Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, an examination of a New Orleans offense that is changing its identity ...
* * * **
NEXT GEN STATS: The Saints' throwback plan.
Maybe it was simply a coincidence that Sean Payton decided to turn back the clock on the New Orleans Saints' offense as the rest of America turned back the clocks in their living rooms. But there is no question the offensive wizard is using old game plans from his Super Bowl-winning playbook to get the Saints back on track in the NFC South.
I'm sure you vividly remember the Saints rolling to Super Bowl XLIV in 2009 behind an explosive aerial attack with Drew Brees at the helm, but that squad was actually buoyed by the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack that season. The team repeatedly fed Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush a bevy of carries between the tackles to control the tempo and set up big-play opportunities for Brees on an assortment of play-action passes.
Fast-forward to this season, with Payton revamping an offense that had leaned heavily on Brees (now 37) and a young receiving corps into a blue-collar unit led by a punishing running game. Don't get me wrong: The Saints are still a high-powered offense fueled by a dynamic aerial attack. But the team's gradual shift to a ball-control approach has paid off handsomely in recent weeks.
Since Week 8, the Saints lead the NFL in rushing yards per game (cite the stats) behind the re-emergence of Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram as dependable workhorse ball-carriers. Hightower in particular has taken his game up a notch since being promoted to a bigger role in the backfield. Over the past two games, he has amassed 189 rushing yards on 49 attempts with a score. Most importantly, he has given the Saints' running game the kind of "thump" that had been missing since the beginning of the season.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was impressed with the Saints' use of a variety of zone runs with Hightower in the game. The hard-charging runner is typically directed between the tackles on inside zone (directed at the guard's outside leg) or outside zone (directed at the tackle's outside leg) runs, with the option to attack the front-side or cutback based on the reaction of the defense.
Poring over Next Gen Stats, I noticed that the Saints have changed their personnel and formation packages with Hightower on the field. After averaging only 1.7 and 0.3 rushing attempts, respectively, from single-back and I-formations during the team's first seven games this season, he has posted averages of 17.0 and 4.5 rushing attempts from those formations during Weeks 8-9. Hightower's success out of the single-back is particularly impressive, due to his 4.6 yards per carry average from that formation.
For Ingram, the change has resulted in fewer overall carries in each game but better production (11.3 yards per carry on 6.0 rushing attempts over the past two games). From I-formations, the veteran runner has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on an average of 3.0 rushing attempts during that span. Interestingly, Ingram hasn't logged a single carry from a shotgun formation after averaging 4.6 shotgun runs during the first seven games. Although he successfully pounded the ball between the tackles to the tune of 4.7 yards per rush out of the gun, Ingram and the offense work best when the RB1 aligns at the "dot" position.
Naturally, it makes sense for Payton to tweak his offense based on the data compiled from self-scouts, but he also considers the individual and collective strengths of his team when adjusting the game plan. Looking at the Saints' recent games, I've noticed more six-man offensive-line packages showing up on the tape. Now, this isn't necessarily a new trend for the Saints or Payton, as he would regularly use an extra offensive tackle at tight end during the Jimmy Graham era. But he has doubled down on the package of late. After using six-man offensive lines on 31.9 percent of the team's offensive snaps during Weeks 1-7, the Saints have featured their "heavy" package on 46.8 percent of their snaps the past two games. They have averaged 3.5 yards per play in the package during that span, which suggests the offense is able to stay on schedule when playing "big-boy football" at the line of scrimmage.
Considering how run-heavy squads have dominated the NFC in recent years, the Saints' return to a blue-collar formula makes them not just a potential playoff squad, but a unit that could do damage deep into the postseason.