Drew Brees sits behind the line of scrimmage and surveys the Washington Redskins’ defense.
The two cornerbacks are lined up about 10 yards off the receivers and the safeties, who split the middle of the field, are only about 2 yards behind the corners. It looks like a zone concept, perhaps Cover 4.
Brees points out the middle linebacker and raises his left leg, signaling for tight end Ben Watson to motion to the other side of the formation.
The quarterback calls for the snap, and Brandin Cooks immediately takes off the down the field from the left side of the formation. The safety on that side of the field stands his ground and continues to survey the field before him. Willie Snead, who lined up on the right side, runs about 10 yards down the field and then cuts over toward the left sideline on a crossing route.
Snead is picked up by the safety on his side of the field. As he continues to cross, the second safety, who has already dropped his hips to begin trailing after Cooks, turns back to make sure Snead is covered before flipping back around and resuming his pursuit of the vertical route. If the safety doesn’t recover quick, Cooks is going to be left in one-on-one coverage.
Back near the line of scrimmage, C.J. Spiller, who lined up flanking Brees, runs into the flat on Cooks’ side of the field, where he’s picked up by one of the outside linebackers.
As Brees drops back and studies the field, the routes being run by the three receivers creates a triangle of sorts on the left side of the field, with Cooks as the point, Snead in the middle, and Spiller low. The three-level arraignment of the players allows Brees to quickly make his reads.
It doesn’t take Brees long to spot how the defense broke. After he steps up in the pocket to avoid linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and receives a key block from tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, he draws his arm back as soon as he sees the safety turn toward Snead and fires. The pass leads Cooks toward the middle of the field for a 60-yard touchdown.
The Saints have faced several issues on both sides of the ball over the last two seasons, but few should ever question New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s ability to effectively design plays and dial them up at the right moments.
Things often seem to work out for the Saints and New Orleans somehow finishes every season as one of the more prolific offenses in the NFL. To better understand Payton’s ability in this regard, The Advocate took a closer look at the plays the Saints ran this season. There were many things that stood out for various reasons, but it quickly became clear Payton possesses a penchant for three-level passing concepts and they often lead to success.
The easiest way to understand these concepts, which are effective against a variety of coverages, is that they often create the previously mentioned triangle in one area of the field, a tactic that forces mismatches and creates holes in the coverage by overloading the defense in a specific quadrant of the field.
The Saints ran some variation of the play (a vertical and out route on one side of the field, with a crossing route coming from the other side) used to create Cooks’ touchdown against Washington several times last season.
One of the things that made it unpredictable is New Orleans ran the play out of both 11 (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) and 12 (two receivers, two tight ends, one running back) personnel and from various formations.
How Payton has the routes come together creates another layer of unpredictability. A tight end, slot receiver or running back ran the shallow route to the flat at times, sometimes replacing it with a shallow out route. During one instance, the receiver running the crossing route became the shortest target on the play, while a tight end ran higher up the field. These wrinkles exist to make the concept harder to identify, since there aren’t any real tells from how the personnel lines up.
Brees connected on many of his pass attempts when the Saints used this concept. What was interesting and a common theme on these plays: The touchdown to Cooks and an interception were the only times when he targeted the player running the vertical route. On more than half the plays he threw to the intermediate out route.
The Saints use another variation of this route concept that results in a similar outcome and is conducted with identical goals. The difference is that the shallow, intermediate and vertical routes all come from the same side of the field. But the end result of the play is the same, with a route to the flats or a short out route and an intermediate out route coming together below the vertical route.
New Orleans successfully ran this concept against the Eagles during a Week 5 loss. Operating out of a bunch formation, Marques Colston ran the short out route, tight end Ben Watson handled the intermediate route and Cooks went deep. Cornerback JaCorey Shepherd crashed down on Colston after offering a jam on Watson. Colston was then picked up by safety Walter Thurmond. Cornerback Byron Maxwell took Cooks.
As Watson cut to the sideline, Shepherd let him go and began crashing down on Colston. Like the previously mentioned deep touchdown to Cooks, this break in coverage was all Brees needed to make something happen. He saw an opening in the defense and quickly fired a 21-yard pass to Watson before the defense could recover.
The Saints got the same coverage when using the route concept against Jacksonville. Though New Orleans was operating out of a different formation, this time two players bit on the deep route and no one picked up Snead coming out of his break on the intermediate route. The running back was also left uncovered in the flat. Brees worked through his reads and hit Snead for a gain of 17.
The pass doesn’t always have to throw to the overloaded side of the field for it to create a break in the defense. Sometimes simply running the concept opens things up in other portions of the field.
One of the more successful instances of this play came Week 13 against Carolina. The Panthers identified the route concept, and both safeties rolled to the right side of the field to defend against it. This left Cooks in one-on-one coverage on the other side of the field. Brees hit him on a deep out route for a gain of 19.
Like its cousin with the crossing route coming from the other side of the field, this route concept also often led to success for the Saints. Once again an interesting note: Brees never targeted the go route.
There are several other ways the Saints create these stretch concepts. One of those is by having the innermost receiver to the formation run a corner or go route, the shallow target run to the flat or a quick out route, and the outermost receiver run a curl route. Sometimes the order of those routes switch, with the outside guy handling the vertical route and the inside guy running the curl.
The latter twist got Brandon Coleman open for a gain of 31 yards against Carolina during Week 14. With the vertical route clearing things out and a linebacker and cornerback biting on Colston’s curl, Coleman was left open to run free underneath the coverage.
No matter how it’s done, the goal always remains the same: To overload the defense, create mismatches and essentially force teams to choose who to cover. New Orleans has no issue finding ways to do this.
Over the years, even during ones when people harbored concerns about the quality of weapons in Brees’ cache, the offense has always managed to generate yards. Having an elite quarterback is one of the reasons for that. The other is the result of Payton knowing how to design the arrows in his playbook to find and create weaknesses in the defense.
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