The Ford Field crowd falls silent, and members of the Detroit Lions defense are struggling to catch their breath.
New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas just took the ball up the gut, gaining 12 yards, and the offense is racing to the line of scrimmage.
Drew Brees quickly takes the snap and hands off to Thomas again. He’s stuffed.
Quick snap. Brees spots Marques Colston over the middle for a gain of 22.
The Saints race back to the ball, with Brees gesturing to his receivers as they run down the field to get lined up. The Lions are winded. They can’t substitute since there are no breaks in the action. Detroit is powerless to New Orleans’ whims.
Brees again takes the snap, spots Kenny Stills streaking down the right sideline and hits him in stride for a 46-yard touchdown.
These moments, when the Saints are operating at a frenetic pace, have provided some of their most dominant stretches of the season. Defenses are helpless when Brees puts his foot on the gas and refuses to let up when operating out of the no-huddle.
“That is how we blitz a defense,” Brees said. “When you are able to throw a lot of different things at them at different speeds, that is what keeps them off balance and creates opportunities for us.”
New Orleans unofficially has run 27 no-huddle plays out of a total of 559 this season. (No-huddle plays are not noted on the official play-by-play for games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as they are at other locations around the league.) That’s about one out of every 20 snaps.
Still, it would be difficult to find any collection of 27 snaps this season sharing a more common thread than those that have come out of no-huddle sets. Brees unofficially has completed 17 of his 22 passes out of the hurry-up offense for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The running game has suffered in these sets, picking up 4 yards on four carries.
Yet unlike teams such as Denver and New England, which have made the no-huddle a big part of their offense, the Saints have been reluctant to blitz defenses off the field this season. They’ve instead picked their spots and rolled out the no-huddle for only brief stretches.
The Week 7 loss to the Lions was one of those instances.
“There are times in games when you want to (use it),” coach Sean Payton said. “We felt like, going into the Detroit game, we wanted to just (use it to help) with slowing down the (pass) rush, trying to tire them out some.”
Some observers have suggested the Saints use these sets more often. To them, it’s a proven concept that should be unleashed more often to create mismatches and maximize the high-powered nature of the offense.
Even members of New Orleans’ defense admit that some of the most helpless moments they’ve experienced on the field have come against offenses with the ability to move the ball in such a fashion.
“It gets you on your toes a little bit, but at the same time you have to simplify because you have to get in things you can adjust to; you execute efficiently,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “No-huddle is probably the best thing teams can do. It’s probably the hardest thing to adjust to, but offenses have to be on point, too. If they mess up a couple plays, three-and-out (and) the ball’s back to Drew.”
But what makes it so difficult to stop?
“You’re tired; people don’t understand your mental capacity and how much it changes when you’re tired,” Vaccaro said. “Guys who do something every day, easily, when you get tired it’s a completely different player. You start picking guys out like that, and you start having busts in coverage and stuff like that.”
Still, it’s easy to say in theory that teams should ramp up the pace, throw caution to the wind and go after it more often. There are times when that’s the appropriate thing to do, but for Payton there’s a lot that goes into making the decision to hit that button.
When operating so quickly, it’s easy to let things get away from you. You have to sacrifice some control over elements of the game to be able to take advantage of the defense, and there are times when those elements work together — against you in a negative manner.
“You might not be controlling the tempo just like you want or you may not be controlling the flow of the game like you want,” Payton said. “In other words, if you’re based on that run-pass, based on what the defense gives you, then pretty soon if you’re not careful, the defense is dictating what you are doing.”
So for those hoping Payton will go fast more often, you’ll likely be disappointed. It sounds like he’s going to stick with a reasoned and responsible approach.
“We’ll be smart with it,” he said. “I think certainly it’s something Drew has good command over.”