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Eagle Eye In The Sky: Saints Preview

Posted Jan 2, 2014

Without question, this will be the toughest test the Eagles have faced since the Denver Broncos back in Week 4. On both sides of the ball, the New Orleans Saints are multiple and can attack you in a multitude of ways. Let's start the All-22 analysis with head coach Sean Payton’s offense, led by star quarterback Drew Brees.

When you look at successful teams around the league over the years, some offenses can win on pure talent alone. One team's players are bigger, faster and stronger than the ones that they line up against. Other times, coaches outscheme their opponents. The opposition may be more talented, but the coaching staff finds ways to put their players in positions to succeed and win on a consistent basis.

What happens when there is a marriage between the two?

Well, that’s what New Orleans has had since Payton and Brees joined forces, as they’ve produced an offensive juggernaut year in and year out. They have an extremely productive passing game that relies on "simple" concepts, but the way that they get into those concepts look different from play to play (does that sound familiar). To be honest, these two teams are similar in a lot of ways, and a lot of the Saints passing game is very much akin to what fans have seen in Philadelphia all season long.

It’s not just about drawing up the X’s and O’s on a white board with this team though. Because this isn’t your run-of-the-mill personnel. Tight end Jimmy Graham lines up all over the field. Wide receiver Marques Colston lines up all over the field. Ditto for running back Darren Sproles. They use two-back and two-tight end sets regularly (I analyzed the dilemma that causes defenses just last week). All of these looks and all of these formations are something you have to prepare for that week. For an example of that, let’s take a look at something we talked about on our Pre-Snap Read segment this week, the Saints' 3x1 set.

Look at this shot from the team’s Week 16 game against Carolina. The Saints come out in a 3x1 look, with three receivers to the right (top of the screen) and Graham (circled) to the left. Right off the bat, you have to figure out how to line up against this. How do you defend Graham (6-foot-7, 265 pounds)? A linebacker? A cornerback? A safety? Conversely, how do you then defend a player like Colston (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) running out of the slot? They create matchup problems by alignment, and before the ball is even snapped the defense has issues.

Notice in the circle that Graham is lined up tight to the formation on this play. You’ll see him aligned out wide out of this set as well. Regardless, there is still a cornerback lined over him. To the three receiver side, this will be a simple read for Brees, working off of his two inside receivers.

As Eagles Game Plan analyst Brian Baldinger put it to me earlier this week, the Saints are a classic "touchdown-checkdown" team. Brees will always take a shot at the deep ball if it’s there, but quickly gets through his reads and gets the ball to the open receiver. Here, the Panthers have a deep safety, so going over the top may not be an option for Brees.

With the deep ball taken away, Brees works back inside to Marques Colston, who is running an in-breaking route across the field. Notice that Colston, a wide receiver, is working against a linebacker in coverage. Teams can't possibly defend every one of these targets as adequately as they would like on every down, and Brees knows that. Here, he finds Colston, his No. 1 receiver working against a linebacker, for a 35-yard gain and a first down. The following week against Tampa Bay, there is a very similar situation with a different result ...

Once again, the Saints are lined up in a 3x1 set. This time, however, Graham is split out wide to the bottom of the screen.

On the inside, you have the same exact route concept from the Saints. How will the Bucs choose to defend this?

This time, Tampa Bay "brackets" Colston. The safety to the other side of the field is shaded over Graham’s side to help cornerback Johnthan Banks. What does that mean?

This means the deep ball is there for the taking. Brees steps up and delivers a beauty to Lance Moore for a 44-yard touchdown. This is a good example of how a great scheme with very talented personnel can be so difficult to defend.

In the last play, I showed the safety shaded over to help Banks over the top against Graham? There’s a reason for that. When Graham is lined up as wide receiver isolated to one side of the field, he is incredibly dangerous for a number of reasons. Take this for example, as this play happened against Tampa Bay earlier in the season.

Again, the Saints are lined up in a 3x1 set. At the top of the screen, Graham is going to run a "sluggo" route. Graham’s going to fake the quick slant then break upfield on a go route. That initial move inside, along with a great pump fake from Brees, is going to make this play.

