Last year, the New Orleans Saints were one of the best teams in football no one ever talked about. Finishing the year ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Saints were one of the few teams that fielded a top-ten offense and defense by nearly any measure: DVOA, points, opponent-adjusted points, yards per play, and so on.
Though it was a down year (for them) offensively, they were still a dangerous team—one that normally rode the tails of a masterful offense driven by Drew Brees and designed by Sean Payton—now with the support of a Rob Ryan defense and all that entails.
Unfortunately as the Saints’ season has unfolded, they’ve seemingly fallen apart on defense while their offense has dragged the team forward, a surprising development given their free agency profile; they added more than they lost.
The defense lost Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, which sounds worse than it was: Roman Harper played just over 350 snaps for them and Jenkins was the most underperforming member of the unit… unless you count Tom Johnson, who they also got rid of. Though it would have been interesting to see how the defense would fare with Will Smith, his departure also couldn’t really be considered a loss given the fact that he didn’t play in 2013.
To make up for those minimal losses, they added a top-tier safety in Jairus Byrd, and in Smith’s absence Junior Galette was promoted to a full-time starter last year, gaining a nice four-year contract from the Saints this year for his troubles.
Adding three draft picks and two undrafted free agents to the defense should help with its depth, too.
But for all the benefit the New Orleans Saints got on paper for their defense, it still has yet to pay dividends. They’ve given up the second-most points in the NFL, and though one of those teams are the high-flying Falcons, the other are the offensively anemic Cleveland Browns.
All that said, that doesn’t make it an easy matchup for the Vikings.
In order to have a chance against a team that is far better than their record, Minnesota will have to put together a game plan that takes the defense seriously and has answers for their potent offense.
When on offense, Minnesota is vulnerable and should consider themselves lucky to go up against a defense that is surprisingly struggling. Though Matt Kalil is having issues of his own, the rest of the offensive line is actually holding up pretty well. So far, they haven’t given up a single sack and only allowed three quarterback hits and eight pressures.
Matt Kalil, on the other hand, has given up two sacks, a hit and five hurries by himself.
Whatever the reason behind it, the Vikings will be up against a defensive line that is performing far better than its two sack total would imply. With four hits and seventeen hurries, it’s only a matter of time before the Saints’ defensive line comes home.
And a confusing defensive line it is. Previously a 3-4 defense that was forced into a 4-3 role last season because of injuries, the Saints will continue to roll with a 4-3 look that gives their defenders room to attack gaps instead of people.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t consistently employ elements of both defenses. With a nose tackle that can two-gap from time to time in Brodrick Bunkley and versatile ends—Junior Galette may even be more at home as an outside linebacker than defensive end—the Saints can and have shown different fronts from time to time, often kicking out a tackle as a 3-4 end or moving a 4-3 defensive end inside.
Most of the snaps I saw against the Atlanta Falcons or the Cleveland Browns were in a 4-3 over, with one or both defensive ends in a “wide 9” stance, a term that was fairly popular a few years ago to describe the split of defensive ends far away from the offensive tackles. But make no mistake, there have been a variety of different defensive fronts employed by the Saints.
There’s a mix of players who can or will two-gap on every down, though for the most part, the post-snap alignment of players sees them one-gapping. In addition, the Saints (in the Ryan tradition) love to blitz. They have the third-highest blitz percentage in the NFL at 35%, and the blitz design is often excellent. Aside from the class double A gap blitz, there are blitzes through both B gaps, defensive back blitzes and a heavy dose of conditional blitzes, giving the linebacker the choice to drop into coverage or blitz based on whether or not players in the backfield stay back to block.
It’s nothing unusual for a Rob Ryan defense, except that there haven’t been as many shifting fronts and out-there looks, like the Dallas Psycho fronts of the past. Along the defensive line, the primary player to watch out for is Cameron Jordan, who may generally be lined up against Phil Loadholt, though they will often have him and Galette switch sides so that Cameron can attack the weak side of the formation. Because he and Junior Galette will be in different alignments, particularly wide of the offensive tackle, it is important that both Loadholt and Kalil get appropriate depth without giving up the inside rush.
