As a number of NFL squads shift their offensive focus toward the establishment of an effective ground game, the 8-2 New Orleans Saints are sticking to their guns, and they continue to show the rest of the league how a perfectly balanced passing attack is executed.
Balance in the passing game is often difficult to achieve, but the Saints have laid out the blueprint week in and week out since the 2006 arrival of head coach Sean Payton, along with quarterback Drew Brees.
A fully balanced air attack depends on the utilization of the entire playing field, as the ball is distributed in equal opportunity fashion to a host of capable receivers. New Orleans does this as well as any team in the league.
Since 2006, Brees leads the NFL in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdown passes. A breakdown of the balanced Saints passing game reveals the following key ingredients on full display.
The Offense Itself
As a disciple of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, Sean Payton worked his way up the NFL coaching ranks alongside the likes of Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan.
The traditional West Coast offense features quick, high percentage, horizontal passes.
In the Saints offense, the familiar slants and short-out routes that helped turn the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young into household names are still intact, but Payton has sprinkled some of his own personal tweaks into Walsh's original model. Chief among these additions is an aggressive, vertical passing game.
Numerous modern offenses purport to utilize "every inch of the field," but Payton's offense comes closer than most to actually accomplishing this.
His steady exertion of pressure on opposing safeties gives Payton's version of the West Coast an even greater degree of balance than Walsh's original.
Another big distinction in Payton's version is that his running backs and tight ends are more heavily involved in the downfield passing game.
Payton's passing tree is heavy on go routes and slants from the wide receivers. Tight end Jimmy Graham often runs these routes as well.
Meanwhile, the other tight ends usually run a strong dose of outs (deep and short) and comebacks. What makes Payton's offense unique, though, is the fact that his running backs typically run many of the same routes as wide receivers and tight ends.
As a point of reference, take explosive all-purpose back Darren Sproles.
His route tree includes much more than the standard screens and flares often seen from a running back. Sproles runs vertical routes, mid-range crossing routes and out patterns. This helps give the Saints real balance in their passing game and it helps them utilize the entire field with all of their receivers. Of course, Sproles can also run the football.
In this screenshot, the Saints line up in a basic four-wide shotgun formation. Sproles is in the backfield, but it's almost as if he's a fifth wide receiver. There are no limits as to what route he may run. On this play, the Saints catch the Cowboys napping, as Sproles slips out of the backfield and scores on a screen pass from 28 yards out.
In Payton's offense, any eligible pass receiver can run any route at any time. This doesn't exactly make for an easy week in the film room when preparing to face the Saints.
If play-calling is an art, then Sean Payton is the NFL's version of a maestro at work.
Since his arrival, he's built a reputation as one of the game's great play-callers. His genius is largely based on his ability to recognize and exploit personnel mismatches in the passing game.
Payton's first order of business is often to spread the opposing linebackers out with quick outs to Graham or wide receiver Lance Moore. Then, after sprinkling in a few quick slants and dives to bring up the safeties, Payton will call for the knockout blow with a deep ball off play-action.
Of course, play-calling can occasionally serve as Payton's Achilles' heel. Some Saints fans bemoan that he somehow holds a deep-rooted disdain for calling traditional running plays in crucial short-yardage situations. From time to time, reverses and play-action bootlegs have been known to rear their ugly heads in these scenarios.
By and large, however, Payton's play-calling sets him apart.
When Brees and the offense are churning down the field with a head of steam, they often bear resemblance to a French Quarter brass band harmoniously marching down the street, with each member adding in his own distinct contribution to the whole.
A common misconception about Drew Brees is that he's the product of the system. He's actually one of the few NFL quarterbacks that possess all the attributes required to run such a complex offense. In other words, he gets the absolute maximum out of the system.
Brees excels at making the correct pre-snap reads, and he's also adept at going through his progressions quickly once the ball is snapped.
He rhythmically spreads the ball around, sometimes feeding more than 10 different receivers in a single game. Perhaps more than anything else mentioned thus far, this demonstrates true balance in a passing offense.
Brees also has quite the knack for finding the open man, even when under duress, and he's well versed in the most detailed intricacies of Payton's offense.
In addition, he's patient enough to embrace the dink-and-dunk approach of the West Coast offense, but like his head coach, he relishes the opportunity to go downfield for the kill shot.
In summation, Brees has all the desirable attributes of an NFL quarterback. Sure, he occasionally makes some head-scratching decisions, and he's experienced some uncharacteristically bad outings from an accuracy standpoint.
Most importantly, though, Brees is not afraid of failure. Beneath the surface, he harbors a gunslinger mentality that sometimes can't be suppressed, as seen in the video here. His willingness to take chances vertically helps the Saints stretch the field and achieve balance in their prolific passing attack.
Ability to Run
Many NFL offenses constantly strive for balance between the run and pass. The Saints, meanwhile, achieve balance within the passing game by mixing in screens and short out routes. These pass plays often force the same reactions from defenses that a strong rushing attack would.
That being said, when the running game is rolling, the Saints passing offense instantly goes from merely effective to unstoppable. In fact, the 2009 and 2011 Saints teams, which finished with 13-3 regular-season records, both ranked in the top six in the NFL in rushing.
Without Payton, the Saints' running game was nowhere to be found last season. This spilled over into the first half of this season and came to a head in the their loss to the Jets, when they ran 51 pass plays against only 13 called runs.
In the last two weeks, however, Payton has demonstrated, at the very least, a short-term commitment to establishing a true downfield running game. In the win over Dallas, New Orleans unleashed the oft-injured Mark Ingram, who pounded the Cowboys for 145 yards, and last week against the 49ers, Payton called on fullback Jed Collins as a ball-carrier in a goal-line situation.
The last two contests have demonstrated that despite an average offensive line, the Saints can run the football. It's simply a matter of whether Sean Payton is willing to do it. A potent running game clearly makes the Saints' passing offense much more lethal and balanced.
Ability to Pick Up Blitzes
When facing an offensive juggernaut like New Orleans, a natural response from many defensive coordinators is to center their game plan on the pass rush.
With a sometimes shaky offensive line in front of him, Brees often requires solid pass protection from his running backs in order to stay upright. Pierre Thomas possesses adequate skills as a blocker, and if all else fails to slow down the pass rush, Thomas can execute the screen play as well as any back in the league.
When the Saints successfully pick up the blitz, the results are usually not desirable for the defense, as Brees often looks downfield for the home run. When the threat of the deep ball is as real as it is in Payton's offense, defenses are naturally less enthusiastic about sending extra pass-rushers.
The 49ers, for instance, significantly reduced their blitzes last Sunday after Brees burned them with two long strikes to wide receiver Robert Meachem. When opposing safeties back up to stop the long ball, the Saints don't shy away from turning to the traditional horizontal passes of the West Coast offense.
Once again, a perfectly balanced passing attack is in full effect. The New Orleans Saints' ability to utilize the entire field is the primary reason they're balanced in the passing game.
They have a future Hall of Fame quarterback who spreads the ball around to a horde of talented receivers, and he does so with total impartiality.
The Saints' passing offense is the epitome of a perfectly balanced air attack, and its architect—Sean Payton—is steadily carving his place alongside the great offensive innovators in NFL history.