Bye-Bye to the Bye Week Blues

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on from the sidelines against the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on November 13, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The bye week provides the perfect opportunity for the coaching staff to practice what is commonly referred to as "self-scouting."  The regular season is a grind, and the week to week schedule is executed on a strict timetable. But the Saints staff is known for their ability to detect play calling tendencies (formation, personnel package, alignment, down and distance, and situation) as a result of their film study.

Here's an example of a tendency: when team X lines up in their "21" personnel (two running backs, one tight end) on first and 10, when the game is within 7 points with more than two minutes remaining in the half, 80% of the time they run an off tackle power with the half back to the strong side.  

In short, when preparing for an opponent, smart coaches find tendencies and break down the probabilities of what will come next in order to have a leg up on countering it.  Smarter coaches break down their own team in the same way in order to break tendencies, evolve their game-plan and become unpredictable for the opponent.

According to the few experts (former coaches and general managers) who have spoken of the discipline, the bye week allows a coaching staff specific time to self-scout in depth, time they normally don't have during the regular work week.  Granted, the staff charts its plays and knows what it likes to call in each situation; they dissect each play during film study the day after the game before moving on to the next opponent. The difference is that a bye week allows the extra time to tabulate the information for all games and devise new wrinkles that break patterns.

Back in the 2009 season, the Saints had a play on offense where they lined up in a particular formation with Colston split out to one side, Meachem to the other, Shockey at flanker and Dave Thomas on the line of scrimmage ("12" personnel).  It started where Drew would hand off to the running back on a draw play as the TEs would block and the WRs would run decoy/clear out routes. Later during the game (or the following week), Drew would fake the hand off and throw to Colston, who would act as if he was about to run the same route but stand still at the line of scrimmage. A game or so later, Drew would fake the handoff, fake the throw to Colston, spin 180 degrees and throw it to Meachem.  By the time they reached the Patriots, it became fake the draw, fake the throw to Colston, fake the throw to Meachem, and it's a surprise pop pass to the TE running down the middle of the field uncovered.

It's normally not that complicated, but perhaps a few of you will remember exactly what I'm talking about because those plays were so distinct.  More general objectives of self-scouting/breaking tendencies are running more out of formations and packages they normally pass out of, and vice versa.  Run/pass tendencies aren't limited to formations, but to players as well. 

Take Chris Ivory for instance. The majority of plays he was featured at running back last year, it was definitely going to be a run play because he did not have adequate time to learn Payton's myriad complicated blitz pick-up assignments required to protect Drew. 

Sometimes, it's about alignment. This year, when the Saints are in shotgun with Sproles at running back, what chance is there that a draw play is coming?  Sometimes it's about situation. In the red zone, what percentage of throws does Drew send Jimmy Graham's way, and where in the end zone do they normally occur?  Who does Drew target most on third down, or in the two minute drill?  When Pierre is in the game, how often do the Saints run a screen to the left? To the right? When Lance Moore is lined up in the slot position, how often does Drew throw him the slant? 

These are the kind of tendencies and patterns that the opposing team tabulates and charts, and the Saints can use the same information to gain an advantage by doing the opposite of what they normally do in each formation, package, alignment and situation.

Sean Payton regularly takes a common formation, like single back with a three WR / one TE package, and changes the alignment by lining up Colston off tackle where the tight end normally goes and putting the tight end out wide where a WR would normally go. This causes confusion for the opposing defense because they're used to seeing certain plays from the Saints every time they've used that formation/package. But the difference in alignment is something they haven't seen so it calls into question their assignment priorities. Do they cover Colston as the main receiver or do they treat him differently?  No matter what decision they make, Payton has thought ahead of the confusion this will cause and given Drew instructions ahead of time. If the defense treats Colston like this, go here with the ball. If the defense treats the player we put in Colston's spot as if it were him, go to him because he has the mismatch. 

I've picked the offensive side of the ball to illustrate the principles of self-scouting because it is easier to explain and visualize but the practice isn't limited to just offense. Defenses utilize the same discipline, and if ours takes anything away from self-scouting, it should be that it isn't so much about what they have been doing, but how well. 

The offense is clicking, and the running game is starting to come around.  They're ranked first in the NFL in many categories, including third down conversions and yardage. They are in great position to expand on what they do.  The defense needs to go in the opposite direction and simplify what they do until they can do the basics better. Specifically, form tackling and catching the ball and actually disrupting WRs at the line of scrimmage. It doesn't pay to be too exotic when the basics aren't a given. 

