NFC South Strategic Tendencies: New Orleans Saints

The Saints led the league last season in screen passes. Most of which were directed at Darren Sproles.

The New Orleans Saints are coming off a very successful 2011 season, having finished 13-3 and in first place of the NFC South. During last season, the Saints finished 5-1 in the division, with the lone loss coming to the Buccaneers in Week 6 at Raymond James Stadium.

After a tumultuous offseason, the Saints will be without HC Sean Payton, their offensive play caller, as well as MLB Jonathan Vilma for the entire 2012 campaign. In addition, the Saints will also be ushering in new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, while OC Pete Carmichael will take over play calling. So while the Defensive Tendencies may change, the Saints Offense will likely retain much of the qualities it did last season.

All stats are attributed to Football Outsiders

The Offense:

Last season was a banner year for the Saints Offense. QB Drew Brees would break Dan Marino's Single Season All Time Passing Yardage Record with 5,476 yards passing and 46 TD's with 14 INT's. TE Jimmy Graham would lead the team in receiving with 1,310 yards on 99 receptions with 11 TD's, with Marques Colston chipping in with 80 rec. 1,143 yards and 8 TD's. The running game was far less flashy, however it was effective, finishing 6th in the NFL. Darren Sproles was a jack of all trades, rushing for 609 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, with 2 TD's, while catching 86 passes for 710 yards and 7 TD's. All in all, the Saints would finish 2011 with the top offense in the NFL, averaging 467 yards per game --50 yards more than the #2 New England Patriots.

As could be expected, the Saints predominantly lined up in an 11 personnel grouping, operating with the 3 WR set 36% of all snaps, with a phenomenal DVOA of 50.3%, averaging 7.5 yards per play. This set allowed the Saints to place Jimmy Graham, Colston, Sproles, as well as Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem on the field at the same time, while at the same time spreading out defenses. Brees was able to ameliorate nickel and dime defenses, picking out the mismatches and exploiting them. However, the play calling was not balanced at all, as the Saints passed the ball 82% of plays out the 11 grouping. Overall, the Saints utilized singleback formations 49% of all snaps.

The Saints operated out of a 21 grouping 27% of downs, with a DVOA of 29.1%, averaging 6.7 yards per play. The play calling was much more balanced, with 57% passes to 43% runs. The Saints ran 62% of their run plays with at least two players in the backfield (4.3 YPC), despite the fact that they were more effective out of singleback formations, averaging 6.1 YPC. Moving off of this data, the Saints ran with a 22 grouping 9% of snaps, running the ball 67% of snaps.

Furthermore, the Saints utilized a 12 grouping on 14% of downs, with a 25% DVOA, and an average of 6.2 yards per play. With the All Pro Graham at TE, the Saints didn't feel the need to use a lot of two TE sets. Balance wise, the Saints passed the ball 59% of snaps out the 12 grouping.

Out of all plays, the Saints ran the ball 38% of the time, good enough for 28th in the NFL, opting instead to move the ball through the air with Brees. Similarly, the Saints typically came out 'guns-a-blazin' passing the ball on 68% of downs in the first half, running the ball only 32% (30th in the NFL), and comparably, only ran the ball on 44% of their 1st downs (29th in the NFL).

And, as we all know, the Saints continue to pass the ball, even with the lead in the second half of games. Passing the ball 48% of plays with the lead in the 3rd & 4th Quarters (5th in the NFL).

The Saints also operated out of empty backfields with regularity, lining up in empty sets on 9% of snaps, 5th in the NFL last season. In addition, the Saints also made use of play action, calling it on 23% of downs, also 5th in the NFL. The Saints also led the NFL in screen passes with 55 last year, 11 more than the second place finisher.

Opposing Defenses typically lined up in the base 4-3-4 against the Saints (42% of downs), to which the Saints took advantage of for a DVOA of 31.2% and 6.2 yards per play. However, that wasn't nearly as bad as the numbers against Nickel (30% of downs) and Dime (14% of downs) Defenses which were exploited to the tune of a 39.4% DVOA, and a whopping 75.4% DVOA (the Saints would roughly average a first down every play against a Dime Defense).

Nevertheless, the Saints had the most trouble against 3-4 Defenses, accruing a terrible DVOA of -18.9%. Yet the Saints only saw a 34 on 5% of plays last season. This probably can be attributed to the fact that all four teams in the NFC South are 4-3 Defenses, and so the Saints Offense plays at least 6 games per year against the 43, while also seeing it in practice everyday.

Saints' opponents rarely blitzed Drew Brees, and as a consequence, the Saints averaged a league high 8.3 yards per play against 4 pass rushers. In spite of that, on plays when opposing defenses did blitz Brees, he did significantly worse, only averaging 6.8 yards per play against 6 pass rushers or more.

As a strategy, I would suggest blitzing Brees, and stacking up against the run in a base defense. Utilizing 3-4 looks should also be successful. An an unorthodox strategy, I would try would be chipping Jimmy Graham at the LOS with a DE/OLB to disrupt his timing, and possibly shake him up. Similarly, bull rushing the diminutive Darren Sproles while he pass protects would be a good way to put a couple of licks on him (Defenses used to do this to scat backs like Brian Westbrook). Good LB play is also necessary in order to sniff out play action and screen passes.

The Defense:

Inversely, where the Saints Offense had a spectacular season, the Defense was largely mediocre. The Saints Defense under Greg Williams finished 24th in the NFL, surrendering 368.4 yards per game along with 21.2 points per game. LB's Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne signed with NO this offseason, along with run stopper Broderick Bunkley. Sedrick Ellis provides penetration at DT, and Will Smith is still on the roster, while the Saints are hoping Cam Jordan takes a step forward this season as a pass rusher.

The Saints spent the majority of their plays in their base 4-3-4 Defense (47%), having mild success holding offenses to a 6.9% DVOA, whilst giving up 5.9 yards per play. The 4-3 allowed Greg Williams to conjure up his array of blitzes. In 2011 the Saints rushed 4 defenders only 33.4% of downs, the lowest in the entire NFL, consequentially, the Saints rushed 6+ defenders on 25.3% of plays, the most out of all teams in the NFL. As a testament to that, 28.8% of the Saints sacks in 2011 were amassed by Defensive Backs, also tops in the NFL; Roman Harper had 7 sacks in 2011, most amongst DB's. However, the Saints almost never zone blitzed under Williams (0.5% of snaps, 30th in the NFL). Under Spagnuolo, the Saints will not blitz nearly as much, opting to generate pressure with the front four, definitely not the secondary, also expect to see more zone blitzes, when Spags decides to blitz.

Because of all of the blitzing, the Saints had the worst defense in the league against short passes over the middle

Secondly, the Saints operated out of the 3-3-5, the 3-4 nickel defense, 32% of snaps, surrendering an 18% DVOA to opponents. Interestingly enough, the Saints actually only rushed 3 defenders on 17% of downs, second in the NFL. On rare occasions, the Saints even lined up in a base 3-4 defense (4% of all plays). However, opponents had their way with the Saints when they ran the 3-4, gaining 6.6 yards per play with a DVOA of 30.4%.

Spreading the Saints Defense out and forcing them into Nickel and Dime alignments, forcing them to take one of their LB's off the field, and running on them, or exploiting mismatches in the secondary.

When it's all said and done, the Saints have an extremely potent Offense and a less than desirable Defense. Even with the suspensions, the Saints should be a playoff contender in 2012.

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