This wasn’t the same offense that you’re used to seeing.
The Saints didn’t stick to their usual staples against during Sunday’s 27-21 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Coach Sean Payton switched things up, broke away from the tendencies to some degree, and turned to a different method of operation.
Typically, the Saints operate heavily out of their 11 personnel (three receivers, one running back, one tight end) and complement it with other personnel groupings. On Sunday, New Orleans operated primarily out of its 12 personnel (two receivers, two tight ends, one running back), with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui at times serving as a fullback.
Overall, the Saints ran 38 total plays out of its 12 personnel and 19 out of its 11 personnel.
For the sake of reference, New Orleans has averaged 28.5 passing plays per game out of its 11 personnel and 5.6 passing plays per game out of 12 this season. That’s not counting running plays. On Sunday, all of the plays out of 11 were passes. Fourteen passes came out of the 12 personnel.
This marked a sizable shift from the norm, and the Saints enjoyed some success because of it. New Orleans averaged a shade over five yards per carry out of this personnel grouping and completed 8-of-14 passes for 57 yards.
This allowed New Orleans to have heavier sets against the Colts’ front seven, which was been susceptible against the run, and then set up some passing plays off of the look. It also helped dictate some things and clear out some congestion in the passing game since Indianapolis was often expecting a run.
When the Saints had to pass, they often rolled out their 11 personnel. There wasn’t much need to try to disguise the running looks since New Orleans didn’t have many issues running even when Indianapolis stacked the box.
The Saints also did a good job of setting up shot plays and creating mismatches with their 13 personnel (one receiver, three tight ends, one running back), which is a grouping that typically signals a running play.
QUARTERBACK: 2 out of 4
This was a perfectly fine performance for Drew Brees. He made the plays he needed to make, stepped up in huge moments and moved the ball. He was a couple inches away from having a great performance. Take the deep pass to Brandin Cooks in the first quarter that was overthrown by just a few inches. If Brees shortens that up, he’s taking on a good amount of yards to his passing line, which was 28 of 44 for 255 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Brees threw another pick that was negated by a penalty. On review of the play, his head is pointed toward the official throwing the flag when it comes out. It seems very likely he knew he was being given a free and tried to make something happen. There were good things in this game, and some of those moments of failure have actually instilled more confidence in the future of the passing game in these parts. Even when they weren’t connecting, Brees was throwing with good anticipation. One of those moments came on the second play of the game when Brees nearly connected with Cooks on a crossing route in traffic. The good news is the Saints figured out a way to win when the offense wasn’t at its best.
RUNNING BACKS: 3.5 out of 4
This is what happens when Mark Ingram has running lanes to read, diagnose and choose from. The Saints’ zone-blocking scheme struggled through most of the first six weeks of the season. The offensive line got it together in Week 7 and Ingram broke loose. The double cut he had to slice through running lanes on his 35-yard gain in the third quarter was unquestionably the best run of the season for the Saints. Not only did Ingram hit the hole and cut his way up the field, the blocking also showed up. Tight end Josh Hill did a good job of sealing off the lane, and Ben Watson blocked a pair of guys to keep the lane open. Offensive tackle Terron Armstead and guard Tim Lelito, who turned his man around on the play, also showed up. The consistency of the running game, as a whole, could have been a little better. Khiry Robinson made a few odd choices and could have seen the field better, and C.J. Spiller could have used some better blocking on pitches and outside runs, particularly in the second half. It was good, however, to see Spiller so involved early in the game. The Saints made sure to get him touches and reaped some early rewards. He also lined up as a receiver more often than we’ve seen. Perhaps New Orleans is starting to figure out how to use him.
RECEIVERS: 2 out of 4
The Saints used Brandin Cooks a little bit differently than they did earlier in the season. Instead of trying to get him open deep only to have Cooks run into safety help, he ran more routes over the middle of the field. Of his 13 targets, seven came on crossing routes, one on a slant and one on a screen. Only three were on go routes and the other was a desperation throw on a play that lasted more than six seconds. Cooks is effective when working the middle of the field because it allows him to use his quickness off the line and when changing direction to shake free. The coaching staff did a good job of designing ways to get him open deep. On the aforementioned go route that was slightly overthrown, New Orleans was operating out of its 13 personnel, which drew eight men into the box. A play-action fake got the free safety to bite, which gave Cooks enough room to get open. His 47-yard reception on a go route out of the end zone was one of the more important plays of the game. New Orleans didn’t manage to get any points out of the drive, but the play allowed the Saints to flip the field after being buried deep in their own territory. This was an oddly ineffective game for Willie Snead, which is more surprising since he played so many snaps. He was targeted seven times and only made three catches for 25 yards. Drops continue to be an issue with him. It will be interesting to see if Austin Johnson takes back his role as fullback. Michael Hoomanawanui filled in capably and had a standout performance blocking in the running game and in protection of Brees. He’s more versatile and his ability to line up as both a fullback and tight end gives the Saints more formational flexibility.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 3 out of 4
Terron Armstead didn’t give up much, if anything, in the passing game. His man hit Brees in the second quarter but that was more the result of a blitzer coming free. In the fourth quarter, he was initially responsible for Robert Marthis when he hit Brees. But there was pressure from the middle and the right side that caused Brees to roll out of the pocket and Mathis shook free and laid Brees out as he threw. The hit was more the result of everything else that happened during the play than anything Armstead did or didn’t do. Armstead was also responsible for a pair of bad runs, but we’re nitpicking at this point since Armstead was often the catalyst of many successful runs during the game. Overall, it was one of his better performances of the season. Brees saw some pressure coming through the other areas of the line. Zach Strief (two pressures, one sack), Max Unger (three pressures), Jahri Evans (two pressures, one sack), and Tim Lelito (hit) all gave up pressures. Brees had an average of 2.5 seconds to throw and was over that mark 13 times. Lelito was also very strong in this contest, delivering several key blocks in the running game and did not allow a single run to be stuffed. Unger, despite allowing a few pressures, was also a strength of the running game. The Saints are going to need these kind of performances in run blocking moving forward if they hope to go on a run and turn this season around. But it’s worth pointing out that Indianapolis has been susceptible against the run. It’s going to take another strong performance from this group to change the narrative.