It took a while for the Saints to unleash C.J. Spiller on the Cowboys on Sunday night.
Once they finally did, it was clear there was a plan.
New Orleans never would have had to pull the curtain off other pages of the Spiller Protocol if Zach Hocker had nailed a 30-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Luckily, the Saints spent the evening preparing for rain.
The 80-yard touchdown pass Spiller caught was set up throughout the game. When a twist was added to the route concept, the Cowboys weren’t ready for it, which allowed Spiller to race to the end zone and deliver the 26-20 victory.
The plotting for the play began during the third quarter when Spiller caught a 9-yard pass near the right sideline. New Orleans came out in its 12 personnel on the play, with Spiller lining up in the slot to the inside of Brandin Cooks. Cooks ran a short route over the middle, drawing a linebacker with him, which allowed Spiller to get open in the flat.
Later in the fourth quarter, the Saints showed the same look and got the same result. Cooks ran a quick out route, drew a linebacker, and Spiller got open in the flat again for a gain of 9 yards.
New Orleans rolled out the same look a third time in overtime. This time, Cooks ran an in route and the linebacker was ready to attack Spiller in the flat. The difference was that he kept going when he turned up the field. Dallas wasn’t ready for it and it resulted in an easy touchdown.
The Saints will continue to look for ways to get Spiller involved and create mismatches. Even though his usage was limited until late in the third quarter, it’s clear the coaching staff has a vision for him and he will continue to open things up for the offense.
It became clear in the first quarter that he can change the way this team is defended. On one play, he motioned across the formation and was able to pull both linebackers and a safety his direction. This left Willie Snead in position to beat one man for an 11-yard reception on a slant.
As Spiller continues to integrate himself in the offense and takes on a larger role, it will become easier to create these mismatches because teams will have to respect his presence.
QUARTERBACK – 2.5 out of 4
There were only two blatant examples of Brees passing up open deep receivers for shorter routes and it’s difficult to place blame on him for either one. One play resulted in a reception and the other, which came on the first series of the game, was a third-down pass with pressure closing in. Brees could have went deep to Cooks on the play but instead went underneath to Marques Colston and was nearly intercepted. Overall, Brees held the ball for an average of 2.10 seconds. He held the ball for over 2.5 seconds on only seven of his 41 attempts. Some of that was due to pressure, which made it difficult for deeper plays to develop. Other times it was the result of going to more of a precision passing attack. Brees only attempted two passes traveling 20 or more yards through the air. One fell well short of Cooks down the sideline. The other was a 30-yard strike to Brandon Coleman late in the fourth quarter. He also hit Willie Snead on a 19-yard out route. There were times when it appeared Brees was shortening up his delivery to help protect his shoulder, but it wasn’t obvious. He was able to reach back and deliver strikes when needed. A dropped interception and one taken back due to penalty saved this performance. It’s hard not to see how the offense looked operating out of no huddle late in the game and not wonder why it isn’t used more often.
RUNNING BACKS – 3 out of 4
One reason the Saints averaged 4.1 yards per carry, their best mark of the season, is that they didn’t face many heavy boxes throughout the contest. The Saints faced eight or more men in the box on 10 of 25 carries, but most of those came in situations where the Cowboys’ hand was forced. Two plays were at the goal line and another two occurred at the end of regulation when the Saints were setting up a field goal attempt. Two other attempts came when the Saints had their 13 personnel on the field (three tight ends). One of those resulted in a 14-yard run by Mark Ingram, which was created by a nice inside cut as he was coming around the edge, which forced a missed tackle. Khiry Robinson and Ingram worked at an almost even split in running and passing plays. Spiller was on the field for only two runs. New Orleans moved away from Austin Johnson in the passing game, as he was not targeted a single time. Johnson is also on the hook for a sack after failing to pick up a blitzer on the first drive of the second quarter.
RECEIVERS – 2 out of 4
Cooks spent most of his day being shadowed by cornerback Mo Claiborne. His four catches came on screens (two for 9 yards), a slant (13 yards), and a crossing route (3 yards). Cooks was targeted four other times, twice on go routes. He faced tight, press coverage throughout the contest. He showed some physicality at times fighting through jams, but it was often too late. He likely could have scored or picked up a first down on a screen pass in the third quarter if he had slowed down and let his blocking develop. A harsh grader might also hit him with a dropped pass in the fourth quarter. Willie Snead matched up with Claiborne twice and beat him on inside routes. Overall, Snead is quickly becoming one of the more reliable receivers. He runs solid routes, knows how to get open and is physical after the catch. Josh Hill is starting to become more of a factor in the offense. Seeing this continue would be a good thing for this team. He showed his ability after the catch on a screen where he lined up as an h-back, motioned across the formation and turned up field after making a catch for a gain of 8 yards. He also did a good job getting open on his touchdown, though that was more the result of getting the defense moving right after a play-action fake. Brees also helped pull down a linebacker by showing an option look before throwing the pass. Ben Watson needs to keep staying involved in the passing game. He had a nice catch up the seam for a gain of 21, after last week also having success on seam routes against the Carolina Panthers.
OFFENSIVE LINE – 2 out of 4
Senio Kelemete continues to do a passable job filling in for Jahri Evans but this performance had more mistakes than last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers. He allowed at least three pressures, including one that forced Brees to take a sack after Zach Strief allowed outside pressure. Kelemete also allowed an Ingram run to get stuffed in the first half when he got caught up on a defensive lineman and failed to block a linebacker in the second level, which appeared to be his assignment. However, he also had some good moments. One particular positive was how he was able to pass off his man to Strief and pick up the stunt on a 19-yard pass to Snead. Strief continues to have some issues with speed rushers. He allowed three pressures, a hit, and was responsible for a sack. The impact of Terron Armstead’s injury showed up later in the game. He allowed a couple runs to be stuffed, which is a rarity. As a whole, this group struggled in pass protection at times and would have been exposed more if not for Brees’ quick trigger.