The benefit to this, of course, is off-tackle rush lanes should be wider and easier to go through, so the Vikings may want to exploit that. Unfortunately, where the Saints have been strong against the run, the Vikings are as well—meaning Minnesota cannot match strength to weakness.
Cameron Jordan is more than an excellent pass-rusher (who should probably have two sacks by now). He’s a great run-stopper despite the alignment the Saints put him in because of his raw strength and backside pursuit.
On the inside, Brodrick Bunkley provides a good interior presence. Though not a very good pass-rusher, Bunkley consistently draws double teams and can move individual centers around. In order to run up the middle, the Vikings will have to execute solid positioning on angle blocks. Bunkley plays with less strength than his size or combine numbers suggest (he had 44 reps, and weighed in at 306 pounds, though he is more than that now). Without good burst, consistent pad level or solid penetration, Bunkley mostly makes his money by sliding off of blocks laterally to make the tackle (a reason he can fit in both 4-3 and 3-4 systems) though he’s not a very good hand-fighter.
Also taking significant snaps are Akiem Hicks and Tyrunn Walker, both of whom are solid run defenders and marginal pass-rushers, despite largely playing the three-technique role when in four-man fronts. This is part of the reason the Saints line up in a 4-3 over—because the defensive line is largely geared towards stopping the run (putting more bodies closer to the point of attack), while Jordan and blitzing linebacker take care of the pass-rush.
Make no mistake, though, Hicks and Walker can make plays if given a long enough leash. When in a three-man front, Walker and Jordan will be defensive ends (with Galette as a linebacker) lined up head-up over offensive tackles, or even on the outside shoulder. Walker’s lone sack comes from pure power against Jake Matthews.
Hicks has been limited so far as a pass-rusher. but he doesn’t mind playing the role of an interior run defender. The other defensive end, Junior Galette seems to be more of a project than a finished product, and his high salary is a little interesting from the outside. Regardless, on the field he shows flashes of solid play despite playing “out of position” as a defensive end with his hand in the ground than an outside linebacker. He’s a player who wins with speed more than power and was not very good against the run last year. This year he’s been better and had a good showing against the Falcons in that regard. Still, should the tackles get their hands inside his pads, he should be somewhat easy to ride out of the running play.
Of particular note, Galette has shown a proclivity this year of stepping upfield in order to move inside, often before he’s established a tendency to attack outside. Because inside moves were an issue for Kalil in particular last year, this is something to watch out for. Maintaining depth against the wide stance of the defensive tackles shouldn’t come at the cost of giving up the inside, as many of his pressures and run stops come that way.
Generally speaking, because of the wide alignment of the defensive ends and the powerful run-stopping presence in the middle, Minnesota should find ways to run to the outside, even though Galette and Jordan are good run defenders. Even better, option looks (unlikely with Matt Cassel at the helm) will do a particularly good job against the wide ends and create some good running schemes.
As a result of this, I once again recommend Minnesota play Jerick McKinnon over Matt Asiata, because outside runs are less likely to be successful with a back of Asiata’s burst and acceleration. That is not to say McKinnon has “earned” the job so much as in this case, the matchups dictate a running plan though should better suit him than Asiata.
That said, they should not abandon running up the middle. While running through the A gaps has been an issue for both Cleveland and Atlanta (averaging 3.8 yards a carry), running through the B gaps hasn’t been as big of a problem, where both teams averaged 5.7 yards a carry there. This can often be attributed to teams running to their weakside B gap against them, where the defensive tackle isn’t.
The Saints’ linebackers, almost always Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne—though sometimes we see Parys Haralson—are not particularly great at stopping the run. Getting to the second level is half the battle (especially with a nose tackle like Bunkley and a deep rotation at the position), and neither Lofton nor Hawthorne have done a good job getting off of blocks and making the tackle in the appropriate time to make the play.
