After Sunday's emotional victory against the Atlanta Falcons, a bye was actually the best thing that could have happened to the New Orleans Saints.
The team has a few big-time injuries which need to be healed—most notably Jonathan Vilma and Patrick Robinson—and some bumps and bruises which will be greatly aided by the week off.
But more than the injuries, the bye week gives the coaches some extra time to self-scout in hopes of figuring out the team's deficiencies in five key areas.
Over the course of this week Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and the rest of the staff need to fix these problems in order for the Saints to improve and become the championship-caliber team we all believe they can be.
Through 10 games, Pierre Thomas has run the ball 72 times—again, just 72 times. He's gained 340 yards—the exact same number as Mark Ingram on 21 fewer carries. Thomas' per carry average is a more than respectable 4.7.
Then there's Darren Sproles who has 348 yards on 51 carries—a 6.8 yards per carry average. Add in Chris Ivory's rather small contribution and you have 237 attempts among Saints tailbacks. In 10 games, that averages out to just 23.7 rushing attempts per game.
The total rushing yards for the four backs is 1,149 yards. That yard per carry average is roughly 4.9.
If a running game could average that and just ran the ball 30 times, the team would average nearly 150 yards per game. And if it were doing that, the defense wouldn't be on the field so much and the offensive balance would be greater than any the Saints have ever known under Sean Payton.
But let's assume a more reasonable increase in the number of attempts to 26 per game. The total yards to expect would be just 130. Knowing that Drew Brees is likely going to throw for 300 yards or more each game, you're looking at 430 total yards of offense per game.
That's starting to get into Green Bay Packer territory. And that's who the Saints are chasing.
Getting away from the statistics, a more run-heavy attitude would aid the Saints in being the aggressor and intimidating the opponent—something which will be crucial down the stretch. And if the Saints are forced to play in a cold-weather playoff game it would obviously help them a lot in that scenario.
Twenty-one sacks through 10 games is not horrible. But considering how often Gregg Williams blitzes and how much pressure the Saints do tend to create on the quarterback, 21 sacks is suddenly not such an impressive number.
There are generally two solutions to creating effective defensive pressure. One is changing the types of pressures. For much of this season the Saints have employed "double A-gap blitzes."
This is a smart blitz as it maintains outside leverage and gets bodies heading straight for the QB. The other primary blitz is an outside blitz with either Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins, or occasionally both.
For the remainder of the season I suggest Williams employ a zone blitz-taking advantage of the tremendous athleticism of defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Will Smith. This should help eliminate the big pass play and will cause the QB to either force throws or simply not have time to release the football.
The second strategy for increasing the pass rush is to focus on matchups. In other words, Williams needs to find ways to get his best pass-rusher, Smith, matched up against the opposition's worst pass protector.
Sometimes this may lead to an overhaul in the defensive alignment which can be dangerous, but due to the amount of schematic strategic scouting that is done through 10 weeks of an NFL season, the alignment differences could actually work to the Saints' advantage.
Of course, the greatest issue is not so much getting to the QB as to get to him quicker and then to actually tackle him. For that reason all defensive pressures must keep in mind outside leverage to keep the quarterback in the pocket. Then once the rushers get there, they must wrap up.
If they do not wrap up, none of the schematic differences—or additions—will mean a thing.
The Falcons certainly made the Saints defense look horrible on that final drive when Matt Ryan hit Harry Douglas not once, but twice over the middle for 20-plus-yard completions.
But it wasn't only that play. Ryan and Douglas hooked up on a similar play in the first half as well. And throughout the season, opposing offenses have exposed the Saints "down the middle."
Part of this is due to the Saints playing a lot of two-high coverage with their safeties. In that coverage, the middle of the field is the most susceptible area of the defense. Considering the offense normally hits these big throws on third down, the zone blitz mentioned above is one possible solution, as is playing Cover One or Cover Three.
All of those defenses are stronger against those types of throws than a two-high safety look. Then again so is a Cover Four look which has four defenders playing quarters coverage, designed to keep receivers in front of them.
In any typical zone coverage the linebackers would fly to the flat, still leaving the intermediate throw open. To counter, the Saints linebacker or nickel should play the slot man-to-man with the quarters or look or the deep high safety. With good angles and wrap-up tackling, even a short completion should not result in a big play.
Whether it's shoddy tackling—as seen in the picture against Jason Snelling—or a corner getting beat by a back-shoulder fade, the Saints have really struggled defensively in the red zone.
Neither is the product of a scheme issue. Technique, maybe. The players need to be more disciplined in the red zone, as the red zone is the one time where angles and space greatly favors the defense.
Taking the proper angles and wrapping up would be a great start to shoring up the red zone deficiencies. Apart from that, Gregg Williams can try different personnel, hoping a different group of players may yield better results.
A minus-five turnover ratio is hardly anything to write home to mom about. It is true that the ratio would be closer to zero if the Saints defenders hadn't dropped so many interceptions.
But the negative aspect obviously speaks to Drew Brees and Co. not holding onto the football as well as they should.
Of course, it seems butterfingers just run in the Saints family, as many of Brees' interceptions came off tipped passes by the receivers. So the primary way to get over the turnover bug is to snag the football and hold onto it.
Then to get that ratio into positive numbers, the Saints need to follow my advice in the previous three slides.
Get to the QB, which will automatically cause for a few fumbles or bad throws. Covering the middle of the field too will cause the QB to make some ill-advised throws and/or some of those tipped ball interceptions that every other team seems to have little trouble getting on fairly regular basis.
And obviously getting an occasional turnover in the red zone will significantly aid the red zone numbers. It is also possible the Saints could get turnovers by stopping the offense on four downs.