For the next eight weeks, I will write one column a week regarding different concepts the Saints will use either on offense or in defensive packages in 2009.
Today's version is about the play-action passing game, something the Saints have used very successfully in the past few years and no doubt will do so again this season.
Most football fans have heard that play action passing is built off a good ground attack, and to some extent that is true; however, if that were an absolute stipulation, New Orleans would not be a good play action team, yet they are.
Here are some of the reasons.
1. Play-Calling: Sean Payton knows the appropriate time to use play action, and the appropriate routes to call based on formation and likely coverage.
2. Protection: While the Saints' offensive line may not be the best run-blocking line in the history of football, they do an outstanding job in pass protection. They use the same concepts in the play action game, and as a result have almost as much success.
3. Play Fakes: Drew Brees is among the best in the game at ball-handling. His play fakes with the running backs, as well as pump faking to get a receiver clearance from a defender are huge in making him an elite quarterback. And they help greatly in getting his receivers open.
Schematic Elements in the Play-Action Passing Game
Of course, play action is generally more effective when a team is using a running formation (generally thought be two backs or tight ends, or both). However, teams have tendencies to do certain things out of certain formations.
For New Orleans, a three-receiver set is a wonderful play action package since they will run the ball quite a bit from this personnel grouping. However, a two-back set wouldn't produce quite the same results because New Orleans often gets into these sets to throw the ball.
Overall, the main idea is to keep away from using the same formations or packages to run the same plays. Also, you want to use formations and packages that will give you a personnel advantage, such as a linebacker on a tight end, or wide receiver on a safety.
Most teams at any level of football want to focus their play action pass protection around what they already do in either the running game or the passing game. New Orleans has a tendency to use their pass protection in play action.
This makes sense since they are so effective in pass protection.
Generally, they will also try to anticipate blitzes or overloads, and slide protection to that given side. The back will generally check up the middle, or to the side of the overload.
The idea is that Brees can see him coming from the weak side, and that becomes his guy in the protection scheme. This means if the weak-side rusher comes free, Brees must avoid him or deliver the ball to avoid being brought down.
Generally, teams like to go deep on play action, and New Orleans is no different. In fact, the Saints called more vertical routes last season than any other team in the NFL (and were also the most effective vertical team).
Vertical doesn't always mean the ball is thrown 50 yards down the field, however.
For the Saints it often means having a receiver run underneath the safety on a crossing route, a couple guys running intermediate routes from the outside, and then a speed guy such as Devery Henderson or Robert Meachem run vertical down the seam on a post, seam, or corner.
With all this being said, the Saints are more than able to complete some five yard outs, slants, and hitches off of play action, mainly in short-yardage situations.
They also love to run the quick ball fake flat route to the fullback or tight end on short-yardage situations.
Finally, the bootleg, or naked bootleg (quarterback has nobody blocking in front of him) are effective aspects of the Saints play action package.
In these, the idea is to get Drew Brees on the move, generally one-on-one with a DE where he can use his mobile accuracy to gun the ball to a receiver down the field using half the field. If the defender makes a quick run at Brees, he is able to simply loft the ball over his head to either a fullback or tight end, who then runs for a few yards.
All in all, the play action passing game is one of the most effective elements of the Saints weekly game plan. Expect that to remain a constant in 2009.