Last year, the Saints defense became notorious for their rotational nature and their ability to confuse quarterbacks based on personnel. However, there was one constant amongst these rotations. Middle/inside linebacker Curtis Lofton (aka the only Falcon we’ve ever loved) is an unsung hero in the Saints defense. Everyone talks about Rob Ryan and the Saints secondary, but the things that Lofton has done for the Saints would be criminal to ignore.
First of all: the man is invincible. Since coming into the league in 2008, he has played in every game. In 2013, Lofton played far and away the most snaps in Ryan’s defense, lining up on 95.8% of defensive plays. He is the signal-caller and the rock of this defense. When he joined the team in 2012, in his first season Lofton led the team with 123 total tackles (82 solo). In 2013, Lofton again led the team with 125 total (82 solo). He also led the team both years in tackles for losses, at 6 in 2012 and 7 in 2013.
However, Lofton’s presence is measured in far more than just tackles (which are a horrific metric to measure talent by anyways). In 2012 Lofton was the middle linebacker in place of the suspended and then injured Jonathan Vilma, the equivalent to a quarterback defensively, and in 2013 that field general role didn’t change. He is the man in a chess match with opposing quarterbacks, and Lofton is excellent at his job.
Lofton fills a strong but silent role in the New Orleans defense. He won’t make the flashy plays, but he does what it takes to make others look good. It’s hard to ask a lot more than that from the nucleus of a defense.
Now, this one is lengthy, and it’s possible that every reader won’t want to read up on every scenario, so I’m going to give a bit of a table of contents for which plays are which.
Figures 1-2: How something as simple as staying home can mitigate a rushing threat.
Figures 3-6: How rotation in coverage can disguise a blitz and give a quarterback no chance to find his hot read.
Figures 7-9: Why reading the quarterback’s eyes is so important, particularly in the screen game, and the importance of a quick burst at the snap.
Figures 10-12: Attacking at the snap and how it can dismantle a halfback’s ability to turn upfield.
Figures 13-16: How an ILB can simple stay in his hole and still make a big play.
This play is an excellent example of Lofton doing no more and no less than what he has to do. The Chicago Bears come out in a pistol formation with an extra lineman as an eligible receiver, making Lofton the "Will" (or weakside) inside linebacker. Lofton’s job on this play, therefore, is to contain the eventual running play and to not allow running back Matt Forte to cutback.
The play here is a basic off-tackle run for Forte. However, the Saints get a tremendous push and eventually corner him. At this point in the play, Forte is turning his head to look for a cutback lane, but Lofton (the red circle) has come across the formation to fill his gap. This type of defensive prowess is extremely important against one-cut runners such as Forte. The play results in Forte being tripped up by the other inside linebacker (David Hawthorne) for no gain.
This play is another example of Lofton doing his part to help out his fellow linebacker. On this play, the two inside linebackers are pinched pre-snap. With several Saints up on the line of scrimmage showing an engage eight blitz (Jabari Greer, Keenan Lewis and Malcolm Jenkins lining up as deep as they are also indicates blitz), Cutler must make the correct read in order to beat it.
The yellow circle is Matt Forte, the checkdown man. The poorly drawn line is the route that Forte takes. It’s a basic out curl safety valve route, designed to combat the blitz.
This is literally the moment that the ball is snapped. Notice that Lofton has already opened his hips and is moving towards his target, Forte, staring him down. The Saints end up rushing five on the play, with a basic twist delay from Hawthorne and Junior Galette.
Same play, different angle. The camera gets in the way of Hawthorne bearing down on Cutler during this play, but he is basically entirely unblocked. Cutler is staring down the left side of the field (indicated by the black line) waiting for Forte to turn back. However, Lofton has effectively eliminated the throwing lane to the check down, and Cutler is forced to tuck the ball and take the sack from Hawthorne.
Lofton’s talents range far more than just in a helping role, however. He also is excellent at reading plays and he has a superb nose for the ball.
The Bears are lined up in the shotgun while the Saints have a 3-3-5 defense (three linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs). The call is a designed screen play to the yellow circle, that is, tight end Martellus Bennett.
At this moment, the Bears are basically dead in the water. The defensive line engages the Bears offensive line and limits their lateral mobility to help out on the screen, and Lofton is already drifting to the side of the field that Bennet is on. As the dotted black line shows, Lofton is looking at Cutler, who is looking at Bennett.
From the moment that Cutler has released the ball, Lofton is already on top of Bennett, and he completes a tackle just as Bennett is trying to turn up field and before he gains momentum. This play ends up going for only two yards on a solo tackle for Curtis.
Lofton’s usefulness also extends to the running game, where he is extremely intelligent reading offensive alignments and knowing where he has to go. Since the Bears were a less than power offense last season, consider how he played against the Patriots the following week.
In a base 3-4 set against the Patriots hurry up offense, the Patriots come out in a singleback set. Lofton is, once again, the Will inside linebacker. One thing that should be very clear by now is how good Lofton is at coming across formations in order to disrupt offenses. This play is no exception.
Brady has barely turned his back to the play to give the ball to Blount. Lofton has already forsaken his gap in order to disrupt the handoff. The green indicates holes that Blount should be looking to run through, the weakside hole being the one abandoned by Lofton.
It shouldn’t take a circle to find Lofton on this play, and Blount definitely doesn’t need one. Blount plants his foot looking to make a cut into space, but Lofton has already gotten through the hole and takes him down for a one yard gain. Lofton is a very patient linebacker, but if he sees a weakness in an offensive line he is more than willing to exploit it. The plethora of help in a 3-4 only increases his ability to take these risks.
For a more traditional example of Lofton doing his job, consider this play in the fourth quarter:
As per usual, Lofton is circled in red and Hawthorne is in blue. This entire game consisted of the Patriots running the hurry up offense. Lofton is the Sam (strongside) inside linebacker on this play.
After Brady runs through his signals, Lofton and Hawthorne switch, thus making Lofton the Will once again.
This play is a halfback’s worst nightmare. Ridley has just gotten the ball, and Lofton is standing in the only available gap for him. The guard attempts a cut block on Lofton that he easily sheds.
After he sheds the block, Lofton is able to bring Ridley down with a perfect form tackle for no gain, staying the Patriot running game for the time being.
The great thing about Lofton is that he’s a jack of all trades. He can plug up the run, cover, be a ball-seeker or stay home to help. His reads are some of the best at the inside linebacker position, and he simply makes a defense better (2012 notwithstanding). A good, durable player is so hard to find these days. Lofton is quick, he’s aggressive, and he’s a great player that we plucked from the Atlanta Falcons. That’s the dream. On top of all of this, he’s only been in the league for six years. If he can continue the pace that he’s playing with and continue the durability that he’s displayed, Lofton should be a strong defensive captain for the New Orleans Saints for years to come.
People will still ignore him for some reason, but he’ll be there.