As the Washington Redskins prepare to face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the primary focus of all Redskins fans should be on one thing: how this defense will be able to shut down Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense. Make no mistakes about it; New Orleans boasts one of most potent offenses in NFL history. To illustrate the point, I’ll do a quick run-down of what they have accomplished in 2011:
- Drew Brees passed for an NFL-record 5,476 yards (1st in the NFL)
- Drew Brees threw for 46 Touchdowns (2nd in the NFL)
- Drew Brees completed and NFL record 71.2% of his passes (1st in NFL)
- Drew Brees finished with 110.6 passer rating (2nd in the NFL)
- The Saints finished with 2,127 rushing yards (6th in the NFL; 3rd in the NFL if you remove QB rushes)
- The Saints finished with 4.9 yards per carry (4th in the NFL; 2nd in the NFL if you remove QB rushes)
- The Saints averaged 34.2 points per game (2nd in the NFL)
- The Saints converted 56.7% of their 3rd down opportunities (1st in the NFL)
- The Saints were 9-0 straight up AND against the spread at home in 2011 (1st in the NFL)
Long story short; these guys are one hell of an offensive machine. And don’t assume that because Sean Payton is gone, this offense will suffer. Pete Carmichael is the offensive coordinator of the Saints, has been with the team for 6 years, has worked with Drew Brees even longer (they were together in San Diego), and took over playcalling duties in 2011 when Sean Payton suffered a broken leg and torn ACL after being run over on the sideline; Carmichael is fully capable of running this offense on his own (particularly with the help of his all-world QB). Perhaps the Saints will miss Payton’s ability to adjust at halftime, but be prepared to see this New Orleans offense at full force, with or without Payton.
An offense this proficient (again) cannot be completely broken down in a single post, but in an attempt to organize what is going on, I’ve tried to break down the Saints’ offensive philosophies below:
(1) Spread concepts out of base personnel packages. One of the things that make the New Orleans Saints the most difficult team to defend in the NFL is their versatility and unpredictability out of almost any personnel grouping. Two players in particular make this versatility unmatched: Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. A base personnel package consists of 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 FB, and 1 RB; however, when Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham are the RB and TE, that base package can go from being a typical I-formation into a 4-WR set in a heartbeat. Both Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham are fully capable of running the entire route tree, creating match-up nightmares for any defense in the NFL.
If a defense was to bring its base personnel (in the Redskins’ case, 3 DL and 4 LBs) in an attempt to stop the run, the Saints are fully capable of lining up Graham in the slot to the strong side and motioning Sproles to the slot on the weak side. This forces matchups of LBs or safeties on guys that, realistically, they should not be covering (such as Kerrigan vs. Graham and/or Orakpo vs. Sproles). Of course, the Redskins could anticipate this by substituting nickel and dime packages to combat the spread concepts, but the Saints have the simple option of running the ball down their opponents’ throats against a much smaller nickel or dime front-7. In a way, New Orleans is able to create an advantageous pre-snap scenario on any down.
Darren Sproles is not the only capable receiver in the Saints’ backfield either. Pierre Thomas ended his 2011 season with 50 receptions (especially impressive considering the amount of snaps Darren Sproles receives in passing situations), which puts him in the camp of some of the best receiving backs in the NFL . Thomas will not be split out wide nearly as much as Sproles, but he is fully capable of taking advantage of mismatches out of the backfield.
(2) Building protection from the inside-out. This is a basic concept that all NFL teams preach and practice (blitz pickups are always done from the inside-out), but so few implement when it comes to the philosophy of building the roster. The New Orleans Saints are the exception.
Most NFL fans, analysts, and even general managers will harp about the importance of having a stellar blindside tackle. A lot would even say that it’s the most important offensive spot behind the quarterback, often times being the highest-paid and most sought-after position on that side of the ball. The New Orleans Saints, however, prescribe to a different philosophy; they believe their most important positions along the offensive line lie within the interior.
Two years ago, New Orleans signed their All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans to a then-record $56.7 million contract over 7 years. After signing Evans long-term, the Saints continued to develop a second All-Pro interior linemen, left guard Carl Nicks. Nicks was awarded back-to-back All-Pro honors in 2010 and 2011. This past offseason, Nicks entered free agency seeking a contract that would outdo his former teammate’s; unfortunately, the Saints did not have the cap room to resign Nicks, so they allowed him to walk (eventually to the Bucs for a now-record $47.5 million over 5 years). With the cap room they did have, the Saints replaced Nicks with former Baltimore star Ben Grubbs, who was given a $35 million contract.
Conversely, the Saints traded their two-time Pro-Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown to our Washington Redskins (which obviously now it looks like a steal for NOLA) and replaced him with a mid-round draft selection in Jermon Bushrod, who had started a grand total of 3 games prior to being handed the starting position. Bushrod was voted into the Pro-Bowl in 2011, but some analysts believe this honor had more to do with his presence in the most prolific offense in the NFL as opposed to his outright performance along the offensive line. However, despite Bushrod’s honor, he has yet to hear a word from New Orleans regarding a contract extension, even though he is in the last year of his rookie contract.
