Unbalancing NFL Defenses: A Conceptual Analysis of the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints

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Mark Ingram may not be the star he was expected to be coming out of Alabama, but his presence on the roster alone points to what the Saints want to do.

In today’s offensively inclined National Football League, ever minor advantage is explored by coachings and even those tiny details can become massive in the grand scheme of unlocking the opposition. Because of the variety of schemes and differing skill-sets of players, the complexity of today’s game is always expanding while approaches are variable and evolutionary rather than predetermined and acquired.

Two of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL have been the leading charges in the race towards greater offensive efficiency, the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots.

Since the 2006 season, both teams have combined for nine top five finishes in scoring offense and five first overall finishes. Neither team has dropped lower than 11th in total scoring and never once during that time did both teams finish outside of the top five.

In today’s league that is a phenomenal achievement. It is the combination of high quality coaching, quarterbacks who wear capes and magicians at the skill-positions. What really separates these two offenses however, is their ability to keep defenses off balance and dictate the game to them.

Rarely ever does any defense set the tempo or disrupt the rhythm of these offenses, which is easy to understand when you delve further beneath the surface of them.

New Orleans Saints’ Depth, Creativity and Brashness.

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This play was the first of the Saints’ second drive against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9. They did not receive their second possession until three minutes into the second quarter, and their first drive had been a relatively short one as the Eagles dominated the ball early on.

From this bird’s eye view, this appears a relatively ordinary two tight end set with a receiver to each side and a running back alone in the backfield. However, the circled “receiver” at the top of the screen is actually fullback Jed Collins, the circled tight end inside of him is actually reserve offensive tackle Charles Brown, meaning that Joe Morgan, circled in blue at the bottom of the screen is the only actual wide receiver on the field.

You can be certain that the Eagles’ scouting report on defense didn’t begin with Charles Brown, Joe Morgan and Jed Collins. Those who the Eagles likely prioritized their preparation for, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas and Lance Moore(Darren Sproles was injured), are not on the field. Not even Mark Ingram or Devery Henderson are on the field either.

The two skill-position players who aren’t circled are Chris Ivory and David Thomas. Ivory had not registered one single touch during the previous eight weeks of the season.

The Saints’ two legitimate receiving threats, Morgan and Thomas, are at the bottom of the field. While Johnson and Collins look set to pave a way for Ivory to rush down the field.

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At the snap however, Collins breezes past Asomugha, who sat off with his eyes in the backfield, while Morgan(blue circle) immediately located safety Kurt Coleman at the end of the Eagles’ linebacker unit. Morgan was able to get to Coleman so easily because Jason Babin had immediately jumped inside at the snap.

If the Saints had run the ball inside or to the far side of the field, Babin would have been in perfect position to either make a play in the backfield or take away any potential cutback lanes for Ivory. However, Babin got inside so easily because the Saints’ tackles clamped down and tight end Thomas used his momentum against him to seal the edge for Ivory running off right tackle.

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With the Eagles playing the middle and far side of the field, the Saints have easily slipped Ivory out the back-door and into the secondary. Because Morgan was able to seal off Coleman with an excellent block, Ivory is not only in the secondary, but he is in space against a diminutive cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

At this point, Ivory can look to run through Cromartie with his strength, or sprint at either inside or outside shoulder to get down the sideline. Ivory gets through Cromartie’s tackle attempt and he would have found his way to the endzone if David Sims hadn’t beaten Jed Collins to the point of attack.

Ivory earned nine yards on first down. An argument could be made that putting Jed Collins in at wide receiver cost the Saints a potential touchdown because a faster player could maybe have made it to Sims, but Collins’ presence at the top of the screen is likely what made the Eagles think the offense was going to go in that direction.

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On the very next play, the Saints have come out with almost a completely new set of skill-position players. Devery Henderson is circled at the top of the screen. Jed Collins, circled, has moved from that position to fullback. Jimmy Graham, circled, has replaced David Thomas at the right tight end position, but he has his hand on the ground in a run-blocking stance whereas David was in a stance more suited to a receiver. Lance Moore, circled, is at the bottom of the screen.

After giving up nine yards, and being in a short-yardage situation, the Eagles were most likely already thinking that the Saints would feed Chris Ivory again. Brees used a hard-count to get a reaction from the defense and that reaction confirmed that the Eagles were expecting the Saints to run the ball. The Eagles were already crowding the line of scrimmage, but after Brees’ cadence. each defender on the second level allowed their moment to carry them forward a half-step.