That isn’t to say they are both bad run defenders; Lofton does a very good job of avoiding blocks and making plays close to the line of scrimmage. But when the block does reach him, he’s not particularly great at shedding it in order to make the play. Hawthorne does not possess the ability to avoid blocks nearly as well and is more likely to be blown back by a fullback. Though some of the plays below are successful plays for the Saints defense, they are not successful for the linebackers:
The Saints generally feature five defensive backs instead of four, and that nickel package is not particularly effective. Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson may be the worst cornerback pair in the league. Given the emphasis on man coverage in Ryan’s scheme, this creates a big problem for them, especially downfield. Even when in zone coverage, the defensive backs are poor in transition and communicate terribly, leading to big coverage holes that the safety or the cornerback may be responsible for. Both Robinson and Lewis are vulnerable to double-moves and head fakes, though Robinson plays much more loosely and in this context terribly.
While he does a decent job making sure he doesn’t open his hips too early, nearly every thing else he does speaks of a defensive back designed to be feasted on, in particular his inability to recover into position. Lewis is the better of the two but suffers from lapses in coverage assignments, and with the complicated rules the New Orleans defense often follows, this creates huge issues.
Slot cornerback Corey White hasn’t been fantastic either, though he at least does a good job in run defense. He plays well off his man in the slot to hide his speed issues, and in open sets that should create some relatively easy yardage when the Vikings are playing against man. In press coverage, sometimes necessary for the Saints so quarterbacks can’t throw hot against their varied blitzes, Corey gives up space far too easily, and has to rely on recovery speed to get there in time, usually a losing battle.
Jairus Byrd has been on-point for the Saints, though not tested often. Many times, he has to recover for the mistakes of the coverage in front of him. While he isn’t tasked too often with run defense, his limited time there is more worrisome than anything else, and he has more than a few missed tackles to his resume, though he has very good instincts in general in terms of getting to the ballcarrier (at least, this year). Still, his job is largely defending against the deep ball and despite the success the Falcons had with it (5 passes of 6 over twenty yards were completed), Byrd has been good (though clearly not perfect), but hasn’t been helped by his teammates.
Kenny Vacarro on the other hand, has been terrible. He doesn’t close on his zone quickly enough, he’s too late to react, and can’t seem to read the quarterback’s eyes. He missed six tackles in the run game against Atlanta, and can’t seem to take advantage of his force opportunities. While he did better against Cleveland, especially against the run, he remains a liability until he proves otherwise. Below, you can see some of the many coverage breakdowns the Saints have had.
To attack the Saints defense, the Vikings would do best to run off-tackle to the box safety or against the weakside B gap. Unlike last week, when I recommended the Vikings play almost exclusively as a zone-running team (something they ended up doing), I don’t think a particular running scheme needs to be implemented. Outside zone plays may not do as well given the backside pursuit ability of the defensive ends and though Zimmer said today that sweeps are less effective against 3-4 teams, we may see them against the 4-3 looks the Saints put on most of the time.
The key to any running scheme will be prioritizing ways to get John Sullivan to the second level, whether that comes on pulls or peel-offs on double teams—even if it comes at the expense of some mismatches in terms of personnel and angles against the interior line.
The passing game will need to focus more on communication than scheming. A varied, blitzing front requires not just excellent communication across the offensive line and running back to pick up the blitzes, but between Cassel and the receivers. Often, Ryan will send blitzes while leaving his cornerbacks by themselves with little support. Those blitzes will require quick passes, and therefore route adjustments. While many of the routes have a 10-12 yard break (though unfortunately not many at the 17-22 yard mark) to work with the timing of the five-step drop game, the blitzes will force hot routes that require 3-5 yard breaks from the receivers, adjusting on the fly.
