An analysis of the Saints offensive breakdown the last four weeks in the context of the success and failures of the run/pass balance and general run schemes the last four seasons.
Yes, there is a personnel issue. Our stellar secondary has been shredded with injuries and our backup LBs are far from adequate - the primary offensive success of every team since Washington has come from inundating throws at Jenkins and running straight at Dunbar, then Evans, then Casillas. Aside from that, multiple nagging injuries have plagued us each game, though we have been lucky to be free from any major injuries since the season began.
Yes, they have seemed to play with less urgency.
But the most glaring issue the last four games since our romp of the Patriots is the one that hasn't been covered enough and certainly not in enough depth: we've stopped our successful running attack and the balance it creates. In the first three drives in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay we ran the ball 13 times for 91 yards (avg. 7 yds/carry) using quick-hitting traps and cross-blocks which opened up holes in the line and down the field in order to pass 10 times for 98 yards (avg. 9.8 yds/pass attempt) and go ahead 17-0. Then we completely shifted our gameplan. In the rest of the game (6 drives without a score) we ran the ball only 10 times total, using slow-developing, sumo-wrestle push "power" running for 33 yards (avg. 3.3 yds/carry - including one 19 yd gain by Hamilton, otherwise 9 rushes for 14 yds, avg. 1.56 yds/carry). In the meantime we passed an astonishing 27 times for 152 yards (5.6 yds/pass attempt). Let me emphasize that: ahead 17-0, we stopped running let alone calling run plays that have been working all year, put in our fourth string back, and passed nearly 3 times as much as ran. No more excuse that we "had to pass playing from behind" garbage we heard the previous 3 weeks when our balance first went out of wack.
In the 2006 regular season the Saints ran 472 times (44.9%) and passed 580 (55.1 % pass) to finish with a 10-6 record and made it to the NFC Championship. In 2007: 392 run (37.5%), 652 pass (62.5%) to go 7-9. In 2008: 398 run (38.5%), 636 pass (61.5%) to go 8–8. The pattern is clear - more balance correlated to more victories, and our pass-happy “#1 ranked” offense failed to make the playoffs two years in a row. Entering 2009 with his job on the line, Payton was forced to recognize that he could not simply rely on the pass, and opened his mind and scheme to establishing the run. I believe this change was the most significant factor in our unprecedented and historic success this season. In the first 11 games of this season, we ran the ball 373 times and passed 380. In three games of particular note -- v. Patriots: 26 run, 23 pass; v. NYGiants: 40 run, 30 pass; v. NYJets: 32 run, 32 pass. Perhaps the most telling game for so many reasons, but especially the significance of establishing the run and a rebuttal of the myth that it is necessary to pass while behind -- v MIA: 27 run v. 38 pass but PAY ATTENTION -- in the first 10 drives of the game (albeit including the necessarily pass-heavy 2 min. offense to end the first half with a TD using 2 run, 7 pass): 10 run, 32 pass. As we then arguably made the greatest comeback in Saints history in the rest of the game: 17 run, 10 pass. (NOTE: I'm not sure why it says 38 total pass attempts in the box score when the play-by-play shows 42.) However, in the last four games -- the closest two wins of the season and the first two losses -- we passed more than twice as much as ran (total 63 run, 135 pass; v. Wash: 24 run, 49 pass; v. Atl: 26 run, 41 pass; v. Dal: 13 run, 45 pass).
It is important to add, though, that this is not simply about the number of runs, but about the SCHEME. Going back to his coaching days in Dallas, Payton has been in love with a power running game. (For a clip which reveals a lot about his schematic point of view, watch him oooh and aaah about the size and power of the Dallas running game this year in the clip from his show entitled “Episode 15: Payton’s Plan” http://www.theseanpaytonshow.com/vg.html). On “The Final Play,” after the Dec. 6 Washington game, former Saints LB and should-be-hall-of-famer Rickey Jackson was asked why the Saints couldn't run against the Redskins. He replied something to the effect of "Well, the Redskins have the big strong money makers on the line to fight heads up with the Saints blockers...because the Saints don't have a speed running game. Theirs is a power running game... and they start laterally in their own backfield letting the big men line up their blocks so penetration into their backfield can stop them from getting started. They don't have a speed running game...that's why they like a Deuce instead of a Reggie.” What Rickey called a power run scheme I call a slow-developing, one-on-one sumo-wrestling, push-push-push scheme. It relies on creases to develop that a back has to patiently wait for and then weave through as bodies fly in various directions. What Rickey called a speed running game I call a quick-opening, leverage blocking scheme that uses traps, cross-blocks, counters and runs to the backside to give the O-line immediate leverage points and angles against D-linemen in order to rip quick-opening holes immediately at the line of scrimmage rather than seams and creases amongst a mass of bodies.