Look at what this fake does to the safety, as he bites on the slant. Graham deftly takes one step and gets upfield, where Brees gets him the ball for a 21-yard gain and a first down. One of the biggest areas Graham has improved since he has gotten to the NFL has been his route running, and that was on display on this play.

Brees is incredible at moving second-level defenders with ball fakes and with his eyes. In every game, you’ll see him moving linebackers and safeties to create throwing lanes and space to drop the ball down the field. It’s one of the attributes that has made him into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

On the last play, Brees used the pump fake to throw the fade down the sideline. This time, it appears to be the same exact play with rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills at the bottom of the screen.

But this ball isn’t going to Stills. The pump fake keeps the Tampa Bay safety in the middle of the field, and Brees, after throwing the fake, immediately turns and hits Graham down the seam for a 33-yard pickup. They love to get Graham down the seam, and Brees is great at creating space for that throw by holding the safety to the other side of the field. This is a trait we’ve seen from Nick Foles time and again this season, and it’s a great weapon in a quarterback’s toolbox.

Let’s get back to scheme with the Saints. When I first began watching them on tape preparing for this matchup, you saw that one of their "bread-and-butter" passing plays was the three-level stretch, or "flood" concept. We have seen other teams run it throughout the season, and the Eagles employ it as well. The Saints go to it time and time again, and it’s one of their most productive plays in the passing game. What does the three-level stretch consist of? Let’s take a look.

It’s called a three-level stretch because it stretches the defensive coverage over all three layers down the field by running a trio of routes towards one sideline. Above, Kenny Stills runs deep, the first level.

Next, notice Graham out of the slot running an out-route over the intermediate area of the field, the second level of the defense.

Lastly, Colston runs a shallow crossing route and ends up in the flat, the third level of the defense. This is what a three-level stretch will look like at the end. It doesn’t always start this way, however, with New Orleans. With all of their moveable chess pieces on offense, you can expect Stills, Graham, Colston, Sproles, Moore, tight end Ben Watson, running back Pierre Thomas, wide receiver Robert Meachem, wide receiver Nick Toon, everyone to be a part of it and from a wide array of spots on the field before the snap. Sometimes, the intermediate route starts on the same side of the field as the deep route, other times it doesn’t. But at the end of the play, this is what you have, a three-receiver route to one side of the field, with Brees working from deep-to-short to find the open receiver.

This is where having elite personnel can cloud the decision-making process for a defense. Graham is running an out route here. Everyone knows that Graham is Brees’ favorite target and the most dangerous player on the field, and he is always in the back of the defense’s mind.

This is why both the safety (Dashon Goldson) and the cornerback (Darrelle Revis) both sit down on the out route, and Stills blows right by them. This makes for an easy throw and catch for Brees.

Stills is wide open, and this results in the Saints’ longest play of the year, a 76-yard touchdown late in the first half against Tampa Bay off the "flood" concept.

The intermediate route may sometimes come from the opposite side of the field. Here is an example of that, and why that is so hard for a defense to deal with.

It’s second-and-10, and Colston is lined up wide to the right side of the formation. At this point, you’re not expecting a three-level stretch from the Saints.

Before the snap, Colston comes in motion behind Moore. The Saints really like to run their wideouts out of "stacked" positions, with one player covering up the other. Not only is it a good way to confuse defenders, but it’s a way to prevent a player from being pressed at the line of scrimmage, and ensure that your timing is intact on that play.

Colston will come across the formation on this play and run the intermediate route of this three-level stretch concept.

The Rams are in zone coverage on this play, and the underneath defender to the left side of the field doesn’t see Colston in his line of vision. He’s going to run right behind him, as he drives down on Graham in the flat.

Even if the Rams were in man coverage, the players who could possibly be responsible for Colston in coverage are at a distinct disadvantage on this route, as they have to follow him across the field. Brees hits Colston for a 23-yard gain on this play and a New Orleans first down.

The Saints run a lot of three-level stretch. Their opponents know it, and they know it. So they run a couple of different route combinations to keep defenders on their heels in response to that.

It’s first-and-10 against the Jets, and New York is in man coverage on this play. The Jets have assigned cornerback Antonio Cromartie to cover Graham on the outside, with a safety covering Robert Meachem in the slot.

