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Breaking Down What Makes the Saints' Backfield so Effective

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Breaking Down What Makes the Saints' Backfield so Effective
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the last three games, we have seen a resurgence in the Saints' running game. In fact, it has been the main reason they've been able to win three straight.

Yes, Drew Brees has been phenomenal. In that span, he's thrown for eight touchdowns with just one interception, completing 72.1 percent of his passes. Based on his performance in the past six games, one could make a reasonable case for Brees as the 2012 NFL MVP.

Still, the primary reason the Saints are 5-5 after an 0-4 start is the tremendous increase in production from the running game, although the running backs' production in the passing game should also not be overlooked.

And, much like the New England Patriots and in-state favorite LSU, the Saints are getting it done with five backs. Though there are similarities among the bunch, each player has a different skill set and gives the offense a different personality.

As a result, the Saints have become one of the most consistent rushing teams in the league the past three weeks, while actually making them—once again—the most explosive offense in the NFL.

How do they do it?

Here are five sets of video stills to show the way the Saints are using each player effectively. These stills are similar to the ones Drew Brees and Chase Daniel look at on the sidelines in between offensive series.

Each will highlight an element of the Saints’ game that has proved valuable in the team's three-game winning streak.

 

Chris Ivory’s 56-yard Touchdown Tun vs. Atlanta in Week 10

The pre-snap end-zone shot of this play shows the Saints lining up in a run-heavy look. They even place wide receiver Joe Morgan near the tackle to give the look of a possible crack to the left. We see tight end Dave Thomas lined up outside the right tackle to match up one-on-one with Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who is standing up like an outside linebacker. 

The diagrammed play is pretty simple. Though the Saints are giving the illusion of a potential run to the left, they've received the look they want to run right. Thomas must get some form of a block on Abraham. As long as he does, Ivory can do what he does—press the hole and get outside.

Before moving on, it's key to notice that the Saints' line does a wonderful job of creating a wall to get the two-on-two blocking on the right side. 

As we see from the second photo, that is exactly what he does on this particular run. With the counter-run look, Ivory was essentially given one-and-a-half one-on-one matchups to win in the open field.

Abraham represents the half, as he was blocked enough that he was off-balance. Of course, one of Ivory's best attributes is his running in the open field. He is nearly impossible to tackle one-on-one in space, due to a unique blend of speed, power and a wicked straight arm.

The other matchup is with the Atlanta corner. If you remember the play, Ivory outruns him and eventually uses his powerful stiff-arm to get around the corner before breaking back into the middle of the field. At that point, it was all speed.  

It may sound odd to say, but Ivory is the Saints' best runner in space. Based on his size, the common perception is that Ivory is a power back. But the reality is that he's a speed back who runs with great ferocity. This play represents that as well as any other this season. 

 

Mark Ingram's 16-yard Run up the Middle vs. Oakland

Two quick things to note on this pre-snap view. First, the Saints' line splits are fairly wide. They are anything but foot-to-foot. If I had to guess, they were probably about 18 inches apart. It may seem like a small thing, but the spread splits create wider running lanes.

This is key, as earlier in the season it seemed Ingram was getting the ball with no running lanes. These running lanes are a tiny bit larger because of a rather small adjustment. 

Second, notice on all the run plays diagrammed here, the Saints are using an extra tackle, Eric Olsen (actually a guard, but plays tackle in the six-linemen alignments). The Saints have found something with that personnel grouping. 

At the onset of the play, the Saints' line does a wonderful job of getting "a hat on a hat" and double-teaming at the point of attack. It may sound simple, but most run plays that do not work are the result of a defender creating penetration within the first half-second of the play. The initial win at the point of attack allows for Ingram to read the play and set up his blocks. 

Again, notice the blocking of the offensive line. It is doing a good, though not perfect job, of essentially walling off two separate sides for the run up the middle. The counter action also helps Ingram here. 

Ingram, like Ivory, does a  good job of "pinching" the play. Essentially, he is forcing the Raiders to over-pursue so that he may find a larger cutback lane. His feet seem to work just as quick as his eyes. The result is tremendous burst through the hole to the second level. 

In my opinion, the primary reason we have seen an increase in production from Ingram in the past three weeks is evident in final part of this run. He was doing all the same things up to this point, only his blockers were not doing their job. 

Now we see in this picture Ingram ready to run over the Oakland safety. Instead of settling for a 10-yard run, he wants more yardage and wants to pound his opponents. That was probably something he regained from watching Chris Ivory. That is where I agree that Ivory has reinvigorated Ingram. 

 

Pierre Thomas' 23-Yard Run up the Middle vs. Carolina in Week 2

This is another counter play the Saints are going to run, this time with Pierre Thomas. This is effective because of the misdirection nature of the play. Again, the formation's strength is to the left, while the run is going to be to the right. 

Notice this time, Thomas has a fullback leading his way. Jed Collins will get Thomas to the second level, then it's up to him to do the rest. 

We see here an amazing job by the Saints' offensive line of creating a running lane up the middle of the Panthers' defense. The linemen have figuratively parted the Red Sea for Thomas. Thomas has a huge hole, but still does a great job of "getting skinny" through the hole.

He does that on every run—hence the reason he can manage nearly 5.0 yards per carry, even when his blockers do a horrible job.

Thomas is the Saints’ most natural between-the-tackles runner. That is because he gets skinny and runs with such a low pad level. Both are on display here. 

