The defending champion Saints started 2-0, and then Reggie Bush got hurt. The offense sputtered and New Orleans dropped three of its next five games. It took time to adjust without Bush, but the Saints are now 7-3 and coach Sean Payton expects the dynamic running back to return on Thanksgivingagainst the Cowboys.
That's terrific news for the Saints ... and bad news for opponents. With Bush back, defensive coordinators around the league can't be too happy. Whether he's getting the ball or, even more importantly, being used as a decoy to set up other phases of the offense, he is a problem. A big one.
The dot: This is when Bush is directly behind the center and quarterback on what football coaches call the midline. From this spot, the defense is thinking a zone-run play or play-action pass off the fake to Bush, who busted a 46-yard touchdown run out of this formation against the Cardinals in the playoffs last year.
The offset: This is when Bush is in the backfield behind the offensive tackle and threatens the defense with a counter run to the opposite side or a choice route against a linebacker. In Week 2 against the 49ers, Bush lined up offset away from the trips formation and forced linebacker Patrick Willis to play man coverage on him. Willis was burned for a touchdown and he's one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL.
The slot: This is when Bush is not in the backfield but lined up inside the wide receiver to the weak side. The defense is thinking slot reverse to Bush or a wide receiver route. Bush has wide receiver skills, and if a defense is in its base package, a linebacker has to cover him or the defense has to make a zone check. In the Saints' playoff win over the Cardinals last season, Bush was also used as a decoy. In this instance, he ran a quick out and totally opened up Marques Colston on the curl route. His decoy ability is as effective as his skills with the ball.
The wide receiver: When Bush was at USC, he was the best wide receiver on the team and understood route-running and how to beat coverages. From this alignment, the defense is thinking a smoke screen outside to him or, once again, a decoy for a deeper pass. In New Orleans' divisional-round victory over Arizona last season, Bush is lined up as a wide receiver to the left and runs a quick route inside, opening up tight end Jeremy Shockey for a touchdown.
The returner: If it wasn't enough to locate him in all the offensive sets the Saints deploy, defenses have to account for him in the return game. On his 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the same game referenced above, ask yourself why the Cardinals even punted to him. Kick it out of bounds, but don't out-kick your coverage or Bush will walk in for a score.
The Saints' pass offense is really designed to attack the safeties with the slot receiver and tight end. No one does a better job than Drew Brees of putting the safeties in a bind with a quick-rhythm passing game inside. Linebackers really want to carry these receivers to the safeties and not give Brees the quick-seam routes.
When Bush is in the backfield, especially in the offset alignment, the linebackers are very cautious about carrying the receivers to the safeties because it leaves one linebacker in space to handle Bush. Brees has an easy read. If the linebackers drop deep with his inside receivers, Brees comes right to Bush. If the linebackers squat in short coverage, Brees hits Colston or Lance Moore down the seam. Coaches refer to this as an over/under principle and no one does it better than New Orleans when Bush is on the field.
Another record for Brees
For all he can do, Bush is not a full-time starter who gets 20-25 touches a game. On a good day, he receives the ball 10-12 times like he did in the playoff game against the Cardinals (12 touches for 217 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns). Usually he touches the ball just six to seven times a game, but that number is deceiving for what he does to opposing defenses. Ask any defensive coach who has to play against him and they will tell you they respect him as a decoy and they lose sleep thinking about the matchup problems he causes in all of his different alignments.
"Because Bush has been out since Week 2, we are going back and putting a video together of all the things he did last year and where he does it from," a head coach who is soon scheduled to play the Saints said to me. "We have to make our players aware of him."