In order for this to work, the receivers have to be on the same page as the quarterback, and the miscommunication is a big part of why pressure causes interceptions. Because the blitzes will likely lead a linebacker or two into the fray, the middle of the field should be relatively open, meaning the hot routes are better served breaking inward over the middle than out. Kyle Rudolph will be the best choice for these passes, in part because of Cassel’s accuracy under pressure, and also because having a wide catch radius in general is good for an outlet option.
Still, the majority of snaps do not involve a significant blitz, so it’s important to make sure it’s not overemphasized at the cost of other important parts of the passing game. New Orleans gets exposed by route combinations that stress the safety-corner seam. Smash routes with a hitch and corner route combination, as well as snag routes, should feature heavily on the strength of the formation. Dragging a safety over the middle and flooding the seam should work as well.
There aren’t many route combinations that won’t work too well, but the Vikings’ emphasis on two-yard drag routes won’t be as effective as other options they could pursue. Leaving Jennings in the slot and playing with three receiver sets will probably be the best option, as it gives Jennings space to work against White.
Most of the Saints’ offensive game was outlined in my piece on Jimmy Graham and in the Norse Code Podcast for this week. Though Graham is the leading receiver on the Saints by about 90 yards (200 yards in two games!) and eight receptions (with 18 total), it is important not to let Graham dictate the defense. As it stands, the Vikings do not schematically have a strong answer to Graham, as they would likely need to peg raw Anthony Barr and a safety up top to deal with him, though Harrison Smith would be a fine player to take the majority of the workload if his man coverage technique was stronger.
Instead, they’ll have to scheme around Graham instead of designate a player—the best single player might to deal with him might be Rhodes, but that may not be the single best approach, because removing Rhodes from the right side of the field to shadow a receiver/tight end would induce schematic changes that the Vikings haven’t worked much on, and potentially change the footwork that the defensive backs have been working on all summer.
Though I wouldn’t mind a shadow, I doubt it will happen simply because of the scheme.
Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston are both massive threats as well. Cooks can operate as a end-around/sweep threat, while also working spaces and positioning. Ideally, Cooks would be matched up with Robinson, where Robinson’s height won’t matter but his agility and athleticism will. The strength advantage Robinson has would be useful, and he should be able to win positioning, but two other teams trusted their corners to do the same. Cooks’ instincts and quickness are hard to account for, even though Robinson is a quicker player than either of those corners or Cooks, he will likely be at a disadvantage because he will be reactive instead of proactive by the nature of the position.
Cooks does a good job slipping press coverage, so technique at the line will be critical, especially with the nature of the offensive scheme the Saints employ. Disrupting timing will be a big part of winning the battle against New Orleans, because the individual matchups are a worry.
Captain Munnerlyn is a good slot corner, even if he didn’t show it against the Patriots, and the matchup against Colston or Cooks in the slot (more often Colston by a 2:1 ratio) should be a good one. Still, Colston is probably a better receiver than Munnerlyn is a cover corner. Though the Vikings may do well with the man coverage work they’ve been practicing for most of the offseason, playing press-zone or matchup zone may be the best option because of the slight advantage New Orleans has with individual matchups. It would also obviate the non-receiving effects mentioned in the Graham article above.
Graham gets other players open, even if the scheme is designed to enable him open with a little help.
It also happens to be the case that the Saints will do a good job scheming Graham away from defenders. Though Payton couldn’t do so against Talib, there are a lot of instances where Graham finds himself the benefactor of play design. More than most tight ends, Graham will find targets off of play action and benefits from the rub routes the Saints like to run.
