13am

"A center should know to snap the ball and give his team an easy five yards when that happens..."

I don't agree with this at all. It's the QBs job to call for a quick snap if he thinks he can get a cheap off sides, NOT the center's. An off sides may be readily apparent when watching on TV, but the center cannot be so sure. What if he snaps it and nobody's off sides and he surprises the QB and causes a fumble? He would never hear the end of it.

by langsty (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 7:08am

"Is it possible that Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Tennessee are all teams with good defensive lines?"

No. It isn't.

by Saintsjunkie (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 11:42am

The line was bad last year also, but hidden by trick plays, quick release plays, the fake reverse that makes them play honest. Titans were a bad machup for us, and I still think we will have 10-6 season, but all of our draft picks were not ready to play this year, last year we had Colston, Evans, Harper, Bush, Nicko, Strief all ready to play.

by rob (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 3:03pm

mactbone wrote

"This doesn't explain the first two weeks"

I'm assuming you aren't a Saints fan,and
haven't watched the games as closely as
we have.

The performance of this 0-Line has been
absolutely horrid the last 4 games. This
includes the loss to the Bears in the
NFCCG. The Bears gave eveyone a blueprint
You don't need to use those exotic
schemes to account for Reggie Bush,which
led to mismatches such as a safety
single covering Colston and Henderson,or
a LB covering Joe Horn which occured in
the 1st Eagles game last year.Horn scored
an easy TD on that scheme.Teams have
simply went to the old tried and true
method of beating the tar out of the
opposing 0-Line.Those mismatches Brees
exploited last year are not present this

It doesn't matter how good your "Skill"
players are,when your getting dominated
up front, any team will struggle.

by Dean Cochran (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 3:45pm

It's a simple answer really . The Saints played horribly in the preseason against Pittsburgh, that week Jammal Brown went down to an injury. The next week Zach Strief filled in for the rest of the preseason at left tackle and the starting offense (and even the defense) played up to the standards of last season. When Brown came back from injury the team went back into the terrible play they displayed against Pittsburgh. I'm not philosopher but I do know about Occam's razor, the theory basically states: "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one," which comprises the basis of my Left Tackle argument. It's like driving a car, if my car runs fine and then I get a flat, change out my left front tire and suddenly the car pulls to the left. I'm going to figure it's that tire and change it out. Same thing here.

The problem is with Jammal Brown, I think he's still hurt. If he's not hurt then that's an even worse case scenario. Either way if you go back to Strief at Left Tackle it stands to reason that the overall play of the line will improve. That's not to say that the rest of the line isn't playing below last season's standard but one bad apple does in fact spoil the bunch as it pertains to the offensive line of a football team.

When I look at just this season, preseason as well as regular season I see that the entire team's performance against Pittsburgh was in a word horrible. After Pittsburgh I'd call the team's performance on par with last season. Then I look at how we started this season, we have looked a lot like we did in that first preseason game against Pittsburgh. The difference in personnel between the "bad Saints" and the "good Saints" is the switching out of one key player whose position is universally recognized as the most important position on a football field in regards to the performance of a right handed quarterback. It's the domino effect particularly for this Saints team. My hope is that time off will further heal Brown's injury but if Brees is forced to throw early again against Carolina I would think the coaching staff sorely remiss if they didn't make a quick change to Strief at tackle.

Once the offensive line gets straightened out either by Brown healing over the bye or being replaced everything else will fall into place. Brees will have more time to throw which will, like the '06 season, open up things for the running game, that leads to clock killing drives and points scored. All of that leads to a vastly improved defensive performance by giving them time off the field, the opportunity to play against a more one dimensional offense that is playing from behind, and the opportunity to pin their ears back and do what they do quite well - go after the quarterback.

I'm not worried about this Saints team, Sean Payton's a smart guy and he will recognize the problem and go with the simplest solution. I predict this team will win at least 10 games this season and march right back to the playoffs and hopefully to the Superbowl. It's not going to be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is.

Dean Cochran
Los Angeles, CA

by Mark (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 5:10pm

How does a counter or misdirection running play hide the Saints OL line woes if executed correctly?

Doesnt that mean that they did what they were supposed to do?


by mm (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 11:59pm

The Saints had a bad Offensive Line for years; several times I posted on this site defending Deuce when they used his VOA to call him a poor running back. I argued that, yes, the numbers were accurate that the Saints with Deuce running was poor, but that was because a very good back was running behind a line that consistently let defensive linemen get shots at him several yards in the backfield. It was generally better at pass protection though (only a little below average, instead of awful).

Last year they overhauled the line completely, although there didn't seem to be much hope that it would be a quality line before the season started. Early on, I didn't think they were doing a good job run blocking, but Deuce's ability covered it up some when he had the ball, and everyone attributed Bush's struggles to rookie mistakes. However, they were doing a decent job pass blocking.

As Brees developed a rapport with Colston, Horn, Bush, and Henderson (he was actually catching passes early last year), I felt defenses shifted there attacks slightly, and the offensive line got more confidence. They definitely run blocked better in the second half of last season. Whether this was because they were getting better at playing together or because defenses were concerned with the pass I couldn't tell at the time.

This year they seem to be back at the level they were before Payton got there. Perhaps a bit better in run blocking, but worse in pass protection.

by ravens nut (not verified) :: Mon, 10/01/2007 - 1:39am

Now, the Football Outsiders curse will strike and the Saints will win a game! Which one will it be? Do they play the Chargers?

Listing to the Monday game reminded me of the Chicago playoff game. The Saints are relatively small up front and the Bears just went straight at them defensively. Some of the other teams with smaller players (Denver) are a lot more aggressive up front and quicker. Saints are small and too slow.

They looked brain- locked on Monday. That fumble by Brees in the third quarter took the wind right out of them.

It's not all the line's fault. The tight ends don't ever get into the flow; they don't block and they don't run good routes. I get the idea that Peyton can't make up his mind about Bush being a kind of tight end or a pure running back so he winds up as a 'neither'. Brees never seems to run outside the pocket nor do the Saints run 'quick hitters' straight up the middle ... A Joe Morris (quickness?) or Jamal Lewis (power) back would do better with a less-then-overpowering front line, but none of the Saints backs are of those styles. Reggie wants to 'juke' and let a hole open ... it hasn't happened so far this year.

This year the defense really has to step up and keep the games close, and the offense has to be a lot more careful with the ball. Then they can do the 'win the game with a field goal' type of thing and forget the wide- open style they had last year.

Think ... Ravens

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Sun, 10/07/2007 - 12:31pm

A bit late on here, but it should be noted that Jamal Brown injured his knee in the preseason and clearly is not 100% right now.

And I think that some of the playcalling has been a factor.