Ted Ginn Jr. deserves a game ball for his performance in the running game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
The New Orleans Saints wide receiver didn’t have a single carry during the 47-10 win, but his presence on the field got the Saints running backs at least an extra 90 yards. He was the ultimate decoy, and the Bills never figured out how to adjust to his presence on the field.
Depending on your allegiance, you either laughed at how often New Orleans used the same motion to freeze the Buffalo linebackers and get the looks they wanted in the running game, or you cringed as the defense was manipulated by Ginn play after play. For whatever reason, this wrinkle unlocked something in the Bills defense and was one of the reasons the Saints rushed for 298 yards.
It started early. One of the first examples came with 7:46 remaining in the first quarter on a fourth-and-1 play. The Saints came out in “11 personnel,” with two receivers on one side of the formation and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and wide receiver Willie Snead tight on the other. Ginn motioned toward the tight side of the formation, looping behind Mark Ingram.
The motion caused middle linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to get wide, which opened the middle of the field. He continued to spill out toward Hoomanawanui and Snead, expecting a sweep, as Drew Brees instead handed off to Ingram. With the middle of the field cleared, the Saints got double teams on both of Buffalo’s interior linemen, which opened a hole for Ingram to pick up 25 yards after breaking a couple tackles.
Ginn’s presence was felt in a big way in the second quarter when he again went in motion, this time right behind the line, which caused a linebacker to move inside the tackles. Linebacker Ramon Humber got caught watching the motion, keeping his eyes on Ginn after the snap, which allowed Brandon Coleman to get out and block him. A downfield block by offensive tackle Terron Armstead helped Alvin Kamara gain 9 yards.
The Saints liked this action so much they came back to it with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter. Ginn again went in motion, which caused Humber to move all the linebackers inside. With the whole defense shifting left, Brees faked to Ginn and pitched the ball to Kamara, who takes it around the edge for a gain of 19 yards behind blocks by guard Larry Warford, tackle Ryan Ramczyk and wide receiver Michael Thomas.
New Orleans used the same action on the very next play, and with the defense again moving left, Kamara took a pitch to the right and got into the end zone behind a block from tight end Josh Hill.
It looked like Buffalo attempted to adjust late in the quarter when Ginn went in motion and Humber followed him to the other side of the formation. The two inside linebackers also shifted spots, but the Saints caught Buffalo out of its gaps, and Ingram easily ran up the middle for a gain of 11 yards.
There are multiple examples of this, and New Orleans was even able to manipulate the Buffalo defense with simple tight end motion at times.
But the icing came when the Saints ran the same pitch to Kamara for a fourth time in the fourth quarter for a gain of 9 yards.
The New York Jets had similar success against the Bills with similar motions the week before, but coach Sean Payton said the Saints did not run the same plays. He did, however, note that New Orleans might have used Buffalo’s aggressiveness against it.
“We saw a good game (by the Jets), but it wasn’t anything in that specific game,” Payton said. “We’ve seen, obviously, all the tape. It’s an eight-week study. They’re an aggressive front. We got a couple different things that we didn’t see in the prior few weeks.”
This level of scheming is often seen in the New Orleans passing attack. It is known to attack specific weaknesses within a defense relentlessly. The same level of planning and attention to detail showed up in the rushing attack this week.
The Saints exposed something the rest of the league will see. Buffalo is going to have to find a way to clean it up before its next opponent uses motion to open up gulfs of space for its running backs.
MORE MANAGEMENT: The most surprising thing about this season is how rarely New Orleans needs to lean on Drew Brees to win games. This was another week in which the quarterback was able to pick his spots, protect the ball, and was rarely in positions where he had to make a throw. But when those moments arrived, Brees made plays. One of those moments came during one of his final attempts of the game when he hit Michael Thomas on a back-shoulder pass between a cornerback and safety.
The only other times he really went down the field was on a deep slant over the middle of the field to Thomas for 28 yards, and a post to Thomas for 22 yards. Most everything else was either screens or passes to the flats, of which Brees attempted seven, or curls (five).
The only missteps of Brees’ performance were two passes to Coleman that arrived behind the receiver. The first one, which was in the red zone, might have been a miscommunication. The ball came in as Coleman turned up the field. The other, on an in-breaking route, was simply behind the receiver.
Two of Brees’ other incomplete passes were throwaways, and another was the result of a dropped pass. Buffalo got the best of him on a quick slant New Orleans ran twice earlier in the game, including the play right before Buffalo batted down a third attempt at the line.
These are the types of games the Saints play now. It feels like Brees has had the same exact performance three weeks in a row. And that’s a good thing. His arm is there when they need it, but he no longer has to carry the team.
TOUGH BREAK: It looked like it live, and it holds up after watching the game again. Hill’s fumble in the red zone was a tough play. It’s his responsibility to hold onto the ball, but he was left in a bad spot. He caught a screen, turned his hips, and a defender was right there. A fumble is never excusable, but this one was the result of circumstance more than being Hill careless with the ball.
OFFENSIVE LINE: It’s quite possible Brees was never pressured during this game because of the offensive line. There were a few times when he saw pressure, but it was mostly the result of rolling out or holding onto the ball. It didn’t look like the line ever gave anything up. That’s how good the good group was Sunday.
The exploits of the line in the running game could fill up this entire page. Everyone was fantastic, whether it was Warford laying key blocks or Armstead getting down the field and pancaking people. Every member of the line had many standout moments, which should be expected when the offense nearly runs for 300 yards.
The Saints offensive line has really come together, which is even more impressive considering the injuries it has had to overcome.
CORNERED UP: Here’s a summary of how the Saints’ cornerbacks performed:
Tyrod Taylor threw one pass at Marshon Lattimore, which resulted in a 9-yard reception to Kelvin Benjamin.
Taylor threw two passes at Ken Crawley, both of which fell incomplete, and then did not throw at him again. Crawley later gave up a 10-yard reception against backup quarterback Nathan Peterman.
P.J. Williams also received some snaps and looked solid. He was in coverage on an incompletion and gave up one catch for 12 yards. He laid the hit on a Buffalo tight end that allowed Sheldon Rankins to make an interception.
It’s going to be interesting to see this defense up against Washington’s Kirk Cousins and Los Angeles’ Jared Goff. This team makes every opponent they play look like the worst quarterback in the league. It will be interesting to see how it holds up against better passing attacks.
ACTIVE FRONT: The defensive line only sacked Taylor twice, and Cam Jordan finished without any stats, but that’s a little misleading. New Orleans did a decent job creating pressure, and kept Taylor uncomfortable throughout the game.
While Jordan did not show up on the stat sheet, he showed up on film. The Saints defensive twice forced Taylor to flee the pocket and throw the ball away. Jordan finished the game with four hurries.
Alex Okafor was similarly productive. He had a sack, batted down a pass and another pressure. He also stuffed a run.
Rankins had his most productive game in terms of the stat sheet, logging a sack, a run stuff and an interception. But he’s been even more productive in other games in terms of pressures and hurries. The New Orleans line wasn’t overly aggressive this week, likely an attempt to keep Taylor confined to the pocket.
Linebacker Manti Te’o had his best game of the season, stuffing at least three runs. His best one came on a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage. He read the play and chased down the running back before he could gain yards.
Safety Vonn Bell, starting in place of the injured Kenny Vaccaro, had a nice run stuff, as did rookie defensive end Trey Hendrickson.