Sean Payton walked off the field after the first game against Tampa Bay feeling relieved and dejected.
His Saints managed to beat Tampa Bay, which was good, but he felt like he called one of the worst games of his career. The type of runs, the timing of things — none of it went together and told the flowing kind of story he likes to tell with his play calling.
Payton figured it out. The game he called during Sunday’s 38-3 win over the Bucs was one of his finest moments as a coach. He was at his creative best, consistently moving and misplacing Tampa Bay defenders to create advantages through formational changes, a variety of personnel groupings and motions.
Watch the opening drive and just imagine being the player on defense responsible for identifying everything the Saints are doing and where players are lining up. Keeping up with the personnel groupings and who is part of them is like facing an all-out blitz, but you have to notice where everyone is lining up.
The Saints line up in the same formation during the first three plays but use different personnel each time to paint the picture. On the first play, a 6-yard pass to Alvin Kamara, New Orleans is in a 2×2 formation with two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver on the field. On the next play, an 8-yard pass to Michael Thomas, the team uses three receivers, one running back and one tight end. On the third one, an 11-yard pass to Josh Hill, three tight ends are on the field.
Now that all of those looks have been shown and Tampa Bay knows that nothing is as it seems and this team has several versatile players, Payton starts showing the shapeshifters.
In what was one of the more subtly brilliant moments of the early game, Deonte Harris lined up wide in a 3×1 set with three receivers and went in motion deep into the backfield coming out the other side almost as if he were the second running back flanking Drew Brees. No one followed Harris, a tell that this was a zone coverage, which meant the linebacker on that side of the field would vacate his zone to cover the receiver. The other wide receiver on that side of the field, Marquez Callaway, ran a quick curl to fill the vacated area for a gain of 6.
The Saints put two running backs in the backfield and ran for a gain of 1 on the next play, then returned to the 2×2 formations on the next one with Taysom Hill at quarterback. The Bucs were cheating in, playing what looked like a Cover 0 defense with no one deep. The Saints exploited that by running one of their staple plays – 52 All- Go Special X Shallow Cross – for a 19-yard gain.
New Orleans ran this play six times last year, six times in 2018 and three times in 2017 from empty formations, but there are many other variations and looks of this passing concept that show up throughout the offense. The difference is that Brees is usually at quarterback. Had Tampa Bay played it honestly, the vertical routes would have misplaced members of the defense and created advantages for Hill in the running game (this passing concept comes up again later in the game).
Next play: Six offensive linemen take the field and Kamara runs the ball for no gain after Cesar Ruiz falls and misses a block. The Saints show an empty look next with two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver on the field. New Orleans got Kamara in space in the flat after defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul slipped trying to drop into a zone, but the defensive end jumped up just in time to get his hands on it.
Payton got deep into his bag of tricks on the scoring play. The offense came out with two quarterbacks, two running backs and two wide receivers. The Saints started with two running backs flanking Brees until Kamara motioned out wide to turn the look into a 3×1 set. Tampa Bay’s cornerback on that side of the field responded by moving out to pick up Kamara, but no one filled his zone, leaving Tre’Quan Smith uncovered on a vertical route. The decoy worked, and Smith scored a 14-yard touchdown.
Payton spoke earlier this year about how all of these different personnel packages get used to speed things up and keep a defense off balance. Seeing how New Orleans operated on Sunday, its fair to say the Bucs never got their footing. With so many players moving around and lining up different places, it is hard to keep track of who is on the field, let alone where they’re lining up.
The Saints used 18 different personnel groupings on offense during this game – a season-high – but that is only scratching the surface. When players like Harris, Kamara and Taysom Hill can line up anywhere and play multiple positions, identifying the players by position only go so far. Now that everyone is back and healthy on offense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Payton get even more creative with some of the things Harris can do.
Here’s the scary part of all of this: This offense is just starting to hit its stride.
TAYSOM PLAYS: The way the Saints used Taysom Hill in this game was close to as perfect as it gets. When Hill is involved in all aspect of the game, he’s a matchup nightmare who creates opportunities for himself and his teammates by stretching the defense.
New Orleans has continually worked Hill into the offensive game plan more and more, and the results are showing for themselves. He threw a pass for 19 yards, ran seven times for 54 yards and had a 21-yard reception.
The best part about the reception is that it looked a lot like “52 All Go Special X Shallow Cross.” The one difference is that one of the vertical routes curled in as it got deep, but that might have been an adjustment to the zone coverage.
As we’ve mentioned before, being able to throw some passes will open things up in the running game for Hill since defenses won’t be able to cheat up as much, and that happened on his subsequent plays after he threw that pass on the opening drive.
Tampa Bay kept a deep safety on the subsequent plays with Hill under center, which helped him take advantage, especially on a 23-yard run where the quarterback had all kinds of green space in front of him before hurdling the deep safety inside the 5-yard line.