Just before the snap of the ball, the Saints bring Graham in motion, inside of Meachem. The responsibilities have now switched for the Jets. Cromartie will cover Meachem, and the safety will cover Graham. The Saints are very good at creating favorable matchups for their offensive weapons, and that was the case on this play. From the jump, it looks like it could be a three-level stretch, with Meachem taking the top off the defense and Graham running what appears to be an out route. As you may have guessed, that will not be the case.

This is actually a post-wheel combination, the same play we saw the Eagles run with Jason Avant last week against Dallas. Meachem is running the deep post, and Graham is running a wheel behind it. This is a problem for the Jets, who again are in man coverage.

The cornerback, Cromartie, carries the post route inside, creating a void in the deep third of the field along the sideline. That void is exactly where Graham is going on this play, but the safety is unaware. He’s trying to jump the apparent out route, and will not be in position to make this play.

Graham separates from the defender and hauls in a 51-yard pass for a touchdown from Brees as he fights his way into the end zone. This was a great play call and great execution from the Saints, playing off of one of their favorite passing concepts and turning it into points. The Saints don’t just run this post-wheel with Graham however, as they have had success using it with Stills, Moore, Colston and Sproles ...

It’s second-and-7 and the Saints come out in an empty 3x2 set. New Orleans runs a lot of empty sets, yet another thing on the laundry list of items to prepare for when playing this team.

This again will be a post-wheel combination, this time with Sproles running the wheel to the outside against the Miami Dolphins’ man coverage.

Like we’ve seen from the Eagles’ wheel routes, this is a man coverage killer, as the defender has to fight through the post route to try and keep up with Sproles, who accelerates in the open field and blows down the sideline.

Sproles is wide open on this play, and comes up with a 48-yard completion with 30 yards coming after the catch. Sproles is as versatile a weapon as there is in the NFL, and is a great weapon for Brees and that offense. Here he is in the vertical passing game, but he’s obviously a huge factor in the screen game as well. Let’s take a look ...

It’s second-and-12, and the Saints come out in a pistol set with Sproles as a lone back in the backfield. If they line up in a formation like this, you can almost ALWAYS expect some kind of wheel or quick screen to the boundary (short side of the field depending on what hash the offense is lined up on, in this case to the right).

At the snap of the ball, every Saints receiver runs to the wide side of the field, taking a host of Tampa Bay defenders with them.

Right tackle Zach Strief runs out as the lead blocker, and Sproles catches a quick screen pass from Drew Brees and takes it 24 yards for a first down. Sproles is a quintessential space player, and the Saints have a number of ways they try to get him the ball in the open field, where he consistently makes opponents pay.

OH YEAH, THE SAINTS HAVE A PRETTY GOOD DEFENSE TOO

Let’s now move over to the defensive side of the ball, where the Saints have seen a revitalization in 2013 for a number of different reasons. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had a significant impact on this group in his first year with the team. The other addition that paid huge dividends was their first round pick, safety Kenny Vaccaro. The problem for New Orleans is that Vaccaro suffered a fractured ankle in Week 16 and is on Injured Reserve. This is to highlight how important he was to the defense and how head coach Chip Kelly might be able to take advantage with Vaccaro sidelined.

The Saints number one personnel package on defense is nickel, with five defensive backs. One could argue that this IS their base package, as opposed to having just four on the field. Not only do they play nickel with five players in the secondary, but they also play an extraordinary amount of dime, with six DBs. And, believe it or not, there are actually quite a number of snaps with seven defensive backs on the field, and in situations you wouldn’t really expect! How will the Eagles attack that? We will find out on Saturday, but let’s see why the Saints feel comfortable playing with that many defensive backs on the field.

It’s fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line with less than a minute left in a game against Atlanta earlier this season. The Falcons come out in 11 personnel, with one back, one tight end and three wide receivers. This is the Eagles' favorite personnel grouping, and they have run out of it all year long. With this grouping on the field, how do the Saints respond?

They send out seven defensive backs! Four safeties and three corners are on the field for the Saints. This shows incredible trust in your defensive backs for a number of reasons, but mainly because in this situation, if the Falcons had come out running the football, it would have been an advantageous look for the offense with a smaller defensive grouping on the field.

