Sean Payton had a vision.
He had a vision for how his playbook would change if the Saints were able to acquire Michael Hoomanawanui from the New England Patriots. But the trade had to happen before it could come to fruition.
That vision included using more three-tight end sets, which would pair Hoomanwanui with Josh Hill and Ben Watson, and using Hoomanawanui as something of a fullback or blocking back at times in other personnel groupings. That, in turn, would create more flexibility and help make the Saints more unpredictable, while also helping to dictate some of the action within opposing defenses.
The vision would add another wrinkle to the offense that Payton wanted to explore. The vision finally came into focus last month after the Saints sent defensive end Akiem Hicks to New England in exchange for Hoomanawanui. The New Orleans offense has been in transformation since.
“There was a vision, if we could get Michael,” Payton said. “It’s got to be, ‘All right, what do you see and what do we do if we can and all right, this what we want to be able to do.’ That can get put into place a little bit once the trade was made.”
The change hasn’t been radical or signaled a fundamental shift in how the New Orleans offense operates. The Saints are still a team that predominately operates with three receivers on the field (although that wasn’t true against the Colts). But Hoomanawanui has allowed the Saints to introduce a package of plays where three tight ends take the field along with one receiver and one running back, also known as 13 personnel.
This package, in some ways, is an extension or the next step of what the team was trying to do early in the season by having rookie offensive tackle Andrus Peat report as an eligible receiver in heavy packages. The difference is Hoomanawanui is a threat to make offensive plays, where Peat essentially served as a sixth offensive lineman, which has made these three-tight end sets more dangerous and creative.
“His size and weight help give you some versatility in the multiple tight end looks,” Payton said. “He is smart and he knows what to do every play — he probably knows what everyone else is supposed to do. He is someone that, within the right type of route combination, can find the seam and has some pretty good awareness.”
The Saints have run 30 plays out of their 13 personnel over the past three weeks with Hoomanawanui on the field. Of those plays, there were 19 runs for an average of 2.7 yards per carry, though several of those came at or near the goal line. New Orleans has also completed 5-of-10 passes for 59 yards out of the set.
There are still some things the team is trying to figure out, and the results will likely get better moving forward, but two of those completions were to Watson for 22 and 25 yards. And though some opportunities have been missed out of these sets, the important thing is that it has opened up opportunities where they otherwise wouldn’t exist.
“Sometimes, when you’re in these multiple tight ends sets, the looks you get defensively calm down a little, if that makes sense,” Payton said.
By calming down defenses, Payton means that it becomes difficult to rush since the threat of running is always prevalent when there is a heavy set on the field. So, in turn, it forces defenses to be more conservative about how they attack the backfield.
It’s probably not a surprise then that Brees has only taken once sack with three tight ends on the field.
“Defenses have to simplify just because of the run game,” Brees said. “They have to make sure they are very sound with their gap control in order to stop the run.”
There are also some other benefits.
One of the issues the Saints have faced this year has been getting Brandin Cooks open deep down the field. When the Saints are in their three-receiver personnel, defenses are often anticipating passing plays, which allows defenses to drop more guys back into coverage. Because of this, Cooks, who is the most dangerous receiver on the team, often ends up running into double coverage on deeper patterns.
When the Saints are in their 13 personnel, the defense is often thinking run and move eight men into the box to protect against it. This means there are less people in coverage, which can help dictate coverage. That’s what happened on the fifth play of Sunday’s win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Cooks, who was the lone receiver, ended up in single coverage on a go route since the deep safety bit on a play-action fake. The play, unfortunately, resulted in an incompletion since Drew Brees overthrew it by a matter of inches. But it was a success when viewing it through the prism of a play designer, a testament that this new package of plays will harvest the results the team is looking for.
And even the safety doesn’t bite and Cooks is taken away, the Saints still had three other players running short or intermediate routes for Brees.
It’s something new. It’s a work in progress. But the vision is playing out and it’s likely to be a staple of the offense throughout the year.