Why do the Saints place such value on the interior of the line? For two reasons: (a) Drew Brees is arguably the best QB in the NFL at recognizing pressure from the outside and stepping up into the pocket without disrupting his passing lanes, and (b) the Saints excel at the inside-zone running game.
Schematically, the Saints provide a lot of misdirection and assistance to slow down edge rushers from teeing off on their prized QB; they will throw chip blocks coming out of the backfield; they utilize bubble screens, tunnel screens, faux screens, bootlegs, and shifting pockets to consistently vary Brees’ drop and release; they run the stretch zone to keep edge rushers honest with containment assignments. However, one thing they absolutely must have in order to be successful over the course of a game is a clean pocket for Brees to step up into. Brees’ size (6’0’’) does not allow him to see and throw over his linemen easily; he needs passing lanes created for him, and he needs space with which to get his passes off without being batted down by hulking defensive linemen. Despite all of the misdirection New Orleans uses, they are still, at heart, a team that loves to stretch the field vertically. Brees cannot do that unless he has a clean pocket to step up into. The interior of his offensive line is stellar at providing this.
(3) Limiting defensive playcalls by dictating tempo. This should come as no surprise to anybody that has watched the Saints operate, but they love to conduct out of limited or no-huddle situations. Often times, they will strategically implement a no-huddle in situations where it’s not absolutely necessary. Sometimes, they’ll even use the no-huddle without a hurry-up; they do it just for the impact it has on the tactical decisions of the opponents’ defensive playcallers.
What makes their no-huddle situations so effective? The versatility of their personnel to run numerous formations out of their base package, the efficiency with which Drew Brees operates (71.2% completion in 2011) to consistently modify the to-go distance from down-to-down, and the resulting strain the two factors above place on defensive coordinator’s ability to call creative plays and substitute situational packages.
Jim Haslett loves to use unconventional formations such as 1-4-6 (one DL, four LBs, 6 DBs), 2-4-5, or the Psycho package (zero down linemen); these formations put an incredible burden on the QB and offensive line to diagnose which rushers are coming, where they are coming from, and what coverage the rest of the players are playing in. Unless you have ESP, it’s almost impossible to determine all of the assignments until after the snap has come (or if you’ve forced the defense to show its hand with a hard count pre-snap). However, the formations mentioned above are purely situational. A no huddle offense forces a defensive package to remain on the field from play-to-play (you can’t risk substituting unless the offense substitutes first), so any defensive package must be certain that they can get off the field (by forcing an incompletion, a 4th down, turnover, or negative play) or they had better be prepared to face any type of play design on subsequent downs. Using a Psycho package against the no-huddle becomes extremely risky when the offense is able to go from a 4 WR set to an I-formation without using a substitution; that defensive package is not designed to play against a traditional rushing formation and, more often than not, will get gashed on the ground.
(4) Using movement and motion to create mismatches in the slot. I’ve already talked about how the Saints love to split TE Jimmy Graham out wide and motion Darren Sproles into the slot in order to create mismatches. The other player that the Saints love to get into those situations is WR Marques Colston. Colston has tremendous size (6’5’’), excellent hands, and uses his body exceptionally well to shield his body from defensive pressure. He and Graham provide Drew Brees with great targets over the middle of the field on intermediate routes.
A lot of the Saints’ pass-play concepts rely on vertical routes from the outside to clear space for intermediate routes inside the hash marks coming across Brees’ face. Drew Brees has solid arm-strength, but far from elite. What sets him apart is the recognition of coverage, the accuracy of his passes, and his timing with his receivers. Sean Payton has masked Brees’ arm strength by not burdening his QB with many intermediate-to-deep outs (or other throws that test the ball speed necessary to beat a defender to a certain space). Don’t confuse this with the idea that the Saints do not ask Brees to stretch the field; they absolutely do. They simply do it in a way that does not require stellar ball speed (e.g. going over the top – Brees’ touch and arc is arguably the best in the NFL when it comes to the deep ball).
Entire books can be written on the offensive philosophies and tendencies of the New Orleans Saints, but what it comes down to is this: they can pass the ball effectively out of any formation, they can run the ball effectively out of almost any formation, they are aggressive, they are efficient, they are deep (another thing they do well is to keep players fresh for all 4 quarters by rotating guys in and out all game long), and they are formidable.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way (and sufficiently scared the crap out of any readers of mine), let me make one thing clear: this team is beatable. Nobody is invincible. To do that the Redskins must key the following:
- Stop the run. As antithetical as it sounds for a team that is so prolific passing the ball, the number one thing the Redskins must do is stop the run. If New Orleans gets the ground game going, forget about stopping them. That offense turns into a juggernaut when they are able to diversify their playcalls. However, when their running game struggles, Brees/Payton/Carmichael have a tendency to abandon that aspect of the offense, which give the defense a chance to slow down (or at least disrupt) Brees’ passing game. In fact, in the four losses New Orleans suffered last season, these were their rushing productions:
- Week 1 at GB: 21 rushes for 89 yards (3.9 YPC)
- Week 6 at TB: 20 rushes for 70 yards (3.5 YPC)
- Week 8 at STL: 20 rushes for 56 yards (2.8 YPC)
- Divisional Playoff at SF: 14 rushes for 37 yards (2.6 YPC)
Those rushing attempts and YPC were well below their season averages (27+ attempts per game and 4.9 YPC). That offense becomes vulnerable once the running game is shut down. They force themselves into 3rd and longer situations, lessen the ability to run a no-huddle offense, and lose the versatility that makes them so dangerous in the first place.
