There are defenders in the NFL who seem to know where the ball is headed before it’s even snapped.
Middle linebackers who always take the right step, safeties that never bite on the play-action, cornerbacks who know exactly when to jump a route. Usually, players who seem to have a bit of a cheat code on the game are called “instinctive,” players with an innate feel for the game.
Instincts are a part of that prescience.
But so is preparation. Shortly after Dennis Allen took over the defense, Saints coach Sean Payton said one of the things he wanted to see improve was the defense’s ability to narrow down — by a combination of formation, down-and-distance and the time on the clock — the number of possible plays an offense might run.
“We call that reading the book,” free safety Jairus Byrd said. “They’re going to tell us a story, so make sure we know what’s going on.” New Orleans has done a better job of turning the pages of the book lately.
And it’s a process that begins early in the week. When veteran defenders watch film of an opponent, they’re taking individual notes on specific players and routes they like to run, but they’re also looking for the opponent’s tells.
Every offense, just like every poker player, has a tell or two.
The key is identifying it and recognizing those tells in the heat of the moment.
“Each week, even a good team has tendencies, and it shows in different formations and what they do,” rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “It just comes with time. For all the rookies, I think can speak for them and say, the game has slowed down, and we’re recognizing the things we need to key on.”
New Orleans hasn’t always been able to process that kind of information quickly enough this season.
Working with a young group that has started as many as five rookies or first-year players in some games, the Saints had some trouble getting aligned before the snap and taking away an offense’s options. A good defense is usually in the right place pre-snap because its key players can eliminate possibilities based on the offense’s personnel, formation, down-and-distance and the situation in the game.
Under Allen, the Saints are starting to put those reads together more often, an improving asset that turned up big against Tampa Bay and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston in last week’s win, the first time since the 2014 season that New Orleans has held an opponent under 300 yards and 20 points.
“We had good preparation for this game, good run-pass indicators, so it kind of gets you to the ball a little faster,” linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha said. “What it comes down to is our communication is getting a lot better. We kind of key each other in pre-snap, so whatever happens, it’s not a surprise, and guys can get to the ball sooner.”
By communicating — which also happens to be one of the key skills of Dannell Ellerbe, whose presence has been a key for the Saints this season — what they’re seeing, New Orleans has been able to process information more quickly and get more and more tacklers to the ball.
When that happens, a defense can dictate the action.
“It goes back to guys just holding each other accountable,” Byrd said. “Kind of making sure you’re prepared, know what plays might give you some trouble, what plays they’re trying to target, who are the main guys in certain formations.”
The books are getting easier to read.