If there was one thing that the Seattle Seahawks proved last year, it was that a quarterback doesn't have to throw for 5,000 yards in order to lead his team to a Super Bowl. In fact, the passing yardage leader during the regular season has never won a Super Bowl. The narrative is shaped that this is a passing league, and it certainly appears that way, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. The Denver Broncos last year were proof that it only takes one bad game, no matter how consistent the performance was throughout the season, to come up short of the ultimate goal.
The New Orleans Saints are coming into the 2014 season with an already scary defense. In conjunction with Drew Brees, they look to have a very formidable team. However, it may be time to take some of the load off of Brees' shoulders and attempt to develop a solid, more traditional running game. They have the tools. Last season, they began to integrate a zone blocking scheme into their running game (think Texans and Mike Shanahan Redskins). The linemen adapted fairly well to this new style, and Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson looked to be a formidable 1-2 punch. The best example of this may have been against the Eagles.
It's well established by now that Brees is not particularly fond of the cold. Where people are wrong is when they say that it's his problem. No quarterback is immune to cold weather (except for maybe Aaron Rodgers). Against Philadelphia, Brees threw the ball 30 times, completing 20 passes, and throwing for only 250 yards. These are the numbers of a good quarterback performance. He didn't make terrible mistakes, and the Saints came out with a win. Ingram carried the ball 18 times for 98 yards against Philadelphia in the Saints' first ever road playoff win. Robinson provided a nice supplement carrying the ball only eight times, but for 45 yards. The key differences for these two backs lie in their styles. Both are capable of running between the tackles, but they provide this in different ways.
Early in his career, Ingram suffered from the same issues that Trent Richardson still suffers from in Indianapolis: He's an Alabama product. ‘Bama backs have the luxury of running in a zone blocking scheme, arguably the best one in the country, under the tutelage of Nick Saban. Transitioning to the NFL is exceptionally difficult on its own, but changing entire schemes in the midst of that switch is even more difficult. Ingram is used to sitting back and picking his hole, rather than hitting one hole and cutting back as is traditional in the power scheme. Ingram has shown flashes of brilliance, and this next season is going to be make or break for him regarding his future with the New Orleans Saints, especially now that he is running in the style that he's most comfortable and has had a season to adapt.
Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent in 2013, is a different kind of animal. Robinson takes the first hole that he sees and immediately powers through, dragging along any defender unfortunate enough to get in his way. Robinson can be a superb change of pace back, as his presence guarantees one thing: opposing defenses will invariably be exhausted against him. However, his style of play is hardly sustainable, and making him a feature back would be a mistake. He takes a lot of wear and tear on any given play, so giving him 20-25 carries per game is dangerous for his health. Even on his short gains, it takes a ton of force to bring him down. In 2013, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which is stunning since he was a question mark to even make the roster.
Last year, however, the Saints didn't run a traditional offense. They still ran their standard spreads, keeping numerous receivers on the field. The running game came in the form of draws and screens in order to keep defenses relatively honest. Of course, Jimmy Graham limits a team's ability to run the Power O, due to his horrendous run blocking, but he's big enough that if they go into training camp with a focus on it, he should be able to at least display competence, enough to allow his backs to succeed. Due to a lack of offensive weapons to this point, the Saints may want to entertain the thought of using bigger sets in order to establish the running game. Also, as noted below, those bigger sets can aid in the deception of defenses and lead to big gains through the air in addition to giving traction in the running game.
The signing of Erik Lorig also suggests a transition in New Orleans, as he was a part of Tampa Bay's offense since 2010, and their running game has been excellent in recent years. Doug Martin averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2012 behind him, and in 2013 no-names such as Mike James (4.9 yards per carry) and Bobby Rainey (3.8 yards per carry) found themselves having respectable years on a team that struggled overall. Lorig is a more classic type fullback than Jed Collins was, and if the Saints line up with Brees under center more often he could be an excellent lead blocker for the likes of Robinson and Ingram.
The Saints are at their best when Brees doesn't have to do too much. In 2012, Brees threw the ball 670 times, more than he ever has in a single season in his career. They finished 7-9, their second time under .500 in the Payton-Brees era, and first time since 2007. Brees threw for a league high 19 interceptions, tying him with Andrew Luck. In 2009, the year that they won the Super Bowl, Brees actually threw the ball the least that he has in a Saints uniform, tossing it only 514 times. He threw for 11 interceptions that year, tied for his lowest as a Saint.
Of course, personnel has dictated that the Saints have had to run it less. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles have been the feature backs for a few years, and Thomas thrives in the screen game while Sproles is essentially a wide receiver halfback hybrid. With Thomas now extended and getting less money, and Sproles having been traded to Philadelphia, the Saints may finally have the men in the backfield that they need to run the ball with authority again. Their screen game to Thomas, while effective early in the season, is fairly easy to figure out. Which Seattle did, and those games went less than well for the Black & Gold. Teams such as Tampa Bay and Houston competed with the Seahawks by punching them in the mouth, it just wasn't sustainable for them.
But the Saints have the pieces to make it a sustainable system. Their offensive line is very good between the tackles (Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans were both Pro Bowlers last season). Zach Strief had one of the best performances at right tackle of anyone last season, and Terron Armstead (presuming that they don't draft a left tackle early in the draft) showed nothing but improvement and, perhaps more importantly, a willingness to improve in the games that he started last season. Marques Colston is an excellent run blocking wide receiver, and if Ingram stays as mean and as driven as he was last year he should continue to get solid carries.