- Collapse the pocket from the interior of the line. Earlier I outlined New Orleans’ emphasis on building protection from the inside-out, investing heavily at the guard positions, and Drew Brees’ exceptional ability to feel pressure from the outside and step up into the pocket. Well, here’s the obvious defensive key to countering that strategy: generate pressure from the inside of the pocket and force Brees to go elsewhere. If the Redskins are able to slow down this passing game, it will most likely not be because Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan were able to wreak havoc off the edge (although that would certainly be nice); it will be because Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield, Adam Carriker, and Jarvis Jenkins were menacing in the middle of that line. So much of Brees’ game is predicated on timing, and when that timing is thrown off because his anticipated release point is unavailable, mistakes can occur. The good new here is that among all teams that run a 3-4, the Washington Redskins’ defensive line ranked 2nd in the NFL in total sacks generated in 2011 (18 total, second only to the Baltimore Ravens’ 21). That’s better than both Green Bay and San Francisco, two teams who managed to knock off the Saints last year.
- Advanced zonal concepts in coverage. You will not beat the Saints if you attempt to go 1-on-1 in man-coverage against that offense. They just have too many weapons and too many mismatches across the board. More often than not, their 4th or 5th receiving option on the field could be a 2nd or 3rd option on most other teams in the league; that’s what happens when you can line up Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Darren Sproles at the same time. A defense that plans to feature Cedric Griffin, Madieu Williams, Reed Doughty, and/or DeJon Gomes extensively must not allow themselves to get into situations where they are relying on man-coverage in crucial situations.
Each one of the tenets outlined in Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive philosophy (split-coverage, read-zone, and zone-blitzing) must be used carefully and judiciously in this gameplan. The defense must attempt to confuse Brees at the line-of-scrimmage as well as in the secondary. Each of the teams that earned a victory over the Saints in 2011 heavily used those zonal concepts against them: STL (coached by Spagnuolo at the time), TB (coached by Raheem Morris at the time – a Tampa-2 practitioner), GB (led by Dom Capers – a Pittsburgh disciple of the 3-4), and SF (led by Vic Fangio – 3-4 disciple of Dom Capers).
The importance of these zonal concepts also means that Haslett must be willing to bring pressure with only 4-5 players. This is not the game to use his patented Cover-0 and leave his defensive backs on islands; Brees will find the mismatch and take advantage of it every time. Heck, I would be wary of seeing a Cover-1 as well. Haslett must give every advantage he can to his secondary, even if it means placing a heavier burden on the front line to generate pressure with less numbers.
- Take care of the ball offensively. This is cliché (and I feel disappointed in myself for even pointing this out), but the best defense is a good offense. In this situation, it’s doubly true. Brees cannot hurt you if he doesn’t have the ball. Time of possession will help the Redskins’ defense rest, prepare, and adjust to what the Saints are doing offensively. It’s not good enough for RGIII and the Shanahans to keep up on the scoreboard; they have to monitor how they’re keeping up. A track meet does not work in the Redskins’ favor.
- Use Raheem Morris’ experience against New Orleans. The Washington Redskins have a considerable weapon at their disposal in the week leading up to this game. Drew Brees and Sean Payton joined the Saints in 2006. This offense has been developed and perfected over the last 6 years; outside of certain tweaks, that scheme has remained the same since those two hooked up in New Orleans. Raheem Morris, conversely, was Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach from 2007-2008. From 2009-2011, Morris operated as Tampa Bay’s head coach and defensive guru. As a former divisional opponent, Morris has studied and gameplanned against New Orleans two times per year for each of the last five seasons. No coach in the NFL has played against this offense more often than Raheem Morris has. None. That is a distinct advantage for a non-divisional opponent to have. Even as bad as Tampa Bay was in 2011, Morris still found a way to slow down this offensive juggernaut and earn a victory for the Buccaneers. There is no doubt that Morris emptied his memory bank for Haslett and Shanahan to pick through, and his consultation in the current gameplan along with the inevitable in-game adjustments will be crucial in the Redskins’ quest to earn a victory on Sunday.
In the end, this is, without a doubt, one of the toughest tests the Redskins will face this season. The New Orleans Saints are explosive, dangerous, and pissed at the world. They open the season at home, against a rookie QB, in the face of crippling punishments from Roger Goodell, while in recovery from yet another large-scale hurricane. They will be ultra-motivated and emotional in one of the NFL’s most difficult environments to play in. However, they are not unbeatable. The Redskins have the defensive personnel and offensive firepower to stay with anyone in this league on any given day. They’ve done it before: the Redskins beat the 2011 Super Bowl champion New York Giants twice last year, and the Redskins beat the 2010 Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers once in their year of dominance. Do not be surprised if the Washington Redskins pull off another stunner this year.