Since Sean Payton's arrival in 2006, the New Orleans Saints consistently have fielded one of the most explosive offenses in football. But this year's edition might be the most dynamic and versatile unit I've seen under his direction.
Now I know that's quite a statement, based on the fireworks typically produced in the Superdome, but the Saints have assembled an offensive lineup that lacks a glaring weakness. Combine that with the fearless play calling of Payton, who boasts a keen a keen understanding of how to maximize schemes and personnel deployment, and New Orleans could field the scariest offense in 2014.
Given some time to study All-22 Coaches Film from the Saints' preseason games -- particularly Saturday's 23-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts -- I've come up with three reasons why New Orleans is poised to make a Super Bowl run behind an offense that should be nearly impossible to defend:
1) Drew Brees is the ultimate game manager at the position.
I created a bit of a stir last month when I tabbed Brees as the most clutch quarterback in the game, but there is no denying the spectacular production since his arrival in New Orleans. The 14th-year pro has topped the 5,000-yard mark in four of the past six seasons. (Quick note: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford are the only other members of the 5,000-yard club, and they've each accomplished the feat once.) Considering his 67.7 completion rate, 229:95 TD-to-INT ratio and 101.1 QB rating during that span it's safe to say he's been an efficient distributor with a knack for finding the open receiver.
Brees is an astute game manager adept at connecting the dots, which makes him nearly impossible to defend. He wisely takes the checkdown when coverage dictates it beneficial, yet he is a calculated risk taker willing to fire the ball into tight windows when the opportunity for a big play presents itself. Consequently, Payton can trust his veteran quarterback to play the game the right way, which opens up the playbook and allows the Saints to push the envelope from a schematic standpoint.
After watching the Saints from the press box at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, I believe the eight-time Pro Bowler definitely remains at the top of his game. He was deadly accurate with ball placement and distributed to his receivers on the perimeter like a pass-first point guard. In addition, he pushed the pace by getting the Saints in and out of the huddle quickly, allowing the ball to be snapped shortly after the play call came in from the sideline. This put the Saints into an offensive rhythm almost immediately and kept the Colts' defense in retreat mode. As a result, New Orleans went up and down the field with relative ease, totaling 14 points in the three series under Brees' direction.
Now, I know preseason production must be taken with a grain of salt, but it certainly matters when assessing the feel and flow of a unit. Based on Brees' superb performance in his preseason debut, it's easy to envision a frighteningly potent Saints offense in 2014.
2) Sean Payton's clever tactics produce explosive plays in bunches.
Few offensive coaches are capable of rivaling Payton's creative scheming and play-calling skills. The wily coach is like a mad scientist crafting exotic formations and personnel packages designed to exploit mismatches, simultaneously making life easier for his veteran quarterback to call the game from the line. The clever utilization of various looks and personnel groupings restricts the defense's opportunities to blitz. With the myriad of "YOZ" ("Y" outside of "Z," or tight end outside of the flanker), empty and jumbo formations used by the Saints, defensive coordinators are forced to employ simplistic game plans with vanilla fronts and coverage.
Studying the first 15 offensive plays of the Saints' win over the Colts, I was amazed at the number of different formations and personnel groupings used by Payton. The Saints incorporated "21" (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), "22" (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR), "12" (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), "10" (1 RB, 4 WR) and "11" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) packages, while jumping into a variety of spread, empty and tight formations. This overall diversity and multiplicity kept the Colts on their heels and allowed the Saints to attack a static defense that was easy to diagnose during the pre-snap phase.
Below are some examples of the various formations (and personnel groupings) the Saints utilized during their opening drive alone.
Ace-wing (12 personnel):
Empty formation (11 personnel):
I-formation (22 personnel):
Bunch formation (21 personnel):
Empty formation (11 personnel):
Although Payton's Xs-and-Os knowledge and superb play calling are impressive, it is his ability to maximize his personnel that stands out most. He does a great job of setting his guys up for success by crafting schemes that frequently put them in one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. Let's take a look at a few specific examples ...
Payton loves to use Graham as the queen on the chessboard to create mismatches. Standing 6-foot-7 with speed, quickness and leaping ability, Graham is too big for defensive backs to handle and too athletic for linebackers to contain in space. Thus, Payton can deploy Graham at various spots on the field to help Brees identify potential home run shots in the passing game.
Against the Colts in the following two screengrabs, he is deployed as the tight end on the back side of an ace slot-wing formation. The Saints have instructed Graham to run a deep crossing route to the opposite side of the field, behind the linebackers:
With the defense overreacting to the play fake, Graham is able to slip past D'Qwell Jackson:
A pinpoint pass from Brees results in a 38-yard catch-and-run.