If you've watched the Saints over the past five years (the time Thomas has been a regular in the Saints' running-back rotation), you know that he is a tremendous finisher. He almost never goes down on first contact. 

And in the open field, he has a nasty hip shake that often loses defenders. That combination is part of what makes him such a great screen back. Here he is again in the open field using those same moves to get by Carolina safety Haruki Nakamura. 

The result was, at the time, the Saints' most explosive run play of the season. 

In three separate runs, we see some commonalities in the successful run plays. One, the pre-snap alignment and initial movement create indecision in the rush defense's mind. Two, the offensive line does a great job of creating a wall and a hole for the back to run through or around. And three, each back finishes the run well. 

And that's just half of what makes the Saints' running backs so good. Each one is used dynamically in the passing game. Two guys, though, are essentially glorified wide receivers. 

In the two clips here, each will start at the running back spot for effect. Each will end up catching a pass and making a big play. 

 

Darren Sproles Texas Whip Route vs. Green Bay for a TD

There are a couple key points to note pre-snap on this play. 

As I already mentioned, Darren Sproles is lined up in the backfield. The Saints do this to eliminate the Packers from declaring a man to cover him pre-snap. It also gives the illusion Sproles may be staying in to block since Clay Matthews is lined up on that side. 

Also, tight end Jimmy Graham is lined up by himself. Of course, if Graham were to get single coverage, Drew Brees might just throw a fade or slant to Graham. Because the pre-snap read indicates a double coverage, Graham continues on a "clear-out route" to the back pylon. He takes the corner and safety with him. 

And though I did not circle or highlight it, it is key to notice the three-receiver alignment to the right forces the Packers to stay balanced. This play is clearly meant to go to Sproles, as long as the coverage allows it.

Notice the defensive numbers here. Green Bay doubles both Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Marques Colston. That means there are seven other defenders to handle nine offensive players. The Saints' offensive line does a wonderful job against the Packers' four-man rush. 

Finally, notice that Sproles gets a one-on-one matchup with poor linebacker Brad Jones, a player who is good in coverage, but not nearly quick or agile enough to cover Sproles one-on-one in the curl flat area. 

The other intricate element of this route is an add-on to what Sproles did against the Packers a year ago in the season opener. Then he ran a "Texas route," where he lines up in the backfield and basically runs a hard circle around the outside linebacker's initial lineup and then back to an open middle of the field. 

Here, Sproles runs that route but "whips" back out to the flat. Sproles generally runs the "whip" from the slot position. But offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael played on what the team had done the year before, and it worked to perfection against a sluggish outside backer. It's like stealing candy from a baby. 

It is pretty simple. Once Sproles catches the ball, it's over. With no defender within five yards of Sproles, who needs only five yards to score, a touchdown is all but guaranteed.

This is simply great utilization of the Saints' personnel by Carmichael and great execution by Brees, Sproles and the offensive line. 

 

Travaris Cadet's 19-yard Catch and Run vs. Oakland

After watching this play a few additional times, I realized I actually drew the fly motion incorrectly. Cadet actually begins his motion to the right and nearly crosses Brian de la Puente before "flying" back out to the left. 

This gave Brees a great pre-snap read as no Raider defender followed Cadet. That meant Brees had the Raiders in a zone-blitz look. In other words, throwing the swing screen was the perfect call for the Raiders' defense. 

I probably should have mentioned it in regard to the previous picture, but having Thomas lined up as the other running back keeps the Oakland defense honest. The Saints have used the "fly motion" in the past and thrown the swing screen to Thomas away from the "fly" action. 

As you see in this picture, Thomas runs the swing route and Oakland stays home against it. This creates the ultimate amount of space for Cadet once he catches the ball to get up the field and make something exciting happen. 

He does just that. Jimmy Graham and Joe Morgan (or maybe it's Devery Henderson) get one-on-one blocks and do a good enough job. The rest is left up to Cadet. He is allowed to simply use his speed and run to daylight. 

Interestingly, this came just one play after Cadet ran a wheel route out of the backfield. Interestingly, that is the same pattern Carmichael chose to use in the opening series against Carolina in Week 2, except with Darren Sproles. 

With Sproles likely returning to action this week against San Francisco, look for him to resume running some of Cadet's routes. 

In conclusion, though, I want to tip my hat to Carmichael for two primary reasons. One, he took a bit of criticism early in the 2012 campaign for the offense's struggles. Justified or not, Carmichael has responded by turning the offense around with some slight, but meaningful adjustments. 

Second, Carmichael has shown a propensity for creativity and ingenuity. He has integrated some college spread concepts into the Saints' offense. 

The "fly motion" is something we have seen to a great degree from some of college football's most explosive offenses—namely from Chip Kelly’s Oregon squad and Noel Mazzone’s UCLA offense. Many of the concepts those coaches use on Saturdays, Carmichael has integrated into New Orleans’ offense over the past two seasons.

Last year—with Carmichael calling the plays—the Saints used a “Pistol” formation once or twice.

Not to take anything away from Sean Payton, but Carmichael has been more creative in the past two years than Payton. I appreciate that about him. And in the past few weeks, that creativity has paid off as the Saints have become, again, the most dynamic offense in the NFL.

A large reason is Carmichael, Brees and the offensive line. But all of them are doing a wonderful job of utilizing the tremendous play-making abilities of the Saints’ five-headed running-back attack.

That five-headed attack is rewarding their faith.

Suddenly, the Saints look like the Saints again. 

 

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