Dennis Allen likes to blitz.
He did when he was the defensive coordinator in Denver, as a head coach in Oakland and still does now that he’s leading the New Orleans defense. The Saints blitzed on 264 passing plays last season, a dose that ranks higher than most teams, though the number is a little down through two weeks this season because of the style of offenses the Saints have faced.
The other hallmark of Allen’s defenses is how he disguises his coverages. His defenses are continually morphing and are often difficult to sort out pre-snap. What presents as a single-high safety look might transform into a Tampa 2 or an inverted Cover 2 by the time the ball is in the quarterback’s hands.
It sounds complicated because it is complicated. It can be a lot for a quarterback to sort out, especially a young one. And the harder it is for the quarterback to decipher the secondary, the harder it is for him to figure out who might be rushing the passer.
“The front and the coverage go together,” coach Sean Payton said. “Let's start with the four-man rush, which would be the norm, right? In other words, no pressure, but you know there are half a dozen coverages that teams are going to play from a four-man rush. Whether they want to have someone closer to the ball to stop the run, quarters, Cover 2, man-to-man, deep, robber, they will play brackets.”
Take a player out of coverage and the pass-rushing options open up. You can see the correlation in how the Saints called their pressures last season relative the coverages they played. More deep safeties often meant fewer blitzes, while single-high looks came with more pressure.
The Saints defense did not blitz very often out of Cover 2 (71 snaps, two blitzes), quarters (33 snaps, nine blitzes) or Tampa 2 (33 snaps, no blitzes) looks. The team brought most of its pressure was out of Cover 1 (266 snaps, 150 blitzes), Cover 3 (106 snaps, 32 blitzes) and Cover 0 (29 snaps, 27 blitzes), according to Sports Info Solutions.
Those numbers paint a somewhat rigid picture, but it isn’t that simple. Teams still have to figure out where the pressure is coming from — and, when you’re playing a team like the Saints, you have to diagnose the coverage as well.
If a team can figure out everything before the snap, it narrows the menu, but choices still must be made against what can be a lot of moving parts.
“With each front and with each rush plan, the coverage can vary,” Payton said. “Obviously, there are some rushes that you can have that you can play the same coverage behind, but with a different rush plan.”
The cat-and-mouse game between the coverage and how the offense operates against it impacts nearly everything. Often, the offense sets its protections based on what the coverage looks like, which in turn changes how the defense goes about executing its rush plan.
“That changes up how you’re going to rush,” Allen said. “You just have to understand which way they’re going to protect, how they’re going to slide the protection, based on whether we’re in man or zone. A lot of that has to do with how the back end is dispersed.”
The coverage also influences how pass rushers play their individual techniques. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, defensive end Cam Jordan noted that he knows he can a little more time with his pass rush when it is a man blitz because the “slant routes are protected.”
Asked recently to expand upon that point, Jordan joked that he didn’t want to give up more of his secrets and said the question had “too much depth.”
But on a more fundamental level, the two elements work together as expected, and the players know when they can take more chances or when they need to get there faster because the coverage isn’t designed to hold up for an extended period.
“If we’re in man coverages, (cornerbacks) are going to have their backs to the quarterbacks, so if you’re going to take a chance, you have to win, because you can’t get washed too far past the quarterback or things like that and give them lanes to step up to and throw,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said.
“In zone coverage, guys have eyes on the quarterback. (It's) not necessarily (that) guys take more chances, but if you take a chance and miss, (defensive backs) can break down and attack the ball and fix you a little bit.”
The Saints defense has a lot of moving parts. But one way or another, they all fit together.