Eagle Eye: What Makes The Saints' Offense So Dangerous?

This New Orleans Saints offense is firing on all cylinders right now. Let’s not make any bones about it. The numbers speak for themselves.

The team leads the league in QB rating (123.1), completion percentage (76.7 percent), sacks allowed (9), touchdown efficiency (scoring a touchdown on 40.9 percent of their drives), average starting field position (32.8-yard line), big plays (137.2 passer rating on throws 20-plus yards downfield), and multiple other categories. They’re strong on third down (46.2 percent), they don’t turn the ball over (just seven giveaways), they’re top 10 in rushing (126.8 yards per game), and are ridiculously good against the blitz.

There are multiple reasons for that. Drew Brees is playing at an extremely high level. He gets the ball out so quickly on a consistent basis (hence the low sack total) and he’s almost always in rhythm with his receivers. He always knows where to go with the football and the scheme has answers for him whenever he drops back. He makes things look easy. His pinpoint accuracy shows up on a weekly basis, and his post-snap decision-making and mental processing have been exemplary. He’s looked as good on film as ever, and that’s no exaggeration.

The scheme itself is also really, really good. Sean Payton is one of the best gameplanners and playcallers in the NFL. They have a deep playbook in the run game and are constantly finding and attacking weaknesses in the passing game. There are always answers for Brees when he drops back to pass. What do I mean by that? If Brees expects man coverage, and he gets zone, then he has an outlet to go with the football. If he drops back expecting Cover 2, he knows where to go if it’s Cover 3 instead. The quarterback and the scheme are married together in football. Every great quarterback needs a terrific scheme in order to be great, and right now Brees and Payton are in lockstep.

The offensive line in New Orleans is also one of the best in the league. Left tackle Terron Armstead left last week’s game with a shoulder injury and has not yet practiced this week, but the rest of that line is very impressive. It’s a tough, physical group that can move people in the run game and give Brees more than enough time to operate as a passer.

Then you have the running backs, who in my opinion stand alongside Brees as the engine that makes this runaway train go. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara form the best one-two punch in the NFL, and Payton does a great job of leveraging the strengths of both players. Let’s start with Ingram, a former first-round pick who has been named to the Pro Bowl twice and has surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau in each of the last two seasons.

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Ingram is the hammer in the run game. They love getting him downhill between the tackles. He’s got really good vision, making him effective both in their zone schemes as well as in their gap schemes. He’s very competitive on contact and his play strength is one of his best traits. Ingram isn’t just a plow horse inside, however, because he can operate out in space as well. They like him in the screen game, and Ingram is still capable of breaking long runs with the ball in his hands. He’s tough to bring down whether it's in a phone booth or out in the open field.

Then we get to Kamara, who is just so much fun to watch, particularly in this scheme. He is a true "satellite" back in that he is moved all around the formation. He lines up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide, and is extremely effective in all three roles. Let’s start with him as a runner.

Perimeter runs? Check. Inside runs? Check. Jet sweeps on the perimeter? Check. Reverses and end arounds? Check. Kamara is used in all of these fashions, and any time they can get him the football they view it as a win for the offense.

Kamara is particularly a problem for defenses down in the red zone, where he currently leads the NFL with 21 targets inside the 20-yard line. He has 16 receptions, second in the league to his teammate Michael Thomas, and 10 total touchdowns. I mention the targets because he’s a dynamic receiver as well, and the Saints get the most out of him in the passing game.

Watch Kamara, not only in the screen game, but in the quick passing game. He’s a shifty route runner who can create his own separation, has soft hands, and is quickly able to turn into a runner in the open field, making people miss and pulling away from the defense for touchdowns. Kamara is one of the toughest players to cover in the NFL, and he’ll provide a big test for the Eagles on Sunday afternoon.

Kamara’s presence also helps others in the New Orleans offense. Whether defenses have to account for the dynamic running back before the snap and change the coverage plan or if Brees pump fakes to him before going elsewhere once defenders react to it, having him on the field is a huge part of what Payton wants to do offensively.

One of those players who Kamara certainly helps is Thomas, the uber-productive receiver who puts up big numbers inside and outside for the Saints.

The Saints love to line up Kamara outside with Thomas inside. As a defense, that forces you to try and match up. Are you going to man up and put a linebacker or safety outside the numbers on Kamara? How about a nickel corner? If so, does your outside corner travel inside with Thomas? The Eagles will have to figure all of that out this week in practice in preparation for those situations. Jim Schwartz will have to get creative in how he deploys the personnel with a banged-up secondary. Typically, the outside cornerbacks don’t travel inside. I’ll be interested to see if that changes in this game.

Thomas, himself, is a tough matchup. He’s a big-bodied kid who is one of the slicker route runners I’ve studied this year. He’s very slippery in space and does a great job of winning at the top of the route, throwing corners off his trail with his eyes and his shoulders to create that separation. Once he gets the ball, he uses his size and strength to run through contact and he has a nose for the end zone. I wasn’t the biggest fan of him a couple of years ago out of Ohio State. He’s turned into a much better player than I envisioned. He’s one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Amy Campbell and I took a long look at one of the Saints other versatile weapons in Taysom Hill. The college quarterback-turned-do-it-all weapon for Payton is one of the most versatile players in football right now. He lines up at every receiver spot, in the backfield, at tight end, at quarterback, and on special teams. It’s tough to predict what the Saints will do when he checks into the game as he'll be on the field at the same time as Brees. Will he run it, pass it, or catch it? Or will he be a decoy? He’s just another added layer to this offense that has given defenses headaches all season long.

Lastly, the Saints are one of the best offenses in the NFL when it comes to designing plays specifically to attack that opponent on any given week. This would lead me into a longer tangent about what teams do in constructing a game plan (for that whole discussion, listen to this podcast), but here’s the very abbreviated of it ...

Teams start the season with a giant playbook, pages and pages of plays and concepts that they’ll use throughout the season. Every week, teams watch film of the opponent, and they install a handful of those play concepts to attack the defense specifically for that game plan. Think of the playbook as a large cookbook of recipes for a chef, and the weekly game plan is a specific menu. You’re not going to go to a high-end restaurant and see that entire chef’s sample of recipes on the page! You’ll see the ones they’ve picked out specifically for this week. Every team has go-to concepts and staple passing plays that they want to incorporate. They’ll only use the ones that they feel will be effective against that week’s opponent. For instance, if the defense is a heavy man coverage team, you’re not going to go into the game loaded with Cover 2 beaters.

You may have one or two in there, but you’ll want to make sure you load up on your "man beating" concepts. Every once in a while, you’ll see a team bust out a play that they may only run once a year, and you can tell it’s solely for that specific game. I don’t pretend to study the entire NFL on a weekly basis, but Payton is on the short list of coaches who I think of as one of the best in this category. I’d include Doug Pederson, Andy Reid, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan on it as well.

At the end of the day, the Saints are a tough matchup for any defense in the NFL, and they will be a challenge for this Eagles unit on Sunday. I’m really excited to see how Jim Schwartz matches up to the wide, wide variety of personnel groupings.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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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