New Orleans Saints Harness Fire Power Through Play Calling
Variety, they say, is the spice of life. Nowhere in America do people take this notion to heart more than in New Orleans. From food and music to culture and language, the Crescent City’s charm is its embrace and celebration of all things eclectic.
Diversity exudes not only on NOLA’s streets and in its restaurants, but also on the football field.
Since Sean Payton took over the reins, the Saints’ offense has thrived on a grand buffet of offensive firepower, particularly in the passing game.
In 2008, Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees racked up 5,069 passing yards—just 15 shy of Dan Marino’s all time record—to earn the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
There’s no shortage scoring threats in New Orleans. Brees has the benefit of being surrounded by All Pro quality talent in the likes of Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush and even Pierre Thomas.
The trick for Payton and his staff is to figure out how to best use all the tools in the shed.
The Saints’ abundant playbook utilizes the team’s weapons with various plays and routes intended to put each player in a position to do what he does best.
Here are the five most effective plays/routes in the Saints’ offense:
Quick Slant: Lance Moore
Despite the gaudy passing numbers and Player of the Year trophy, Brees does not possess one of the stronger arms in the league.
No, the man under center for the Saints won’t be hurling 80-yard Bradshaw-esque bombs into the Superedome’s outer atmosphere come fall.
In fact much of Brees’ passing yardage in 2008 did not come in the air, but on the ground after the catch.
In the Saints’ West Coast style offense, Brees relies on timing, accuracy and great reads to pick opposing defenses apart with quick, shorter passes that allow receivers to get out and run.
Those tools were often on display last season in slant passes to Lance Moore. The slant is most effective for the Saints out of a bunch formation with three receivers lined up on the same side.
One receiver makes like a fence on a hitch or other route intended to create traffic near the line of scrimmage and another (typically Colston) is sent deep.
The middle of the field becomes ripe for a quick strike to the slashing Moore.
At 5’9”, Moore relies on his feet to get open. The team’s leading receiver in ’08 proved that he can take a slant a pass and go: In the Saints’ 51-29 thrashing of Green Bay, Moore scorched the Packers secondary, taking a slant pass 70 yards for a touchdown.
Corner Route: Marques Colston
If the New Orleans Hornets are ever in the market for a shooting guard, they need only look to the Superdome.
Saints fourth-year receiver Marques Colston has all the physical tools of an NBA baller: size, agility, and a knack for positioning that’s vital in the post and on the boards.
On the gridiron, the Saints utilize these tools by regularly running Colston on the corner route, usually into the back corner of the end zone.
Like an inverted post route, the corner pattern is designed to draw the defense to the middle of the field while opening up the sideline for a lob pass over the defender.
In the red zone, the corner (or “fade”) route is how Brees and Colston butter their bread. When run correctly, Colston keeps the cover man on the inside as he begins the pattern up field, then turns and pivots like a power forward to the outside, while keeping the defender on the receiver’s hip.
This gives Brees more than enough room to slip an outside pass into Colson’s hands, stretched beyond the defense’s cover.
In close range situations, the route often turns into a “jump ball” pattern: Colston’s size and athleticism allow him to outreach most defenders ala Plaxico Burress (without the firearm in his sweatpants, of course).
Although New Orleans runs the corner route regularly in scoring opportunities, the pattern can be effective anywhere on the field. Just ask Packer cornerback Charles Woodson.
Colston matched teammate Lance Moore with a 70-yard score of his own in the Green Bay game, a corner route reception that left the All Pro back Woodson safely in the rear view mirror.
Sweep: Reggie Bush
With an athletic specimen the likes of Reggie Bush lining up in the backfield, you can’t blame Payton for wanting to chuck the ball to his dynamic running back and let him loose in the open field, spinning, hurdling and evading defenders with Barry Sanders-like aplomb.
Bush has gotten a healthy dose of screens, flares, dumps, and flats over his first three seasons in the league, catching 213 passes for just under 1,600 yards in 38 career games.
But Saints fans who remember the vicious hit that Bush took at the hands of Philadelphia defensive back Sheldon Brown in the 2006 NFC Championship still cringe anytime they see the 200 pound running back out in the great wide open.
That brain jostling hit left Bush crawling around the Superdome floor wondering which way was up.
Since the former Heisman went on to miss 10 games due to injury over the next two years, it seems that perhaps the goal in 2009 should be to get the ball in Bush’s hands in position where he’s least likely to get de-cleated.
Bush has been highly effective - not to mention well protected—running a good ‘ol fashioned sweep to either side.
Out of the I formation, a pitch to Bush lets him get to the place where he does the most damage, outside the tackles, with sturdy blocking intact.
Yes, the short passes are nice because Brees often gets Bush the ball with lots of running room, but the sweep allows Bush to run behind a fullback, one or two pulling guards, a tight end, and a receiver sealing the end.
That’s what I call protecting your investment.
Seam Route: Jeremy Shockey
Sean Payton wanted Jeremy Shockey; now the Saints have him. Drafted by the Giants in 2002, the burly former Miami Hurricane was the poster boy for a new era of versatile tight ends in the NFL including Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Greg Olsen who, like Tony Gonzalez before them, combine size and athleticism that make them more wide receiver than offensive lineman.
Shockey lived up to the hype early in New York, but has seen his production drop in each of the five seasons following his rookie year.
Neverthless, Shockey’s value is his ability to create matchup problems and cause havoc across the middle. The Saints look to exploit both qualities via the seam route.
A timing pattern, the seam is a quick 10-12 yard post-like route in which the quarterback fires the ball just before his target turns slightly in to the center of the field.
Split out off tackle—usually inside of Colston—in a four receiver set, the golden-locked tight end puts opposing defenses in a difficult position before the ball is even snapped; Shockey is too big for a defensive back to handle and too fast for most linebackers.
With Colston on the same side running an out, corner, fly or deep slant, the defending safety has to make a choice, leaving one of the two in single coverage.
Unlike the post route, in which the receiver breaks at a 45 degree angle to the center of the field, the seam allows the receiver to either continue up the field after a catch or break through the middle.
As one of the rare offensive skill players who not only enjoys, but seeks out contact, Shockey can work into the middle, bowling over would be tacklers. With his speed and athletic ability, Shockey can also turn up field and dash.
Screen: Pierre Thomas
No discussion of Sean Payton’s offense would be complete without the screen pass.
Deuce McAllister is in the wind and the Saints lack a bruising running back to pound the ball between the tackles 20 times a game. Instead, they will continue to rely on short screens as a substitute for the run.
While Bush will surely continue to see his fair share of screens, Pierre Thomas’ quick burst ability also makes him a prime candidate to catch short passes out of the backfield.
In addition to 625 yards rushing in a surprising 2008 effort, Thomas also caught 31 balls for 284 yards.