Hopefully, the Saints used this past week to shore up problems and develop a plan to disguise and evolve their line of attack in order to confuse and perplex the opponent while gaining the strategic advantage as they near the post-season. In the meantime, let us take a look at where the Saints rank currently in each category.

 

Stat Time

Offense 

Overall - 1st with 436.9 yards per game

Points - 2nd with 31.3 points per game

Plays from scrimmage - 1st with 697

Yards per play - 4th with 6.3

1st downs per game - 2nd with 24.5

3rd downs made - 1st with 72 out of 135 attempts (3rd) for a conversion rate of 53% (1st)

4th downs made - 13th with 3 out of 5 attempts (23rd) for a conversion rate of 60% (5th)

Penalties - 10th least with 58 for 451 yards (7th least)

Time of possession - 5th with 32:04 out of 60:00

Fumbles - 1st least with 4 fumbles, 3 lost (2nd least)

Turn Over Margin - 25th worst with -5

 

Passing Offense 

Passing yards - 1st with 3,194

Passing yards per game - 2nd with 319.4

Completions - 1st with 299 out of 422 attempts (most), 42.2 attempts per game (most) for a rate of 70.2% (2nd best)

Yards per attempt - 8th with 7.9

Touchdowns - 2nd with 23

Interceptions - 7th worst with 11

1st downs resulting from pass - 1st with 170 occurring on 40.3% of attempts (5th best)

Longest pass completion - 9th with 79 yards

20+ yard completions - 5th with 38, 6 of those going for 40+ yards (9th)

Sacks given up - 12th least with 19

Quaterback rating - 3rd with 101.3

 

Rushing Offense 

Total rushing yards - 8th with 1175

Yards per carry - 8th with 4.6

Yards per game - 14th with 117.5

Attempts per game - 23rd with 25.6 attempts out of 256 total (10th)

Rushing touchdowns - 6th with 9 and only 2 fumbles by running backs (2nd best)

First downs resulting from rushes - 7th with 64 for a rate of 1st downs per carry of 25% (5th)

20+ yard rushes - 10th with 8, none of which 40 yards or longer (20th)

 

Defense

Yards per game - 19th with 361.4 given up

Points per game - 20th with 22.8

Plays per game - 3rd most with 636

Yards per play - 21st with 5.7

1st downs allowed per game - 20th with 19.9

3rd down conversions allowed - 7th least with 35% with 47 made (17th most) on 134 attempts (4th most)

4th down conversions allowed - 12th best with 38% with 5 made (8th most) on 13 attempts (1st - most)

Penalties - 5th most with 70 for 573 yards (5th most)

Time on defense- 6th least with 28:36

Fumbles caused - 9th with 14, but only 4 recoveries (21st)

 

Pass Defense 

Yards per game - 18th with 239.9, 2,399 given up (7th most)

Yards per attempt - 10th best with 6.7 on 381 attempts (2nd most) with 211 completions (7th most) for a rate of 55.4% completion (5th lowest) on 38.1 attempts per game (6th most)

Touchdowns allowed - 6th most with 16

Interceptions - 4th least with 5

1st downs given up against the pass - 13th most with 112 on 29.4% of attempts (lowest rate, 1st)

Longest completion given up - 7th shortest with 65 yards

20+ yard completions allowed - 16th with 28, 7 of which went for 40+ yards (4th most)

Sacks gotten - 19th with 21

Opposing QB rating - 13th highest with 84.8

 

Rush Defense 

Yards per game - 19th with 121.5 allowed and 1,215 total (6th most)

Yards per carry - 32nd worst with 5.2 on 234 carries (23.4 attempts per game, 7th least)

Touchdowns allowed - 12th most with 7 while forcing 5 fumbles (11th most)

First downs from runs - 7th most with 63 on 26.9% of carries (2nd worst)

20+ yards runs allowed - 3rd most with 11, 4 of which went for 40+ yards (2nd most)

 

Conclusions

The Saints are awesome on offense, no surprise there.  But a close look at the defensive statistics suggests that they are actually worse than most believe. Consider that the offense has a top five time of possession, and is second in points scored. The defense should have an easy job, being that they aren't on the field as long as other teams. Yet they somehow manage to allow the other team to score a very high 22.8 points per game, are top five in penalties, blitz more than just about everyone else while ranking near the bottom in sacks and turnovers. What gives? If Drew has an off day, teams can run it all over the defense. They give up the smallest percentage of first downs against the pass (per attempt), but the second largest percentage of first downs against the run (per carry).  While they have a good third down percentage, they have more plays run against them than almost every other team.  Perhaps as good as the offense is, it could be better by running the ball more in order to keep this defense off the field.

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