The past three years have been dominated by the sumo-wrestling scheme, which has been a failure. Even if you go back to Deuce’s 1000-yard year in 2006, and definitely Pierre each of his seasons, you will find that in the last four seasons the great majority of successful run plays have come off of quick-hole-openers and counters rather than the slow-developing, sumo-wrestling, push-push-push for three yards. So all Spring and Summer I repeatedly asked one question of all the Times Picayune and other sports press with access to coaches and practices - was Payton adjusting the run scheme? Lo and behold, he did - he changed everything this year. Or almost. From the beginning, Payton not only committed to run more, but to run more effectively; that is, to adjust his scheme and use a great deal more quick-hole-opening plays. He has still used too many stubborn sumo plays in my opinion, but nonetheless I believe this expansion of an effective scheme to fit our players rather than trying to force our players to fit an ineffective scheme has been THE decisive factor in the Saints running success this season - which has naturally opened up the pass game for less frequent but more effective success. I have made an effort all season to track each run play each game (both watching the game and often reviewing it on tivo), and by my own estimate the plays which have used the sumo-wrestling scheme has accounted for an avg. of 2-3 yds/carry, while the quick-hitting scheme plays have averaged around 6-7 yds/carry.
Last Sunday, after our first three drives (which used quick-openers and leverage blocking to get 91 yards on 13 carries), Payton not only called a mere 10 run-plays, but almost every run call was a fall back to the old sumo-pushing scheme. He put in our fourth string running back to simply eat clock (Hamilton ran 7 times for 21 yards - 6 of them for a total of 2 yards). I do not doubt Sean Payton’s offensive brilliance, which far exceeds any pinkynail’s worth of football knowledge I cling to. But I am really starting to wonder whether he has done what I've done in my naive fandom with TIVO each game - go back and simply watch each run play that has succeeded and each run play that has failed and tally up which works for us and which fails. As we all saw and felt last Sunday, this scheme deflates everyone - it wears out the O-Line and backs, drains energy and momentum, and doesn’t merely eat up clock - it eats up production. We stall consistently when we run this way. We lose our sense of urgency. In the last four weeks, the revival of the 2007-2008 offensive scheme.
If we are going to win the way we won the first 11 games, we are going to have to start running the way we ran the first 11 games. We must run as much if not more than pass, and we must use a quick-opening, leverage blocking run scheme. Finally, Payton should call many more run plays to the running back with the best yard/carry average on our team, Reggie Bush.
On a slight sidenote, it has driven me crazy to hear the same blabber bashing Reggie Bush, critiquing him for failing to be patient as well as for dancing in the backfield too much (which is it?), and of course the myth that he couldn’t “run between the tackles.” Its not only because I am a fan of Bush and believe he has the talent (and attitude) to be one of the great running-backs in the league, but also because it simply hurts my sense of justice to hear so many people misplacing their rabid critiques, and bad-mouthing someone not only for something that is totally out of his control but also for the very talents that are being wasted - especially someone admired by his teammates for citizenship and for consistently being one of the hardest workers on the team,. As Rickey put it, this scheme is not designed for Reggie Bush. Remember how much credit Gregg Williams has gotten from players and the press for playing to his players gifts rather than our past defensive coach who forced players to fit his scheme? When the Titans have a player with the speed of Chris Johnson, they do not demand him to run slow-developing power-run schemes - they take advantage of his speed to use quick-hitters (how many times has the ball seemed to have barely been snapped when he seems to be through the gates and 85 yards down the field?), duh! So why has Sean Payton for four years taken one of the quickest and most explosive speed runners in the league - whom Rex Ryan called the most dangerous player he’s faced - and stubbornly demanded that he “slow down,” “be patient,” “stop dancing” in order to fit a scheme that has consistently failed no matter who runs the ball? In an era that obsesses with individuals rather than the collective design of schemes, it is typical and unjust blabber to have spent so much energy criticizing Reggie for failing to adjust to Payton’s scheme instead of vice-versa.
Finally, though, it should be noted that Reggie Bush is now leading the Saints in avg yds/carry at 5.5 - equivalent to the 4th best in the league. But why is he not on the ESPN stats page for league leaders? Because “To qualify, a player must have at least 6.25 attempts per team's games played.” In 15 games Payton has only run Reggie 65 times, or 4.3x/game. Though Payton has barely given Reggie the ball in the backfield this year, the quick openers he has gotten have made a great difference to his effectiveness. To succeed in the playoffs, especially with Pierre hurt right now, Coach Payton should surprise the defensive expectations of our opponents by unleashing our most explosive big-play talent. Give Reggie 10+ carries a game. As long as its with leverage blocking scheme to open quick holes with cross-blocks, traps, counters and runs to the backside, it doesn’t matter if the hole is on the outside or between the tackles, it will really screw up the gameplans of our opponents and Reggie - and the team - will run with success.