One of Sean Payton’s other favorite plays should have been instantly recognizable.
The Saints use the route combination on the right side of the drawing quite often, and it shows up as often as anything else the Saints run. So, when Payton posted the image after jumping into a Twitter conversation asking coaches to share their favorite plays from empty sets, it made sense that one containing this combination became part of the discussion.
A couple of weeks ago, we jumped into the film to find all instances of the play Payton dubbed his favorite, “52 All Go Special X Shallow Cross,” it is time to do the same with “352 Y Shock X Lucy.” To better understand why the coach likes this one so much, we took a look at every play from the last two seasons to see how the Saints use it.
After going through the tape, I was able to locate 12 instances (both how it is drawn and flipped horizontally) of New Orleans running the play out of empty sets, which is double the number of times we saw “52 All Go Special X Shallow Cross.”
One of the reasons for this might be that there were a few more variables included in this play and varying route depths. During one instance against the Rams, tight end Josh Hill ran the out route (labeled “Y” in the top image) that is usually a moderate distance down the field into the shallow flat (below). There were also several occurrences where that route looked more like a curl with everything else around it staying the same. The plays seemed too similar to siphon these examples out.
The Saints were 7-for-9 for 70 yards when running this play last year. Michael Thomas, who lined up as the “X” on this play, was targeted seven times. Drew Brees and Dan Arnold failed to connect on one attempt when the tight end ran the vertical route from the “Z” position. Jared Cook was targeted once for a gain of 16 yards from the “X” spot. Thomas accounted for the six other receptions.
New Orleans also ran this play 12 times during the 2018 season with a similar level of success. The team completed 9-of-11 attempts for 114 yards with one pass interference call. The highlight moment came when Alvin Kamara beat Malcolm Jenkins up the right sideline on a vertical route for a 37-yard touchdown.
Once again, Thomas was the main target, catching all six passes thrown to him. Kamara had the other three catches. Zach Line and Hill counted for the incompletions.
The fact that Kamara was more involved in the passing attack in 2018 is notable. Last year, he was still running the vertical route on this play, but the ball wasn’t coming his direction. Perhaps when the running back gets healthy, he will start making more plays from receiver positions. He was only targeted 16 times from one of those spots last season after being thrown 34 passes as a rookie and 25 in 2018.
Payton often uses the route combination on the right side of the image (the routes labeled “Y,” “Z” and “F”) from different formations and looks. For instance, during last year’s game against the Titans, the Saints ran the concept three times from different alignments, as well as once from the empty set. Two of the passes from the non-empty looks fell incomplete, but the third, a curl to Thomas, picked up a gain of 7.
After taking a harder look at two of the three plays Payton shared, it’s easy to see why he likes both of these plays so much. They work – almost every time. We’ll take a look at the third one Payton showed soon to see how it compares.
ADDING TO MURRAY VS. QUEEN
I wrote last week about how I would probably take Patrick Queen ahead of Kenneth Murray if forced to choose between the linebackers. I like both guys, and don’t feel overly passionate one way or the other, but Queen feels like a safer prospect to me despite both having some rough edges.
Respected analyst Greg Cosell published his scouting reports on the two players, which reached most of the same conclusions as my own. We both agree on a lot of the main points, but he seems to make less of Murray’s demonstrated coverage ability than me. Otherwise, the two pieces read the same until he concludes that Queen might end up playing only in nickel packages due to his lack of playing strength.
I didn’t reach such a hard conclusion, but it is definitely a possibility. Queen is a smaller guy who needs to bulk up. He almost certainly doesn’t meet the weight requirement for the prototype the Saints have for linebackers, but I don’t see that as a permanent issue. I also don’t think it would be that big of a deal if Queen serves in the nickel package while bulking up and adding around 10 pounds.
It might even be ideal since he would have time to grow into his role, much like New Orleans has done with its strong safeties over the years. Both Murray and Queen might benefit from having some time to develop before replacing Kiko Alonso or Alex Anzalone if they need it.
So, let’s say a player only plays in the nickel package. Last year that guy would have only missed 166 snaps playing for the Saints. And it is probably worth noting New Orleans ranked fourth in run defense despite hardly ever using base looks. In other words, they know how to succeed with a smaller player on the field.