INTERIOR LINE: If the Saints had a rotation at right guard, then they had a rotation and Ruiz was coming out of the game at some point no matter what. But there were a few plays early in the game that would have been reason to pull him from the game.
On the opening drive, he missed a block on the pass to Josh Hill that caused Brees to flee the pocket. Then, in the red zone, he fell and missed a block that led to Kamara getting stuffed.
Ruiz never really settled into a groove. He had a tough time against Ndamukong Suh, which is understandable, and often looked like he was just surviving. This is a tough year to be a rookie player, but especially so for someone who missed 20 days of training camp and is now playing a new position.
Ruiz blocked Suh 10 times and gave up two pressures, and he surrendered two more to William Gholston on two snaps. Gholston also did a good job against Erik McCoy, beating him twice for pressure on four matchups. The interior line as a whole had a tough game in this one, except for Nick Easton, who only gave up one pressure.
Ruiz is a first-round pick, and that comes with expectations, especially for a team that has drafted so well on the offensive line the last few years. Drawing hard conclusions on any rookie this early in their career needs to be avoided, but especially so under these circumstances.
PHYSICAL APPROACH: New Orleans did not use very many zone coverages against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, instead opting to use heavy doses of plays with man concepts built in. The primary coverage in this game was Quarters, against which Brady connected on 9-of-11 passes for 98 yards.
The Tampa quarterback’s numbers on those plays illustrate a decent amount of success, but he was forced to checkdown a couple of times and threw an interception to Marcus Williams. The pick was a bizarre play for the offense. Brady was targeting Antonio Brown up the sideline, but the wide receiver sat for a curl while Brady threw up the sideline. Even if Brown had run the right route, he was well covered by Marshon Lattimore and Williams was lurking.
The Saints also bracketed the slot with a deep safety on maybe four or five plays, a necessary layer of protection against such explosive playmakers. Not much straight zone in this game, but a lot of two-safety splits.
The most encouraging thing about the performance was how organized the defense looked. The team has blown some Quarters plays this season. Those mistakes were not present on Sunday.
The cornerbacks also held up extremely well. Janoris Jenkins surrendered three catches for 33 yards, Lattimore gave up two for 25, and Gardner-Johnson surrendered four for 46. The addition of Malcolm Jenkins, who has played well against tight ends, is starting to pay dividends, too.
I say this without a hint of hyperbole. Lattimore would be a potential Hall-of-Fame talent if he played as well as he did against the Bucs every week. His performance was incredible.
DEFENSIVE LINE SMOKE: The defensive line was on fire in this one. David Onyemata was incredible throughout and dominated the Tampa Bay interior offensive line, racking up close to 10 pressures. Trey Hendrickson was also very active (nine pressures), while Marcus Davenport (four) and Cam Jordan (four) made their presence felt.
The Saints took things pretty straight forward in this game. The four-man rush was getting home, and there wasn’t a big need to get overly fancy and create vulnerabilities. The Saints ran some stunts and had success with them. Backup guard Joe Haeg was a consistent victim of these plays, allowing four pressures following a stunt.
Onyemata got a quarterback hit off of one on a deep pass that fell incomplete. One of Hendrickson’s sacks came on one of those plays, though it is quite possible Jordan reached Brady first. Malcom Brown got a sack while rushing behind a stunt. Not sure if his part of it was by design, but it worked.
The Saints once again dominated against Donovan Smith. He was the weak link in Week 1, too. Hendrickson picked up five pressures against him, and Marcus Davenport had two.
One of the biggest keys to victory this week was creating pressure with the four-man front. New Orleans did that, and has started to do so on a weekly basis. The consistency still isn’t there, and Jordan isn’t producing at his usual level even if he is still creating things for other players. So, there is still room for growth, but things are getting better.
Drew Brees’ performance deserves an extensive breakdown on its own. He was locked in, dealing and hitting throws like he should be hitting them. In other words, he looked like Brees, which should be unremarkable at this point because it is expected. I think he’s only going to get better as the season goes on. His throw to Adam Trautman for a touchdown was incredible. Only one deep pass attempted by Brees in this game but I bet no one mentions it. … I’m still a little iffy on the offensive line. I think they’ll round into shape, but Terron Armstead has been the only consistent member of the group. Andrus Peat is also starting to round into shape and deserves to be highlighted for playing well. … Will be interesting to see how Kwon Alexander blends into this group. Demario Davis is the only linebacker who makes you take notice of his performance. The rest of them have blended in. … Bruce Arians claims that Mike Evans was open throughout the game. I checked his 29 snaps. He wasn’t open. … The screen game wasn’t working well in this game, but it was important to keep showing it to make Tampa Bay respect the flats. It widened the field and opened other things up.