By Dan Durkin
(CBS) Just a year ago, the Saints were in a self-induced tailspin, stumbling like an over-served tourist on Bourbon Street.
They abruptly went from America’s defy-all-odds Super Bowl darlings to a group of bounty-crazed bandits. The fleur de lis was tarnished, and the team was 0-4.
“Bountygate” was an unprecedented event for the NFL league office. Already accused of being willfully ignorant to the harmful effects of the violent collisions its sport creates, the decision makers on Park Avenue had no choice but to respond harshly in the name of player safety.
The discipline was swift and severe. Player suspensions, forfeiture of draft picks, a $500,000 fine, a six-game ban for assistant coach Joe Vitt, an eight-game ban for general manager Mickey Loomis, an indefinite suspension for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and a one-year suspension of head coach Sean Payton.
The last on that list was the back breaker. Payton was forced to detach himself from the contender he built and watch them flounder. But what a difference a year makes. The Saints are 4-0 and look like a Super Bowl contender.
Quarterback Drew Brees is an elite performer and a coach on the field, but undoubtedly, Payton is the Saints leader. This partnership started in 2006 when Payton – a first time head coach – took a $60M gamble on Brees. In the final game of the previous season, Brees suffered a 360-degree tear of his right rotator cuff. Eight years and a Super Bowl trophy later, the move has certainly paid off.
Brees overcomes physical shortcomings with deft footwork, keen pocket presence, a mastery of the playbook, and rapid-yet-precise pre-snap reads. On some plays, Brees will make all five of his reads, forcing a defense to defend every receiver and area on the field.
Together, Brees’ flawless execution and Payton’s game-day prowess has produced an offensive juggernaut. Payton’s a master of deception who creates conflict by deploying a variety of personnel groupings and formations to scheme advantageous matchups.
The NFL’s most successful passing attacks have three legitimate options to work with, as short of sacrificing its pass rush, a defense can’t double team all of them. Brees’s top three targets are tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Marques Colston, and running back Darren Sproles.
Graham and Sproles are the most difficult matchups in the NFL at their respective positions. At 6’7, 260 pounds, Graham is too fast for linebackers and too big for cornerbacks or safeties. A former college basketball player, he’s skilled at boxing out defenders to win jump-ball situations.
In the red zone, Graham is nearly impossible to defend. He frequently lines up as the single receiver in a 3×1 alignment to get single coverage, typically against a safety. Play him with outside leverage, he’ll beat you on the slant (ask Patrick Peterson). Play him with inside leverage, he’ll beat you on the fade (ask Yeremiah Bell).
Payton has shown a preference for running backs who are receiving threats and dangerous in space. First it was Reggie Bush, now it’s quick-as-a-hiccup Darren Sproles. With defenses concerned about getting beat deep, they tend to sit back in two-deep shells. This creates voids and creases underneath and on the perimeter for Sproles to quickly navigate on screens, flares, and draw plays.
Colston doesn’t possess blazing speed or quick-twitch suddenness, but for an angular athlete, he’s a skilled route runner with a wide catching radius. He works best out of the slot, where his size can be utilized in between the numbers. Rookie burner Kenny Stills, zone-killer Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, and Nick Toon are also targets in Brees’ arsenal.
The Saints aren’t without flaw. Their running game has yet to get on track, which is a combination of poor interior blocking and a back yet to distinguish himself. This has forced the Saints to become a spread attack, which limits Payton’s play-calling options. A big part of their attack is throwing out of tight formations, but without a running attack, they can’t keep defenses honest.
A stalled running game will also affect them on the road. The Saints are virtually unstoppable in the controlled conditions of the Super Dome. But a high-volume passing attack in a hostile outdoor environment will falter on days where protection is an issue.
The best formula for a defense to have a chance against the Saints is to play Cover-2 Man and Zone. Trust your team’s ability to stop the run with seven, and get pressure on the quarterback with four – blitzing Brees is a bad plan.
One aspect of his team Payton was certainly stewing about during his absence was the defense. In 2012, they were a record-setting unit. In a bad way. They allowed an almost unfathomable 7,042 yards. Consequently, Payton jettisoned Steve Spagnuolo for Rob Ryan.
Hiring Ryan made sense. After bottoming out, they needed to be reinvigorated and the gregarious Ryan is a great match. Play with an edge, rally to the ball, tighten up in the red zone, and force turnovers. With the offense able to build an early lead, opponents are forced to play catch up, which plays right into Ryan’s hands.
Ryan’s roots are in a 3-4 base, but the Saints have endured a litany of injuries early on, forcing him to get creative with how he gets his best 11 defenders on the field. Seven starters have missed games this season, three of which – linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler, and cornerback Patrick Robinson – have been lost for the season.
So far, Ryan’s most successful combination has been a nickel package in a 4-2-5 alignment with three safeties on the field. But Ryan’s hybrid scheme has also shown a 2-4-5 and a 3-3-5 mixed in with traditional 4-3 and 3-4 looks.
Historically, Ryan likes to play nickel and bring pressure from his back seven, but so far, he hasn’t had to. The biggest reason for the Saints defensive turnaround has been the emerging talent on their young defensive line. Cam Jordan and Junior Galette are dominating singles off the edge. Jordan – a former first round pick – has been one of the most productive pass rushers in the league.
On the interior, the Saints have two space-eating two-gappers in Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins. Jenkins is a rookie from Georgia, who projects as the future anchor 0-technique. Hicks originally committed to LSU, but was declared ineligible for receiving improper benefits, so he landed at the University of Regina in Canada. Hicks has surprisingly light feet and a massive frame with long arms, and is versatile to play any technique on the line.
At inside linebacker, Curtis Lofton is an every down player and a reliable run defender, as is David Hawthorne. The Saints are near the bottom in the league in yards per attempt, but they’ve held two opponents to under 90 yards.
Given their woes in the secondary in 2012, the Saints made a strong push to improve the talent level. They signed cornerback Keenan Lewis (Pittsburgh) and spent their first round pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro (Texas).
Vaccaro’s versatility has paid immediate dividends. He’s seen time at linebacker and deep safety, but is making the biggest impact as a nickel corner. While he’s been misaligned at time and had lapses – common rookie mistakes – Vaccaro had a hand in the play of the year so far. Vaccaro tipped a pass intended for Tony Gonzalez in the end zone that ended up being intercepted by Roman Harper, preserving a Week 1 win against the Falcons.
In order to beat the Saints, an opponent must establish their ground game, which can be done against this group. In doing so, it would force personnel changes by Ryan to get more box defenders, and in turn keep the Saints offense on the sideline. The Saints are a different team on the road, but they’re brimming with confidence right now. With an offense that seemingly scores at will, they should be.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin