Watching New Orleans operate on offense Monday, I got the feeling the only people who could stop the Saints were the Saints themselves.
"You're close," said one head coach who beat them. "You're not going to stop them. What you want to do is slow them down."
Great. So how? I understand that his team did it, but most people don't.
I mean, look at Atlanta this week. When a drive didn't end with a New Orleans turnover it usually didn't end, period. The Saints had nine series that weren't punctuated by interceptions and scored on seven of them.
So how do you defend them? I put that question to our head coach, and here's what he offered:
The Saints are loaded on offense, and I mean every position. Tight end, wide receiver, running back, fullback, you name it. It doesn't matter. All are legitimate pass-catching threats, and the numbers are the evidence: Five of Drew Brees' targets have 47 or more catches, including a team-high 91 by tight end Jimmy Graham, and five have six or more touchdowns.
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"They're different than Green Bay or New England in that every one of these guys can beat you," said our coach. "Everyone has a role in the passing game, and their running backs are really, really good. Heck, the fourth guy [Chris Ivory] could start on some teams."
OK, so they're deep. That's one problem. But the real issue is what coach Sean Payton does with that talent, and I'm talking about moving parts in multiple formations. Everyone is a threat in the passing game, and Payton makes sure he puts them in places where they can and usually do get open.
Look at Brees' record-breaking pass to Darren Sproles vs. Atlanta. The Falcons double-covered Graham and left linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on Sproles. So the Saints ran Sproles out of the backfield on an angle route, and Weatherspoon was toast once the quicker Sproles cut to the inside.
"They spin the Rolodex," one offensive coordinator said.
That's one way of putting it. Another is that they throw so many players, so many formations and so many unfamiliar looks at you that it's mentally exhausting -- not to mention the toll it takes on your team physically. Payton is constantly game-planning with something unforeseen or unexpected to crack his opponent's core defense.
"It's all about formations and players," our coach said, "and it's difficult to adjust."
Oh, yeah, and then there's Drew Brees. The guy is a master of pre-snap reads, someone who is accurate, mobile in the pocket, quick with his release confident, smart and productive. He also has a raft of competent targets and a coach who knows how to create mismatches.
Payton makes the calls; Brees executes them. Result: Brees just broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, and the Saints have the longest winning streak (seven) in the NFL.
The Solution (OK, the response)
Opponents generally can't match the talent the Saints have on offense -- which is another way of saying good luck finding enough defensive backs to cover their receivers. They can beat you with the deep pass; they can beat you with Graham short; they can beat you with a screen to Sproles; and, as Atlanta discovered, they can beat you with the run.
But running the ball isn't New Orleans' strength; passing is, with the Saints the league's top-ranked pass offense.
You can't practice defending their formations because you can't be sure what you're going to see one week to the next. As one coach explained it, where New England is more stationary and might show you two new looks, New Orleans will unveil 10 formations and move players whenever and wherever it can.
So there is bound to be confusion, and tough; that's just the way it is. You can get exasperated, or you can respond ... and our coach responded by dealing the same hand to Payton.
He knew the Saints would move players to positions he didn't anticipate, so he couldn't worry about something he didn't know. Instead, he decided to play the same game with New Orleans -- putting his defenders in positions Payton and Brees didn't anticipate or hadn't studied on videotape.
The idea, of course, was to disguise defenses and confuse the quarterback and/or his head coach, and the logic makes sense. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He couldn't compete with New Orleans physically. So he tried to match wits with the Saints, hoping to create similar confusion that in turn might cause hesitation in Brees or, better yet, turnovers.
From beginning to end, he scrambled his defenses. There were zone blitzes. There were man blitzes. There were no blitzes. There were three-man rushes, and there were five-man rushes. Every so often, he'd line up one defensive lineman with his hands on the ground and have everyone else standing -- with Brees unsure who was rushing, how many were rushing and who was dropping into coverage.
Whenever possible, he tried to be physical with Brees' receivers, but that wasn't often. The Saints make it difficult to disrupt routes by not bunching receivers. So he told himself he wasn't going to win there.
Where he did hold out hope was with Brees himself. In preparing for New Orleans, he and his coaches noticed that Brees likes to hold the ball until the last moment, hoping to hit the big play downfield, and they thought they could take advantage.
This, he said, is where Brees is different than Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Where Rodgers will bail out of a play and throw a ball away or take the check-down, Brees is always looking for the big score -- much like Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo or Brett Favre. Basically, he will try to extend plays to give his deep routes a chance ... and it's there, our coach said, there could be a crack.
Basically, Brees takes chances Rodgers won't, and that was apparent early in the second half of Monday's game when he looked deep for wide receiver Robert Meachem and gambled by throwing into double coverage. The ball was intercepted.
When the Saints were upset by St. Louis earlier this year Brees was intercepted twice. He was also sacked six times, and that's another issue: Like most quarterbacks, if you can pressure him, he can be forced into mistakes. But good luck. The guy's been sacked only five times in his last seven games -- all victories.
"We tried ‘max' pressure, but we tried it only once in awhile," our coach said. "You can't do it too much because they'll turn around and hit you with the screen game."
Common sense tells you another means of solving Brees and the Saints is to keep him off the field with sustained drives of your own. It's the same advice we offered for dealing with Tom Brady, and it worked for Pittsburgh in late October. The Steelers were patient on offense, didn't try for the big play and controlled the ball so effectively that Brady was on the field for only 20 minutes, including three snaps in the first quarter.
Controlling the ball accomplishes a couple of things: 1) It keeps Brees on the sidelines, and 2) it keeps your defense fresh. New Orleans is a quick-strike club, and the depth of its offense -- both in manpower and ingenuity -- is astonishing.
But it can be combated. Heck, the Saints lost three times this season, so somebody had an answer. Of course, the Saints also have 12 wins, so solutions are as difficult as they are elusive.
"If you don't disguise your defense ... if you're predictable ... if you let them know that this is what we're going to do," our head coach said, "then you're dead. Sean Payton and Drew Brees are going to wear you out mentally."