Once that happened, Brees knew exactly what to look for in the coverage after the snap.

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The Saints ran a hard play action to Ivory. Crucially, every single offensive lineman on the Saints moved in a zone together to sell the play-fake. Collins did from his fullback position initially also, before a sharp turn brought him back to cut off Jason Babin who was in position to make a play on Brees otherwise.

Importantly, Brees keeps his eyes on Jimmy Graham who is releasing into the flat at this point.

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This is the same moment of the play, but from a different angle.

From here, we can see that the Eagles’ linebackers have been drawn to Ivory as Brees is escaping outside the other side of the pocket. We can also see that both Eagles’ cornerbacks are bailing out of their positions indicating that the Eagles are playing zone coverage with three deep defenders.

We can also see that David Sims, the safety in between both Eagles’ cornerbacks, is trapped in no man’s land and watching the play develop in front of him. He can see Jimmy Graham coming wide open, he understands that Rodgers-Cromartie, to his left, is dropping deep and Lance Moore has occupied that space. He also sees that Brees is staring straight at Graham in the flat.

At the snap, Sims had motioned backwards one step, but as soon as the linebackers moved to be out of position, he immediately shifted his weight to face forward and turned his hips towards Graham in the flat.

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Sims can see that Mychal Kendricks, the linebacker linked to Graham in the flat, is out of position and Brees is looking Graham’s way. For that reason, Sims begins to come forward because he understands that Rodgers-Cromartie would be overmatched against Graham and that Lance Moore is in position to block him anyway. When Sims shifts his weight forward, Brees has already snapped his head back to the middle of the field.

Brees ignores Graham in the flat, instead looking for Henders who is running deep down the middle of the field, a position that Sims was likely expected to fill.

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As Brees releases the ball, a wide open space has opened behind Cromartie and Sims for Henderson to run into, while Asomugha is in no position to make a play on a well-thrown pass because of the technique he was initially playing. Asomugh had to be expecting Sims to be in position to take Henderson off his hands, but he is not there because of the knock-on effect of Graham being free in the flat.

Graham is free in the flat because Kendricks bought hard on play-action. Kendricks bought on the play-action because of the situation and the last play that gave the Saints’ nine easy yards. Those nine yards were easy because of the creativity o the offense.

The first two plays of this drive have already accelerated the Eagles’ collective thought-process on defense, while it has also given them an opportunity for a huge play down the field that would likely result in a touchdown. Not just a huge play, but a relatively easy throw for a quarterback with the ability of Brees.

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On one of those rare occasions however, Brees actually doesn’t throw the ball to the right spot. It arrives to the general area and gives Henderson a chance to make a reception after he adjusts to the ball in the air and slows down, but the ball was too high and too far behind him, allowing Asomugha to knock the ball free.

The yellow arrow is where Brees’ throw went, while the green arrow is where it needed to be to allow Henderson to run underneath it, leaving Asomugha in his wake.

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It was a missed opportunity, but it was also a very big opportunity that was meticulously created by causing confusion amongst each level of the Eagles’ defense.

The play had everything. A clean pocket, three wide-open receivers and a clear path to the endzone. Everything except execution, but that is something coaches must unleash control of when the action on the field begins.

By making use of the various skill-sets of multiple players, and by combining those skill-sets with some excellent play-design, timing and creativity, the Saitns kept the Eagles off balance throughout this game. The Saints won 28-13, but the Eagles’ defense was saved from further punishment because of a redzone turnover, an offense that swallowed the clock and. For much of the game, the defensive gameplan from Todd Bowels was very passive and the Eagles’ players played with the hesitation that regularly haunts defenses that travel to New Orleans.

New England Patriots’ Versatility and Intelligence.

During the 2012 Regular Season, the New England Patriots scored the second highest points total in the team’s franchise history. This, in spite of being without their best player for an extended period. Rob Gronkowski missed five regular season games this season after breaking his arm against the Indianapolis Colts. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots’ offense still scored 171 points, or 34.2 points per game.

However, it is impossible to say that the Patriots’ offense is the same without Gronkowski. Their statistical output during his absence was partially manipulated because of such poor performances from the New York Jets(49 points) and Houston Texans(42 points), while the offense was in scramble mode against the San Francisco 49ers after falling behind by a huge score early on in the game.

Even though Mike Hoomanawanui is a very underrated player and performs Gronkowski’s role admirably, he doesn’t offer the Patriots the balance advantage that Gronkowski does.

