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What's Holding the Saints Back(s)?

With as good as the Saints offense was last season, one overlooked fact was that the majority of the team's offensive players were seeing both each other and Sean Payton's scheme for the first time. In the June 19 Team Report (scroll 1/3 down), the Sporting News' Mike Triplett brings up this pertinent, intriguing point while building a case that the Saints offense could be even better in 2007 than it was in 2006. Specifically, he mentions the offensive line, which returns all five starters after having five new starters a year ago.

The most pleasant surprise of last season was how well the offensive line jelled together despite having a new starter at every position. They were not only adequate, they were excellent, paving the way for the NFL's top-ranked offense. But this year, RT Jon Stinchcomb said the offense can be even better because the coaching staff can put more of a burden on the offensive line to open up the offense, without having to protect as much. Early on last year, the Saints tried to get QB Drew Brees out of the pocket early and get the ball out of his hands quickly. But they soon learned they could trust the line to protect him. The athletic line is also reliable when it comes to opening holes for the 1-2 tailback punch of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, and when it comes to running some of the exotic change-of-direction plays favored by Coach Sean Payton. There is every reason to expect the Saints can once again have the NFL's top-ranked offense in 2007.

So let's talk some offensive line.

The Saints line moved from a question mark to possibly being the strongest unit on the team, there is no denying this. And the unit was very good at pass blocking in 2006. But for the purposes of this discussion, let's limit ourselves to just the running game. Increased reliance on just the five offensive linemen to pass protect has its positives and negatives. Mike Martz's five-receiver sets always yield a lot of success, but they also get quarterbacks hurt. Let's save that for another day.

I'm of the opinion that any increase in running success that the team experiences in 2007 will be more of a product of the running backs, and less a product of the line. Indeed, using a few important statistics provided by the increasingly relevant Football Outsiders, we can start to break down just how good the Saints offensive line was last season, and where the most potential for improvement lies.

The first statistic is Adjusted Line Yards, which attempts to separate the contributions of the line from the running backs, when dealing with the running game (For a better explanation, click here). Now, it is nearly impossible to completely separate offensive line numbers from running back numbers, but this gives a rough approximation. The Saints tied for 11th in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards with a number of 4.37, essentially meaning that on any given play, any given running back would be expected to gain 4.37 yards behind the Saints line. In 2006, the Saints running backs actually gained 3.99 yards per play, meaning that they gave the defense .38 yards per carry (almost 14 inches).

The implication here is that the Saints runners underachieved--relative to their line--to the extent that the runners mave held the line back.

This notion is highlighted when coupled with the team's ranking in 10+ yard run percentage. 10+ yards rank is going to be somewhat more indicative of running back success. The offensive line can only be responsible for getting the running back to the second level--typically 5-7 yards deep--after that, the back is on their own. 13% of the Saints runs in 2006 went for over ten yards, which ranked 25th in the league.  

So how do we reconcile these numbers? Football Outsiders explain:

A team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in 10+ Yards is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work. A team with a low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a high ranking in 10+ Yards is heavily dependent on its running back breaking long runs to make the running game work.

The 2006 Saints fell into the first category, meaning that the offensive line probably contributed more to the success of the running game than did the backs.

This may come as a surprise, given how heralded the holy alliance between Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush was last season. But consider, last season the Saints running backs were, respectively, a year removed from major knee surgery and a rookie. It stands to reason that they won't be the most efficient runners in the league, and that they will be more efficient in their second year after surgery/college.

There are a some points that I would like to glean from this little study: The Saints running game was not nearly as efficient as it could have been in 2006. Moreover, it is entirely possible, even probable, that the running game in year II of the reign of Payton will operate much more efficiently than year I. Building on this, should the Saints see an improvement in their running game in 2007, it will probably be much more a product of the running backs than the line.