Now, the Saints might play more snaps with three linebackers if they have players as rangy as Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone and Queen available to them. Still, the point is that building a team with the base package in mind is foolish unless you’re like the Seattle Seahawks and try to stay in those fronts.
But New Orleans is not one of those teams. The Saints just signed Malcolm Jenkins with the idea that either he or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will not be playing the base snaps. Looking at things through the prism of your 4-3 base defense is probably the wrong way to do things in 2020.
HALL OF FAME FOR CAM?
Cam Jordan went from being perpetually underrated to being correctly appreciated, and he’s now starting to accumulate the kind of credentials that could put him on a path to the Hall of Fame.
The Saints defensive end recently earned a spot on the all-decade team, an honor reserved for the league’s truly elite players (Drew Brees got snubbed. Drop the stupid flex position and add the all-time leading passer. How many running backs do you need on the team?). Jordan has now made five Pro Bowls and once earned first-team All-Pro honors. Jordan was a second-team All-Pro in 2018 and 2019.
The starting spot for this conversation seems pretty apparent. Jordan has 57 ½ sacks over the last five seasons, which ties him for third alongside Khalil Mack and puts him behind Chandler Jones (72 ½) and Aaron Donald (63). What that means is, Jordan has helped set the bar for pass rushers for half of a decade.
But that is only a start. Jordan currently has 87 sacks, which gives him two more than Osi Umenyiora and two less than former Cardinals and Washington pass rusher Ken Harvey. Both of those guys finished their careers at the age of 33. Jordan is 30. If he can add 36 more sacks over the next three seasons (an average of 12 per season), he would be within the top 20 of the all-time leaders’ list with 123 sacks.
That total would give him one more sack than Simeon Rice, who is not currently in the Hall of Fame. So, he’d be close, but it may not be enough. You’d like to think just getting into the top 15 would do it, but Leslie O’Neal is tied with Lawrence Taylor at No. 14 with 132 ½ sacks and isn’t in. Neither is John Abraham (13th, 133 ½), but he still has a chance. Everyone else above this mark made the Hall of fame.
Considering that Jordan is also outstanding against the run, if he gets somewhere around 125 sacks, he should be well-positioned for admission. The cemented number seems to be somewhere around 135. But the fact that Jordan has become immensely popular and is good with the media (this shouldn’t matter, but it does), he should win if the conversation ends in a push.
The NFL put a gag order on the league after Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told Peter King that the league should postpone the draft. In doing so, it sent out a memo to teams saying that “public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.”
But last week, the NFL’s vice president of football operations Troy Vincent interviewed with CBS and discussed all kinds of issues related to the draft. Things got curious when Vincent called out Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Seahawks general manager John Schneider and Payton for voicing concerns to him in private.
“(C)oach Harbaugh, you’re going to be fine,” Vincent said. “Coach Reid, you’re going to be fine. Coach Payton, you’re going to be just fine. John Schneider, stop it, please! That nice house out there, you’re going to be just fine.”
Seems like a pretty decorated cast of characters voicing concerns, but that’s not the point. It seems a little hypocritical for the league to be calling these people out in public when they’re following orders and voicing concerns in private.
If I were the Saints, I’d feel a little targeted by the league right now. Loomis speaks out, and they’re told to shut up. Payton talks about setting up draft headquarters in a spread-out warehouse, and everyone gets sent home. Now, people are trying to resolve issues in private, as they should, and they get shamed in public.
I’m not trying to go to war for the Saints here. I just think the league is wrong in the way it is handling these issues.
Interesting to see how Brandin Cooks has gotten sent around the league, and he’s on the move again after being traded to Houston last week.
He’s a very talented player, but it seems that his health concerns might be playing a factor in teams shipping around. He hasn’t quite been the same since taking a big hit against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and I’ve heard rumors that he’s suffered at least five concussions throughout his career (Keyword: “rumors.” Don’t aggregate this!).
His run in New Orleans ended about as poorly as possible with him making public declarations about his role during a season in which he was thrown 117 passes. But here’s the thing: Cooks wasn’t really considered a bad guy behind the scenes. Most people found him to be a decent guy who was a little hardheaded but not nearly as difficult as some other people.
There is something going on here.