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With Tom Brady, Aaron Hernandez, Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker on the field, most offenses set up to stop the pass against the Patriots each week. For teams with non-elite defenses, this is a major problem.

The Patriots’ offensive line is one of the best in the league, while Gronkowski is probably the best blocking tight end in the NFL. With Gronkowski on the field, the Patriots essentially have six offensive linemen to work with in the running game. When your typical NFL offense brings in an extra tackle, the natural reaction for the defense is to expect a running play and squeeze towards the line of scrimmage.

Therefore, the defenses facing the Patriots are stretched towards two extremes.

In the above play, the Bills are lined up as if they are expecting a pass. They have only seven defenders in the box, with two defenders lined up over or outside Wes Welker to the top of the screen. Those two defenders are there because the Patriots have two tight ends to that side, include Gronkowski. Stephon Gilmore is in press coverage against Brandon Lloyd at the bottom of the screen, while Jairus Byrd is more than 10 yards deep off the line of scrimmage.

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The Patriots have called a run over left guard.

Center Dan Koppen has pushed straight past the Bills’ defensive tackle who lined up between he and left guard Donald Thomas. As Koppen has pushed past, the defensive tackle has moved towards the pocket and Thomas has trapped him to clear a hole over left guard. Koppen has moved onto the second level along with right guard Dan Connolly.

While that is happening, Gronkowski is coming across the formation from his deep tight end spot heading straight for the hole at left guard. His athleticism has allowed him to get ahead of running-back Branden Bolden and he is heading straight towards the incoming safety in the hole.

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Gronkowski’s receiving threat has already forced the Bills to keep two defensive backs deep to the sideline, so much so that they are not even in the picture as Bolden crosses the line of scrimmage. Most receiving tight ends in the NFL are not excellent blockers, but because Gronkowski excels at both, he is then able to make the key block that springs Bolden into the secondary untouched.

With his physical traits, the Bills’ safety has no chance of filling the gap created by Thomas and Nate Solder. With Wendell already clearing out the lane on the second level, Bolden has a huge lane to run through before meeting any defensive backs.

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With the defense so stretched, he is able to get down the field for a first down and a gain of 14 yards.

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On that occasion, the Patriots had the perfect play to match up to the defense that was presented to them. However, that is not always the case. When those situations do arise, the Patriots have the best pre-snap quarterback in the whole league making the key decisions. This second play shows off that aspect of the offense.

Gronkowski is lined up in the backfield as a fullback and the Patriots have two wide receivers to the left, one to the right with a running-back in the backfield.

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Again, the setup of the Bills’ defense indicates that they are worried about the pass in this scenario. Brady quickly recognizes this also and audibles to send Gronkowski in motion to a tight end position. Two key aspects support this decision:

  • The Bills have a deep safety lined up to the left of the Patriots’ center. He is more than 16 yards off the line of scrimmage and in no position to make a play on a run over right tackle.
  • The Bills’ right defensive end is lined up outside the Patriots’ left tackle’s outside shoulder in a pass-rushing stance. He is also in no position to make a play on a run over right tackle.

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At the snap, the deep safety continues to shuffle backwards and the Patriots don’t block the right defensive end. The defensive end takes himself out of the play by rushing up-field, while the two defensive backs to the far side of the field are looking at their assigned receivers, not realizing that the ball has been pitched to Bolden going the other direction.

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This is the point where Gronkowski makes the difference. Having moved back to his tight end position outside of right tackle, Gronkowski is lined up against a defensive end who immediately reacts to the called run. An aware defensive end against any average tight end is a favorable matchup for the defense, but of course, Gronkowski is no average tight end.

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From the point when Gronkowski engages with the Bills’ defensive lineman, he is accelerating his motion towards the sideline and is able to push him completely out of the designed run play. The defensive end initially had good position and what the defense would expect to be a matchup advantage, but the opposite proved true.

Bolden is able to run through a wide open hole on the edge of the defense with solid blocking down the field. The Patriots’ athletic group of offensive linemen are able to get out in front of the back, while Gronkowski is exhibiting the abilities of any expert left tackle.

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Only after crossing the first down marker is Bolden touched and tackled.

With a wide array of weapons in their passing arsenal, the Patriots’ running game often gets overlooked as being complementary. While it may be dependent on the passing game to set it up, the results and impact of the rushing attack in Boston is far from just complementary.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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