Take a look. Try to figure out how the Saints are going to rush.
You can watch every snap in a controlled setting, rewind the tape, and sometimes it still takes a couple looks to see how everyone is moving. Now try to imagine what Matthew Stafford was thinking when he was looking out at the defense and trying to diagnose what would happen next.
Often, it was three guys on the line. But sometimes it was four. Once, even, it was two. Players were milling about, standing up here and there. Some on the line, some off the line. All of them looked like they could be coming at any moment.
“You got to change things up,” defensive end Alex Okafor said. “That messes with offense’s eyes a little bit. Sometimes it allows us to get free players off the edge or up the middle.”
On a third-and-5 play during the third quarter, New Orleans had three down defensive linemen. Cam Jordan and Okafor were on the ends, and Sheldon Rankins was playing nose tackle. Outside of Jordan stood Craig Robertson. A.J. Klein split Rankins and Okafor, and Rafael Bush was on the other side.
Stafford looked at the defense and corrected his protection, in vain.
The three men on the line, Robertson and Klein all started to blitz at the snap. Shortly after he started to come, Klein stopped and dropped into coverage, taking away a tight end running a delayed route, which was Stafford’s safety valve on the play. Pressure closed in, and with all his receivers covered and the time running out, all the quarterback could do is tuck the ball and wait for Jordan to sack him.
It's not exotic, but it's a lot to decipher in the matter of a couple seconds.
Welcome to the Saints’ blitz package. Nothing is as it appears, and the only thing you can be sure of is that New Orleans is going to try to blitz whenever possible.
The three-man fronts aren’t new to this defense. The Saints mixed them in often last season, to varying degrees of success. What is new is how often the package showed up last week against the Lions.
New Orleans used a three-man line on 24 of Matthew Stafford’s 57 dropbacks last week, with most of the four-man looks coming late in the game when the Saints had a commanding lead. The Saints have used a three-man line 32 times this season, an average of 6.4 times per game. That's less than last season, when New Orelans used it 152 times, or 9.5 times per game.
These looks aren’t just a standard 3-4 front. Sometimes they are, but often there are three men down on the line with players in various positions from which they can either blitz or drop back into coverage. Being standard would defeat the purpose. The goal of the look is to make it hard for the quarterback to figure out what is going on.
“It just creates some decision — or indecision, hopefully — in how they’re going to protect it,” coach Sean Payton said. “Who are they going to put the five linemen on? And you can move guys to spots. It’s a little blurrier picture pre-snap, I would say, possibly, for the QB. And it gives you some pressure flexibility.”
Rankins believes the looks put New Orleans' playmakers in better position to make something happen.
“We’re able to put some smaller guys out there in coverage to give us time to get home, or we’re able to utilize our versatility as far as the linebackers, safeties who are able to blitz and get home,” Rankins said. “There’s a variety of things we can do with it, and there are times we can just let three guys go rush and drop in coverage and make the quarterback hold the ball, and we get home. That’s one of (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s) favorite fronts.”
One difference with a three-man front is that Rankins often moves over from three-technique defensive tackle to play on the nose. Overall, he said he's facing a lot more double-teams than he did a year ago, but in these looks, it is especially crowded.
This was a role Nick Fairley often filled last season, but it’s not entirely new to Rankins. He played nose tackle at times in college and is embracing the challenge of fulfilling this role.
“There’s a guy on each side of you pretty much looking for you, especially in the three-man line,” Rankins said. “Guys are wide, tackles got them, so the guards are there, helping out, waiting on you. In the three, it’s essentially just a defensive end inside a little bit more. It’s a lot more freedom, a lot more room to work.”
The big question is whether these looks continue to show up moving forward or were a one-game wrinkle for the Lions.
With how often Allen likes to go to his pressure package (the Saints have blitzed more than 40 percent of snaps the past three games), and the effectiveness of the front, it likely will show up more than it did during the first few weeks of the season. But perhaps not as often as it did against Detroit.
Allen blitzed a similar amount last season, but one of the significant differences this season has been New Orleans’ ability to cover players better. That has given the guys up front more time to get after quarterbacks. While sometimes being a few players short in coverage puts some stress on the secondary, the players are embracing the challenge.
“I’m out there covering my (butt) off, man,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “The thing is you have to have guys that — there’s a lot of one-on-ones out there, open for the tackling. You have to have guys that can get the ball on the ground.”
It looks like the Saints have that this year, and it looks like they have the blitz package to go with it. A year ago, this was something few people could see coming.