Photo gallery: Saints vs. Falcons _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Saints coach Sean Payton

Not many teams achieved success against the Carolina Panthers’ defense this season.

The team went 15-1 during the regular season, finished sixth in both points (19.3) and yards (322.9) allowed per game. And though Carolina lost to Denver in the Super Bowl, 24-10, the Broncos gained only 194 yards of offense.

So while the Carolina defense was one of the stingier defenses in the NFL this season and beat New Orleans twice this season, the Saints had fewer issues moving the ball against the Panthers than most teams.

During the first meeting, with Luke McCown starting at quarterback in place of the injured Drew Brees, New Orleans racked up 380 yards of offense and 22 points. During the second meeting, this time with Brees on the field, the Saints tallied 334 yards and 38 points.

The New York Giants were the only other team to hang 30 or more points on Carolina last season, and the Panthers only gave up 20 or more points in seven regular-season games.

How did the Saints enjoy a certain degree of success? Several members of the Carolina defense told The Advocate last week at the Super Bowl that coach Sean Payton always figures out a way to change things up and introduce new wrinkles to his offense when the two teams play.

“You’re going to see something different every time when you play him,” Carolina defensive tackle Kawaan Short said last week. “I’ve played him, what six times, and there’s always something that we go over in the meeting room, and we don’t see it in the game because he’s got something different.”

It’s a nice sentiment. Many teams introduce some different wrinkles and twists and are careful not to repeat their game plan when facing a team a second time. But most teams have hallmarks or something they pull out each week to help them out of a certain situation or jam.

So how different were the Saints in each of those games? If you look at the passing plays New Orleans ran during those two contests, which The Advocate recently diagrammed, the answer is very different.

Throw away the wide receiver screens, which the Saints run nearly every week against every team, and Payton only called a few passing plays during the second meeting that were identical to what the Saints ran the first meeting.

One of those plays is a curl concept where the “X” receiver, who is split out wide, runs a curl while the tight end and receiver on the other side of the field do the same. The running back and fullback then run routes screens to opposite sides of the field.

The other plays that show up in both games are three-level passing concepts. On one of those plays, a receiver runs a curl, another goes vertically down the field and the running back comes over to offer a lower target. The idea is to give the quarterback three targets on the same side of the field at various depths, which allows him to quickly scan his reads and create a mismatch against the coverage.

On the other play, one receiver runs a post route, another runs a curl and the running back and comes over to dot the play. Another instance of this play occurred when a tight end came over from the flat to serve in a similar capacity as the running back.

One might argue the differences between the two games were due to having different quarterbacks on the field. There is some truth to this. Some things operated a little differently than what might be usual, but not necessarily to the degree one would assume existed.

McCown worked the middle of the field well and sometimes opted for shorter passes more often than what might be typical with Brees, but the actual design of the plays was not entirely unique to that contest. Many of the plays McCown ran during first meeting against Carolina show up at other points during the season.

There was more overlap with the plays called during the individual contests than there was from one game to the other.

During the second meeting, New Orleans ran a similar route concept it used early on to get Ben Watson a touchdown a second time later in the contest. The difference being that the first time it came out of 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end) and the second time it came out of 13 personnel (three tight ends, one receiver).

The first instance resulted in a gain of 14. The second gained 19, though Brees went a different place with the ball, targeting tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on the outside.

The same thing occurred during that contest when New Orleans ran the same play, this time out of the same formation and personnel grouping, to get Brandon Coleman open for a gain of 31 and then again later in the game. The second play resulted in an incompletion.

Short isn’t wrong about the Saints switching things up.

The big takeaway from studying the two contests is that Payton didn’t give his opposition a preview of what to expect in the second game. He brought out new looks and new plays and forced the Panthers to figure it out and adjust on the fly from one game to the next.

It seems like a simple concept, but it’s hard to defend a team when you don’t know what to expect.