Graham blows past the two defenders assigned to guard him:
Eventually, Graham breaks to the post to haul in a dime thrown by Luke McCown to the back of the end zone.
That was Graham's second touchdown of the night and a perfect illustration of why he is so tough to defend in man or zone coverage.
Colston rarely gets mentioned as one of the top receivers in the game, but the 6-4, 225-pounder has topped the 1,000-yard mark six times in his eight-year career, scoring 63 touchdowns in the process. Part of Colston's success can be attributed to Payton's willingness to use his big-bodied receiver in the slot against linebackers. While most teams place a jitterbug-type in the WR3 spot, the Saints routinely align Colston in a flex position beside the offensive tackle to pit him against an MLB or WLB in space.
Looking at some more screengrabs from Saturday's game in Indy, Payton positions Colston in the slot in a trips formation to run an all-go concept in the red zone. Notice how Payton is using the same play as diagramed just above, but he has switched around his personnel to take advantage of Colston's athleticism against linebackers down the middle:
When Brees sees Colston blowing past Jackson on the hash route, he fires the ball to the back of the end zone:
Colston snags the pass under the goal post for a touchdown:
The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner has yet to take a snap in a regular-season NFL game, but he has already created a buzz in New Orleans with his speed, explosiveness and playmaking ability. Cooks is a home run hitter capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Reviewing Cooks' work from the first few weeks of the preseason, it's clear the Saints are grooming him for a huge role as a rookie. Payton has moved his young receiver around to multiple positions to take advantage of his superior running skills in the open field. Although Cooks' diminutive physical dimensions (5-10, 189 pounds) suggest he would be ideally suited to play in the slot, a close look at his collegiate career at Oregon State reveals a polished receiver with the tools to play inside or outside in the Saints' high-powered offense.
In the video clip to your right, which details Cooks' preseason performance against the Rams, pay close attention to where the rookie aligns and how fast the Saints get him the ball on quick-rhythm throws. This allows Cooks to use his speed and quickness in space, while also enabling the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands before the pass rush can get home.
Stills enjoyed a fine rookie campaign in 2013, displaying big-play ability on the perimeter. As a crafty route runner with outstanding speed, quickness and burst, Stills has the ability to blow past defenders on vertical routes on the outside. This allows Payton to use him on clear routes (go routes, seams and post routes) through the zone to open up the field for the Saints' underneath receivers. In addition, it gives Brees a speedster to target downfield when he senses the defense aggressively jumping the short throws on the perimeter.
Stills' presence on the perimeter gives the Saints an effective counter to the bracket and double-coverage tactics used to slow down the team's primary weapons.
3) A three-headed monster at running back gives the offense balance.
After watching this backfield operate in the preseason, I'm convinced New Orleans has one of the best sets of multi-talented backs in the game. The collective talents of the threesome mesh well together and each back has the potential to thrive in his respective role.
A first-round pick for New Orleans back in 2011, Ingram appears poised to make noise this season as the Saints' workhorse runner. Recently, he has displayed surprising power and pop running the ball between the tackles. Yet, I've been most impressed with his vision, footwork and patience. He has become a decisive runner at the point of attack, allowing him to pick up positive gains when the hole appears clogged at the line of scrimmage. With Ingram running with more authority between the tackles, the Saints have the ability to use a grind-it-out approach to control the pace of action.
Robinson opened up eyes across the league as an undrafted rookie last season, displaying some explosive flashes in limited action. Including two playoff games, Robinson gained 326 yards on 75 carries (4.3 avg.) and finished with three runs of 20-plus yards. Those numbers don't necessarily jump off the page at first glance, but a look at the tape reveals a runner with a nice combination of speed, quickness and burst. He gets to top speed in a hurry, yet possesses the balance and body control to run through contact at the line of scrimmage. This makes him dangerous on perimeter runs, particularly on the stretch play (outside zone), where he attacks the edge of the defense while searching for a crease on the interior. This guy can get to the second level in a hurry against fast-flowing defenses.
Thomas is slated for a reduced role as a runner, but he remains a valuable member of the rotation. The eighth-year veteran is one of the best third-down backs in the game, exhibiting exceptional blocking and pass-catching skills out of the backfield. Thomas is terrific in the screen game, which adds another element to the Saints' offense.
While no one will suggest that Thomas is nearly as explosive or dynamic as the departed Darren Sproles, he is a proven commodity as a receiver (282 career receptions, including a career-best 77 grabs in 2013) with sneaky wiggle and burst on the perimeter. In a new role designed to take advantage of those skills, Thomas is a key piece to an offensive puzzle that will befuddle defensive coordinators across the league.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.