The Saints are also one of the most likely teams in the NFL to use bunch formations in order to create easy space, and will often bunch up receivers into two and three-man groups to make coverage concepts more difficult. In fact, the Saints used a lot of concepts from the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach-style spread aerial attacks, and are somewhat unique insofar as they use all of the most common bunch attacks from those sets, instead of one or two, as outlined by X and O Labs. All of these concepts have been used by the Saints in the last two weeks:
This creates havoc for opponents, because some ways to defend against bunch formations in the NFL, like the box zone, can be useful against some of these plays (5, 3 and 2) can get eaten by the others (1 and 4). Other options, like a cloud (basically a Cover-3 that runs quarters on one side and Cover-2 on the other) zone with an outside corner playing force against the run, can obviate a lot of the run sets out of bunch, but may expose the defense to smash routes with a corner/flag concept (where a receiver runs upfield, then turns to attack the seam between the safety up top and the corner below).
Fundamental soundness, naturally, is important, as are reading the keys from the offensive line and backfield. Having conditional defensive calls is very complicated and prone to error (see what happened to the Saints above, actually), but may be the best way to resolve these looks.
On the other end of the spectrum, the New Orleans Saints have a lot of closed formation looks that enable play action (Jimmy Graham’s bread and butter) or simply overwhelm at the point of attack. It isn’t surprising to see the Saints go from an empty shotgun set (with no backs in the backfield or extra players inline) to, on the next play, an I-formation with two running backs and two tight ends (snug up against the OL)—with a perfunctory receiver out wide to stretch the defense.
The Saints have come out on first and ten with a variety of looks, from 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), to 23 (two backs, three tight ends—usually a goal line look). They have run in shotgun with no tight ends on the line and have passed out of a closed I-formation look.
Given how effective the Saints’ running game has been with their running back committee, it makes sense that the Vikings need to respect the run. Luckily, the Saints’ zone running scheme, though very effective for them, will not require particular strategic accountability by the Vikings: maintain gap discipline and prevent cutback lanes. They need to be wary of how effective the play-action is from Brees, too.
The running backs are effective in the passing game as well. Mark Ingram, who is finally playing like he did at Alabama (more before contact than after) is averaging 6.0 yards a carry, but also has performed decently as a hot option against blitzes or an outlet as the fourth or fifth read. In particular, his vision looks to have improved by leaps and bounds. Pierre Thomas is even more dangerous, sometimes even splitting out wide of the numbers to influence coverages and the passing game, and has already caught nine passes for 74 yards through two games, and that’s as a timeshare back. Thomas hasn’t had as much play as a pure runner, though has done well when running between the tackles.
Both backs excel before contact for different reasons, but still can go down when hit square-on. The key for the Vikings, and another reason I’m a fan of applying combination man-zone concepts against this offense, is to make contact and allow swarm tackling to do the rest. Overaggressive pursuit will see the Vikings gashed for big yards in the running game.
In terms of how the pass rush needs to be handled, front four pressure may need to be enough. Like Brady, Brees is vulnerable to pressure but not to blitzing, where he can feast. Brees seems more vulnerable to dropoff in play than most QBs as a result of pressure, and he regresses from a league-leading elite-quality quarterback to one who is about average. It may be because he is the best in the league in a clean pocket (discounting Manning, whose quick release makes it difficult to define performance vs. others in a “clean pocket”) and therefore has a lot to drop from, but it is significant that he loses a lot of ground with pressure.
Ideally, pressure up the middle is best against most quarterbacks and Brees as well, but despite losing De La Puente in free agency, they have a strong interior. Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans may constitute the best guard tandem in the league while Jonathan Goodwin has done a more than acceptable job replacing De La Puente (who is currently playing at an extremely high level for the Bears).
Unusually so far, Grubbs and Evans have given up a lot of hurries that have turned into nothing; both are playing to recover more than anything else. It looks almost catastrophic, but it’s getting the job done. Despite looking like they are consistently playing on their heels against defensive tackles, both of them have prevented hurries from turning into hits or sacks.
Generally speaking, the hurries they give up only to recover tenths of a second later are the kind of hurries that don’t affect Brees. These generally end in one of the two guards falling on top of a defensive tackle. Genuine hurries where Brees must adjust or throw quickly are far more dangerous to him.
