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The New Orleans Saints present a lot of different challenges for the Eagles' defense. This is a team and a scheme that has the ability to stretch you vertically and horizontally. They spread the ball around to a wide variety of different receivers. Like Washington, they are looking to get the ball out quickly with a number of different screen plays, quick-game concepts and rub routes to get people open against man coverage. The difference is, they're lead by a veteran quarterback who can carve a defense up at any point in Drew Brees.
Much ado has been made about Brees and his perceived lack of arm strength at this point in his career, but even with the shoulder injury he has the ability to make any throw they ask of him in this offense. Furthermore, he can do it with accuracy, touch and perfect timing. His ability to navigate the pocket makes him tougher to sack than most quarterbacks, despite his smaller stature, and that trait has not gone away at this point in his career.
This is great quarterbacking by Brees last Sunday night against Dallas. At the snap, he drops back and looks to his left for his first progression, but when he feels pressure up the middle, he sidesteps in the pocket and throws it down the seam for a first down, into the area where the pressure came from. Like Tony Romo, who can move around the pocket in complete control and still be a threat to throw the football, the Eagles' defensive front seven will be tested. Finishing sacks against Brees is no easy task.
With Jimmy Graham, the Saints were a big vertical passing team. With a dynamic playmaker at the tight end position, and vertical threats like Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and others on the roster, you could count on a few select shot plays down the field on a weekly basis. The personnel has changed a bit, and so has the way they attack defenses. The three-step pass game has been put into focus, and the shot plays have been less frequent. Still though, New Orleans does has a vertical element in this scheme, and it comes in two different forms, the Dagger and the Flood.
The "Dagger" concept is vertical passing play that looks to create space in the deep middle of the field for a dig route, and when it works, it's actually a really pretty play to watch because of all of the moving parts to it. As well as any other route concept, the Dagger manipulates second-level defenders at the snap of the ball to create a perfect throwing lane for the quarterback.
Here is the deep dig route that the Saints are trying to hit, with Brees targeting wideout Willie Snead, the team's leading receiver.
The first way to accomplish this is by blowing the top off the coverage with vertical routes inside. With this 3x1 set, the Saints are running two receivers straight down the field. This stretches the defense vertically because those safeties have to retreat to defend the deeper go routes.
What New Orleans also adds to this is a drag route from the X receiver, second-year man Brandin Cooks. The shallow crossing route from Cooks helps to stretch the defense horizontally, by taking the attention of any underneath defender in the middle of the field. Since the Saints run a lot of shallow cross concepts, the defense has to respect those routes.
The ball is snapped, and the play develops. You've got the two defensive backs inside taken away.
The route from Cooks causes the underneath defender to that side to expand toward the sideline.
It's a perfect throwing lane for Brees, who delivers the ball in perfect time for Snead, who catches it out of his break and picks up a first down.
Stepping aside from the vertical pass game for a second, one of the favorite quick-game plays for the Saints is a simple high-low read called "Levels." This is a play that was brought into relevance during Peyton Manning's heyday with the Colts, as he consistently put defenders into a bind with two in-breaking routes at different levels of the field. Here's what it looks like.
You'll see this play a lot from New Orleans when they line up in a bunch set, as you see Marques Colston running a shallow cross and Snead on a dig over the top of it.
You can see how Colston's drag route takes away the linebacker in the middle of the field, opening a wide open lane for Brees to deliver the football. If that linebacker stays put, Brees can just dump it off to Colston and let him run, something I saw plenty of times on film as well.
Colston has been in the league for a long time now and is still a very effective weapon for the Saints. When he first entered the league out of Hofstra, he was productive because his size and athleticism made him a mismatch in the middle of the field. That is still the case, but at this stage that he's able to win in other ways. His relationship with Drew Brees between the lines only helps that.
Other than "Dagger," the "Flood" concept or "Three-Level Stretch" has always been a huge facet of the Saints' vertical passing attack. While I haven't seen it as much this year as I have in the past, it's still in the playbook, and it's something the Eagles have to be prepared for. The three-level stretch is just that, three receivers at three levels of the defense to stretch the defense up and down the field, with all of them running toward or along the sideline.
The Bucs were in zone coverage here, and Colston (running the intermediate route) saw that. Instead of carrying his route the rest of the way through and running right out of the sightline of Brees, Colston sits down and puts himself in perfect position for the reception, cutting the route off early, making the catch and running into the open field for a huge gain to set up a touchdown later in the drive. Brees and Colston's relationship makes them very tough to defend, and you can't count out the veteran receiver, even at this stage of his career.
The three-level stretch is still a part of the Saints' passing game, as are wheel routes. The Saints have always been a huge proponent of using wheel routes to create matchup problems on the perimeter, whether it was with Graham, Darren Sproles or any of a number of slot receivers. That has continued this year, and it was how they scored in overtime against the Cowboys last weekend.
The Saints came out in overtime with running back C.J. Spiller lined up in the near slot, inside of Cooks. Cooks runs a quick in-breaking route, and Spiller gets to the perimeter uninhibited with nothing but green turf in front of him. The rookie linebacker responsible for him in coverage, Damien Wilson, has no shot at keeping pace with him, and the 80-yard walk-off touchdown sends the Cowboys home as losers.
As I alluded to above, it's not just running backs like Spiller or Mark Ingram who you'll see on wheel routes, but from tight ends like Josh Hill or receivers like Snead, who caught a touchdown against Tampa Bay on pretty much the same exact concept here. The slot defender has too much traffic to run through to keep up with Snead who catches an uncontested touchdown for New Orleans. Wheel routes, rub concepts, the quick game, all kinds of screen plays and the occasional shot play downfield in the form of a three-level stretch or a deep dig are the types of plays you can expect from this Brees-lead attack on Sunday afternoon.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.