BOSTON (CBS) – Sean Payton is no different than other play callers in the NFL. Each week he overlooks a 100-yard-by-53-yard proving ground for his game plan, with an eye on exploiting even the tiniest bit of space left exposed by the opposition.
Unlike most of his counterparts, Payton possesses both the acumen for and means of taking almost everything — almost everywhere — a defense gives his New Orleans Saints.
“Sean obviously has a very aggressive play-calling approach,” says New England’s Bill Belichick, who’s been plotting with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia this week to stop those very Saints this Sunday at Gillette Stadium. “I think he just does a good job of keeping the defense off balance and he attacks really every square inch on the field, from the middle of the field to the sideline to the back end line.
“So you have a lot to defend with Sean’s offense, and he has the personnel and scheme and capability to attack everywhere.”
Since 2006, when Payton was hired as head coach and Drew Brees was signed to be his quarterback, New Orleans has featured one of the game’s most prolific offenses. In fact, only the Patriots (29.9 points per game) have scored more than the Saints (28.1 ppg) during that span.
Naturally, preparation for New Orleans starts with Brees. It doesn’t stop until every option is accounted for; from Marques Colston over the top, to Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas underneath, to Jimmy Graham anywhere in between.
Brees threw for 4,000-plus yards each of his first seven years as a Saint, including a record three seasons of more than 5,000 passing yards. He started this season, his eighth year in New Orleans, by extending a string of 300-yard performances. It reached nine straight games until being stopped last Sunday by the Bears.
Still, Brees continued a more important streak, leading the Saints to a season-opening fifth consecutive win by a 26-18 final. Owner of the third-best accuracy rate in NFL history (.657), he completed 29-of-35 passes in Chicago for 288 yards, two touchdowns and a 120.0 quarterback rating.
He was characteristically precise. And, as Payton told the New Orleans media, especially patient.
“(Chicago) was the first team we played in a while this year where we received a lot of spot-drop zone, which meant that we were going to be patient with the football,” Payton explained. “I thought we were. I thought when we threw the ball underneath, I thought the runners or receivers who caught it (and) secured it, advanced it. So (on) a simple check-down maybe that you think you are going to get four yards from, you (get) six yards.”
Colston, a wide receiver with 59 career TD’s — all from Brees — and 63 catches in excess of 25 yards, caught just two passes.
Meanwhile, Brees targeted running backs Sproles, Thomas and Jed Collins 17 times, leading to a combined 16 receptions. Thomas had nine of them for 55 yards, including two scores.
TALE OF THE TAPE: Patriots vs. Saints
As for the tight end Graham, he did what he usually does: work every angle, in and out, up and down, en route to the century mark. In all, he netted 135 yards off 10 catches. It was his fourth straight 100-yard receiving day, tying the NFL record he already shared (from 2011) with Tony Gonzalez (2000).
“Graham’s a very good receiving tight end,” Belichick said. “They split him out, they keep him kind of in the traditional tight end positions, but he’s got a big route tree. (He’s a) vertical receiver that can get down the field, but he’s also got good quickness in the intermediate areas, (and is) tough to handle on third down.”
“The running backs do a great job in the passing game of getting out into space both with Sproles and Thomas,” added Patricia. “You know, out quickly into routes. They’ll line them up in different formations, remove them from the backfield and really allow them to take advantage of the particular matchup or the amount of area that they will have out in the field to work a particular route combination that they have established for them. They do a great job with that.”
As much as the Saints do, with as many different players and personnel groups, it’s hard to outwit Payton. Especially because of the savvy Brees.
“You have to be careful about trying to do too much with (Brees),” Belichick cautions. “A lot of times you have to show what you’re in, in order to match up against their different looks because they create a lot of different formationing.
“You have to be ready to play when the ball is snapped because he does a very good job of, when the defense (misses) somebody, he finds them. They get a bunch of plays every week on, I would say, defensive mistakes or alignment errors that he recognizes and just gets the ball to whoever it is, and then you’re chasing him. That’s a big challenge.”
THE PERFECT COMPLEMENT
There had to be times last year when Payton, who wasn’t allowed to see the Saints in person while serving his ‘Bountygate’ suspension, couldn’t be far enough away from the New Orleans defense.
En route to a 7-9 finish, the Saints made dubious history by allowing a league-record 7,042 yards. Thirty-six times they were burned by plays covering 30 or more yards.
Shortly after being reinstated, Payton hired Rob Ryan to replace Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. Despite Ryan’s long gray mane, in contrast to that of his closely-cropped boss, he seems like Payton’s kindred spirit along the sideline.
“(Ryan) definitely understands personnel, game planning and situational football, so a lot of the things that he does are very specific to the individual game or situation on that particular play, which could change from week to week,” says Belichick, who employed Ryan as Patriots’ linebackers coach from 2000-03. “There’s definitely a level of unpredictability and aggressiveness in his overall system and play calling and style as well.”
Under Ryan, who’s coordinated units for four different teams since leaving New England, the Saints are tied for 11th in total defense. After surrendering 440.1 yards a contest in 2012, New Orleans is yielding 330.4 yards per game this season.
The Saints also have 11 takeaways — only four teams have more — and 15 sacks. They’ve gotten them in different ways.
“You just can’t count on (them) to blitz every play, because that’s not going to happen,” says Belichick. “There are times when they’ll three-man rush, there are times when they’ll send the house, and things in between.”
THREE AND OUT
- The Saints and Patriots rank 29th and 31st, respectively, in red zone offense. They have combined to score 14 TD, compared to 16 field goals, on 36 overall drives inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Most alarmingly, New England has reached the end zone in just 2-of-9 “goal-to-go” opportunities (including one ‘kneel-down’ at the end a win over New York).
- It’s well known that the Saints are perfectly suited to the consistently ‘true’ conditions of their indoor home, The Superdome. But under Payton, and being led by Brees, they’re also adaptable to the outdoors. Since 2006, New Orleans is 35-23 on the road in the regular season. Only New England, at 44-15 away from Foxborough, has been better.
- Among the many factors in last Sunday’s 13-6 loss to Cincinnati were the Patriots’ poor field position early and lack of possession late. Each of New England’s first four series began inside the 15-yard line, contributing to a difficult start. For a large chunk of the second half, the offense had no chance to get going. That’s because the Bengals totaled 27 plays and 10 first downs to consume more than 14 minutes on back-to-back scoring drives.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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