Further, Terron Armstead and Zach Strief are having good years, though Strief has looked vulnerable at times. The key may be safe pressure concepts like a zone blitz (which would work well with matchup zone concepts) instead of genuine blitzes leaving players in man coverage. Everson Griffen in particular needs to step his game up not just because of his contract but because he’s being given opportunities to influence the game against left tackles that aren’t elite—something his predecessor didn’t always get to benefit from.
Matchup zones are also called pattern-matching and have been employed by Saban-Belichick defenses for some time, now common across the league. Chris Brown has a good explanation at Grantland:
Using pattern-match principles allowed defenses to overcome the deficiencies in both the manic, risk-heavy man-to-man blitzes and the easy-to-exploit soft spots in the zone-coverage scheme. There was now a way to keep the safety of the zone and the tighter coverage of man-to-man. Defenses had finally done for blitzing what Walsh had done for passing — keeping the reward but eliminating the risk.
The nuances of a pattern-match zone blitz are, as one would guess, rather extensive, but the principle is simple. “I had the opportunity to work for [current New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator] Steve Spagnuolo,” said University of Pittsburgh secondary coach Matt House at a coaching clinic in Pittsburgh this past summer. “He had a great analogy talking about zone pressure. He said, ‘All you do is roll out the basketball and tell the players to play three-on-three.’ The players will talk, communicate, and switch on the picks. We do the same thing in zone-dog coverage.”
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Although the idea of pattern-match coverage is to defend the offense after the receivers show their routes, it’s still useful for the defense to identify where the receivers are when they line up.
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The upshot of pattern-match zone blitzes is that when executed correctly, they are the best of all possible worlds: They’re attacking, multi-defender blitzes in which the defense plays zone coverage against pass patterns designed to beat man-to-man coverage against pass patterns — all verticals — designed to defeat zones.
The pattern-match zone blitz is not a magic bullet that solves any problem dynamic modern offenses might present. Every scheme has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s still up to the players to bring the diagrams to life. But blitzing is as old as football itself, and as long as Rodgers, Brady, and Manning are playing quarterback, to blitz, teams must cover as well.
Because of the complexity of the New Orleans passing system, one that may be made more complex through sight adjustments midroute (notably, Jimmy Graham has few of these), route recognition and film study is critical to implement the system, and it may demand more chemistry than the Vikings currently have on defense. Still, it will enable safer blitzes and do a better job taking care of Jimmy Graham than most pure zone coverages (he does an excellent job adjusting to and attacking seams) or man coverage (where he can simply out-physical most players covering him) without sacrificing defense against the other weapons on the field.
Chad Greenway’s presence may end up being critical if only because his ability to rush the passer doesn’t necessarily compromise coverage given how the Vikings play their defensive ends and slot corners. Further, he’ll be critical in cleanup duty against the runs, especially because runners will be filtered to him as the nose tackle and other linebackers take on force responsibilities. He’s questionable but expected to play. Given his improvement so far this season, this may not be the alarm bell it has been in past seasons.
Linval Joseph may also be a critical factor in the game, because it seems like the best way to account for Brees isn’t consistent coverage up top—he can still throw studs like Graham, Colston and Cooks open—but pressure from the interior. Until Floyd can do it on a consistent basis, it will be up to Joseph to provide that.
The Saints run a potent, complex offense that has the ability to beat a team by nearly any means—what the Vikings offense was hoping to do, and could have on paper before the season started. They run a similar system in terms of terminology and philosophy, but it’s even more complex than the offense Norv has thus far shown us in Minnesota. While complexity can easily cause offenses to fail (the pre-Trestman Bears are a good example), the Saints are running smoothly.
It’s a tough matchup that the Vikings will likely lose. Even made simple, the best game plan will require the Vikings to perform at a level they haven’t proven they can yet, even if the Rams game that seems like ages ago shows promising signs.