The easiest touchdown the New Orleans Saints have scored this season might have come during a Week 8 game against the Green Bay Packers.
With a little more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Saints came out in a heavy set, with tight ends Josh Hill and Ben Watson serving as bookends on each side of the line. Fullback Erik Lorig and Mark Ingram stood behind Drew Brees in the backfield, and Brandin Cooks was the lone receiver, split out to the right.
If the Packers did their homework, everything about the second-and-1 play screamed run. Of the 98 plays New Orleans has run with Watson and Hill serving as the lone the tight ends this season, 62 have been run plays. And of the 60 plays New Orleans has run with two running backs and two tight ends on the field, 45 have been rushing plays.
Knowing these tendencies, the Packers put eight men in the box and prepared for Drew Brees to hand the ball off the Ingram. As he took the snap, it appeared Green Bay guessed right. The line began to pull left as Brees made his way toward Ingram and Lorig.
The safety on the deep right side of the field planted his feet, sensing run, leaving Cooks alone on the cornerback. Brees turned and stepped up in the pocket after Ingram passed him by, never actually faking a handoff. The safety attempted to recover, but he couldn’t get there in time to stop Cooks from scoring a 50-yard touchdown.
There were no negatives to grade on the play. But success wasn’t as simple as faking a run and then throwing a pass. Success can be found in the details. It was the formation, the offensive line selling the run, and Cooks beating his man.
“The only thing some might quibble with is that Brees never actually faked the handoff.
These are the plays that keep opposing head coaches and defensive coordinators up at night, and it sounds like Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team travels to New Orleans Sunday, is suffering a case of insomnia.
“When they’re running the ball effectively, for the most part, any offense is tough to defend,” Rivera said. “This one even more so because they do have good play action. The quarterback is very good with his play action, he’s a very good vertical passer.
“You’ve got to be able to make them one-dimensional and force them to do something they really don’t want (to do). If you could do that then you have a chance. If not, now what you have to do is be able to react to what you see.”
One problem is that defenses are too often reacting to what they see. New Orleans has used play-action fakes only 17.8 percent of its pass attempts this season, the fourth-lowest figure in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, but those attempts have been among the most effective in the league.
Brees has completed 62-of-85 play-action passes (72.9 percent, which is 3.1 percent better than he is without a fake) for 789 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Only San Diego’s Philip Rivers (80 percent), Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (76.7), and Dallas’ Tony Romo (73.1) have better completion percentages.
Some might argue that due to the success of these plays, the Saints should use play action more frequently, but Brees recently explained that part of the effectiveness is due to being choosey about the situations.
“I feel like our coaches and all of us spend a lot of time really dialing in how we want to try and take advantage of certain opportunities down field and just knowing that you only get a few of those each and every game,” Brees said.
“You want to hit on those as much as you can. Those are the difference between the games in which you score points in the 20s or you score points in the 30s and 40s in your ability on those big plays.”
They’re also more effective when designed properly. Sending a runner up the middle on a play-action fake is among the best ways to negate the pass rush, but sometimes these plays are designed with the specific purpose to get a linebacker or safety to move out of a specific spot. Then, once that player moves, an offensive player will run a route to the vacated area.
An example of this came later in the fourth quarter against Green Bay when the Saints used a play-action fake on a goal line play that got linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Sean Richardson to bite and crash the backfield. The defensive players selling out on the offensive right side of the field gave Hill free admittance to the end zone. But in New Orleans, where the big play is king, it’s more about getting a safety to bite on the run, which opens up the deep passing lanes, like the one created for Cooks.
“In so many cases the run game sets up a lot of that downfield passing game because the more effective you can be at the run the more the defense has to bring a safety (down),” Brees said. "You have two safeties, you have to bring an extra defender in the box and therefore you’re typically getting more one-on-one type matchups which again, I think that favors us in a lot of cases because I think we have great personnel.”
That personnel and ability to make the defense bite is what’s keeping Rivera up this week.