On this play, the Saints bracket tight end Tony Gonzalez with two of their safeties, Roman Harper and Vaccaro.

Gonzalez splits the double team and is in position to make a play on the ball, but Vaccaro makes a beautiful play to knock the ball from his hands and into the arms of Harper, who comes down with the game-clinching interception.

Obviously, this is an extreme scenario. While they do play with this package at times, having seven defensive backs on the field is not the norm. Understand the idea, however, that the Saints play more nickel than almost anyone and play more dime than anyone as well. They play with a lot of defensive backs on the field. Today’s NFL, especially against a team like the Eagles, is a game played in space, and with faster, more versatile players in the game, the Saints feel more prepared to defend the type of offenses that are scoring points and moving the ball at will.

Take a player like Vaccaro, who I watched play in man coverage during his senior year at Texas go against against Tavon Austin play after play when they faced West Virginia in 2012. Vaccaro is quick enough to deal with a player like Austin consistently. I watched him man up on Chicago Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery repeatedly and win down the field. He has the size to deal with bigger receivers and tight ends. He’s also a very good tackler and a dangerous blitzer. He's already one of the best safeties in the league.

Fortunately for the Eagles, he will not be on the field Saturday afternoon. Will that change the Saints approach defensively? It didn’t against Tampa Bay in Week 17. Against the Bucs, the Saints still played a good amount of nickel and dime sets with more than four defensive backs on the field at a time. Former cornerback (and the other starting safety) Malcolm Jenkins played in the slot on nickel downs. Second-year cornerback Trevin Wade came in on dime. Veteran Roman Harper replaced Vaccaro at safety in base packages, and is now an every-down player for them once again. Harper is not as good in coverage at this stage of his career as Vaccaro is. However, Harper is a very good tackler at the line of scrimmage, and has been a productive blitzer throughout his career with the Saints.

Let’s look at a shot from earlier in the season against Carolina. The Saints come out in a dime package with six defensive backs and just five linemen/linebackers (circled). In the middle of the field, Roman Harper is lined up almost as a linebacker.

The Saints are sending all five of their linemen and linebackers on this play. New Orleans is not a heavy blitzing team. They get plenty of pressure from players such as Akiem Hicks, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (who will have somewhat of a homecoming this weekend, having played his first three collegiate seasons at Temple University). You’ll see your share of overloads and all-out blitzes, but typically you’ll see three or four down linemen going after the quarterback along with, at most, one outside backer in the A or B gaps. That’s what you have here with No. 50, Curtis Lofton, blitzing between the guard and tackle.

The blitz is on and Harper, who is responsible for Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams in coverage, sees the back staying in to protect. Harper decides to become a part of the pressure and blitz the quarterback (green dogging, a concept I broke down a few weeks ago and one that Greg Cosell broke down on Eagles Game Plan just last week).

With the running back picking up Lofton, Harper now has a free rush at quarterback Cam Newton. Galette beats left tackle Jordan Gross, and the two combine for a sack on this play.

I mentioned before that the Saints aren’t a heavy blitzing team, and that’s true, they aren’t a defense that blitzes as often as teams like Pittsburgh or Arizona. I also mentioned that they have a lot of faith in their secondary, though. So much, in fact, that they will put their corners on islands with no help to go all-out after the quarterback ...

It’s first-and-10, and the Saints line up in a very unassuming alignment. You have two high safeties, and only four players at the line of scrimmage showing that they are coming after the quarterback.

This is actually a six-man pressure, an all-out blitz with the Saints playing "zero" coverage behind it. In "zero" coverage, each member of the defense that is not blitzing is responsible for a man in coverage, and there is no safety help deep or in the middle of the field. When you play with as many defensive backs as they do consistently, there is always the threat of a blitz like this.

The Saints’ secondary plays it safe in coverage, but Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has no time to step back and throw. The Patriots’ offensive line was in no position to block this blitz, and it resulted in a sack. Again, the Saints aren’t a heavy blitz team, but when they come, they are tactful and effective. Ryan knows how to pressure the quarterback, and knows how to attack opponent’s weaknesses.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen on a special playoff edition this Saturday at 7:30 PM on 6abc. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the Head Video Coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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