The Saints will always be a pass-first team, and that's fine. But they don't need to rely on gimmicks such as swings and screens in lieu of a power rushing attack to succeed. Those plays are easy to calculate and can lead to huge losses if they're run too frequently over the course of a game. Screens generally start 5-6 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The worst case on a busted up running play where the back is going North-South is a 1-2 yard loss.
Pierre Thomas had more yards after the catch than he had total yards receiving last year. This indicates that he wasn't just a checkdown man, plays were designed to go to him and when they failed, they failed miserably. If the Saints can finally start using their running backs to their strengths and stop trying to put a square peg (Ingram) in a round hole (a pure power running offense), they will enjoy far more success rushing in a low risk medium reward in 2014. Ingram has very good vision if he's allowed to utilize it, so having him run through the three and four gaps in the offensive line (between the guard and the tackle) will be far more beneficial than forcing him to run through the one and two gaps (between the center and the guard). Meanwhile, putting Khiry in to run through the one and two gaps thus wearing down the defense will open up the screen and off-tackle (where Thomas got most of carries) game for Pierre Thomas.
There is one more benefit of running the ball under center and establishing the ground game: The play action pass. New Orleans runs a variation of the West Coast Offense under Coach Payton, he just introduces his own wrinkles into that offense. Traditionally, the West Coast Offense relies a great deal on underneath routes and checkdown throws, along with the establishment of the running game. It also allows the play action pass to become a massive factor.
Take the game against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11 last season. For an example of how effective the play action pass can be, it made Robert Meachem do something. Chargers fans especially understand the monumental success a play has to be to make Meachem do something. To this point in the game (12:47 remaining in the fourth), the Saints had rushed the ball 13 times to varying success in the game and passed it 31 times. Out of these rushes, nine of them came under center. Three were out of the pistol and one of them was a traditional shotgun with Thomas staggered. Every carry out of the pistol or the shotgun went to Pierre Thomas.
In the fourth quarter, the Saints came out in the following formation:
This is a 22 power running set, ironically one that San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman is actually very fond of. Now, watch what happens to the Strong Safety when the play starts and Brees fakes to Ingram:
Note the X and the line. That is the route that the strong safety took once the ball was faked. It's clear to see in his body language that he is immediately about to backpedal, which he does as the play proceeds. It can be inferred that this is a Cover 2 high defense, because the free safety has taken no steps to shade the center of the field, despite the fact that Brees is clearly looking at his right side wide receiver.
Meachem is running an option route on this play. He sees that the strong safety has bit in, and he streaks towards the middle of the field:
The O and the subsequent line represents Meachem, and the X represents the strong safety and his aforementioned route. Meachem started tight in the formation. At this point, the ball has just been released. The strong safety attempts to recover, but he can't prevent a 34 yard gain for Meachem on the play.
Two plays later, the Saints line up in a trips bunch formation that eventually turns into an I pre-snap:
This motion from Collins into a heavy set highly suggests run. Upon the snap, however, the strong safety doesn't take the play action, but he does begin to try and cover the safety valve, leaving Colston in single coverage over the top:
There's a lot going on in this picture, but once broken down it's easy to understand. The strong safety is inside of the black circle. He is trying to take out Collins, the underneath player and a staple of the traditional West Coast offense. Inside of the black arrow, Colston can be seen heading towards the yellow circle: a WIDE OPEN section of the field. Both 49ers are trying to recover from the previous fake and cover Colston. This play went for another 26 yards, and the Saints would score on the drive.
The help, however, is cyclical. The play directly after this completion to Colston, the Saints lined up in what, in theory, looks like a passing formation. From the San Francisco 6 yard line, they line up with a trips formation on the weakside:
Brees calling signals aside, this is a base formation. Bunches are very common in the red zone, particularly in the 10 yard line. Note the positions before the snap of the linebackers and the secondary before the ball is snapped on this play:
In the above photo, every 49er inside of a red circle is out of position to make this play. San Francisco was heavily shading the trips side of the offense. What this means is that Thomas's cutback lane, the strong side of the formation, is now left wide open for him to go to. The defensive end, whose job is containment, has already committed to Brees. This gives Thomas room to work with. He ends up gaining four yards on the play. Four yards per carry, in the NFL at least, is considered very good. The threat of the pass froze the entire defense, and they weren't committed to Thomas until he was two yards up the field. In this regard, the run and the pass can complement each other very nicely.
The big running game makes these plays possible. Zone blocking is a perfectly viable scheme, and the Saints ran it very well towards the end of the season. It plays to the strengths of their backs, and it lets them get away with having a fairly small offensive line (which is a necessity when Drew Brees is your quarterback). It just took some breaking in. If they can make plays look like runs turn into passes, plays like the examples above become far more common, because teams have to respect the running game under all circumstances. A shift towards bigger personnel and less reliance on gimmicks can make the Saints one of the most well-rounded teams in the league come next season.
If the Saints can effectively follow this blueprint, they'll be extremely dangerous in 2014. Between Brees's ability to spread the ball (and his excellence at surveying defenses under center, rather than in the shotgun) and Payton's constantly churning offensive mind, the Saints could have one of the most unpredictable and explosive offenses in 2014. Who'd have thought at this point last year there would even be a suggestion of changing offensive philosophy and leaving the defense the same? It's a risky move, but it would pay dividends for the Saints, and maybe even be the boost that they need to take the next step next season.