New Orleans Saints
Let’s get the rookies out of the way and have some fun with Drew Brees. The Saints' offense is designed to use their stellar personnel in unexpected ways. Coach Sean Payton creates formations and route combinations that isolate backs, tight ends, and receivers against defenders who have no chance of covering them. The emergence of Jimmy Graham has given Payton even more mismatch possibilities. Graham is deadly as a pass target, but he can be just as dangerous as a decoy for a team that can overwhelm any opponent with skill position talent.
In a normal offense, fast receivers run deep clearing routes to make space for slower tight ends underneath. Fast tight ends often gallop up the seam to create space, but the effect is often limited. When Graham runs the seam, he takes Grant and Phillips with him. Devery Henderson (19), meanwhile, runs a deep crossing route. The Saints sell the play-action well on this play (making Meacham chip block the defensive end is an inspired touch), and when Brees finally looks to Henderson, he sees an ugly sight for Giants fans -- faked-out linebackers desperately trying to drop into their zones against one of the fastest receivers in the league.
Besides the Graham seamer wrinkle, there is another key difference between this play and the last two passes. Brees has multiple options on this play, and he helps Henderson get open by focusing on Graham until he is ready to throw. Grant and Phillips are both experienced, and they know that a seamer often comes in combination with a crossing route. With Brees staring down Graham, however, they have no choice to keep chasing the tight end. Running back Mark Ingram is also wide open in the flat, and don’t think for a second that Brees does not know it. But the pass to Henderson yields a 21-yard gain and sets up a touchdown.
One final thought about this play: it gives Brees multiple passing targets, yet it still provides six-man protection, with a fullback available to block defenders up the middle (if you count Meacham’s chip, there are seven pass protectors). Protection is always an issue against the Lions, as we will see in our final play, but players like Graham allow Brees to have the best of both worlds.
The Lions have so much depth and talent on their front four that they rarely have to blitz to apply pass pressure. Instead, Jim Schwartz and his staff can concentrate on using four-man fronts to create confusion and disrupt protection schemes while protecting his linebackers and defensive backs in coverage. When facing pass rushers like Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, every tiny wrinkle can cause a huge headache for the offense.
At the snap, Fairley and Hill run a stunt. Fairley slices to his right to draw a double team while Hill loops behind him. The stunt keeps the right guard from turning to help with Avril, and it compensates for the obvious weakness of this formation -- had the Packers run the ball through the huge gap between Fairley and Avril, Hill could close the hole. With three defenders to their left, the Packers assign a running back to chip Vanden Bosch. That leaves Avril alone in space against a much slower right tackle, a major mismatch that leads to a sack and a fumble.
While their linemen stunt, the Lions' linebackers and secondary are in man coverage against the dangerous Packers receiving corps. That’s typically a bad idea, but because the Lions do not have to blitz, they can spare two defenders to occupy zones. The deep safety has little impact on this play, but linebacker Stephen Tulloch (55) has an important task: he takes away the threat of a short pass to tight end Jermichael Finley, allowing the safety assigned to Finley to play deep. Tulloch and the safety provide insurance against big plays while the front four goes on a seek-and-destroy mission.
This is truly a signature Lions play because it ended with Fairley using the post-fumble confusion as an excuse to grab Aaron Rodgers and fling him to the turf. Fairley was filling in for Suh, who was already kicked out of the game. Extracurricular activities are part of the reality of facing the Lions; you want to keep those defensive lineman away from your quarterback until well after the whistle.
The Saints will be able to complete some passes against the Lions, but a few sacks – and a lot of intimidation – can go a long way in a game that could turn into a shootout.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.
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