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Saints' Effective Running Game Sets Up Big Plays Downfield

With the return of Mark Ingram, the Saints were able to go back to a running game that has done them very well so far in 2014 on Sunday. However, it does so much more than pick up 4, 5 yards a play. It also gives teeth to the big play threat (namely the deep ball) in New Orleans, something that many were wondering about going into Week 8.

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

One thing to be said for Cris Collinsworth on Sunday Night Football is that he really has a way of making the casual viewer appreciate aspects of the game that aren’t usually appreciated, especially thus far in 2014.  Namely: offensive line play and the effect that the running game can have on the passing game.  After the New Orleans Saints defeated the Green Bay Packers 44-23, two things became abundantly clear.  First: A happy running back makes a happy quarterback and Second: The Primetime Dome is a magical place where magical things happen.

In Ingram’s return from a broken hand last week against Detroit, he got 10 carries for 16 yards.  It was a brutal performance, and that inability to establish the running game really hurt the Saints in the end of that game.  Against the Packers, however, Ingram really found his legs, and the offensive line was no small part of that.

The Saints come out in a 13 set on this play.  They have 3 Tight Ends and 1 Running Back, and they stack the long side of the field, thus establishing the right side as the strong side on the play.

The big talk heading into this season was the implementation of the zone blocking scheme, but this play is a basic Power Man run to the strong side.  The numbers over the Green Bay players are where their original gaps were on the play.  On this play, the LT seals off backside pressure.  Meanwhile, the 2i tech DE is neutralized by the LG and a pulling C.  The 3 tech NT and 5 tech DE are taken out of the play by the RG & RT and the TE lined up furthest inside, respectively.

The inside TE (circled in black, #82 Benjamin Watson) is the key to this play.  He holds the 5 tech, allowing Ingram to have a large hole and isolating the second level players.  #64 Zach Strief (RT) disengages from his double-team inside and gets to the ILB.  The two remaining TEs are now left 1 on 1 with the remaining two LBs playing flow to on the ball, while the backside OLB is taken out of the play.

Note the gap between Strief & #80 Jimmy Graham in the above picture.  Strief is able to widen it (thanks to some help from #73 Jahri Evans), giving Ingram room to show his burst.  Graham still isn’t an amazing blocker, but on this play he does enough to give Ingram a hole and the Saints a 14 yard gain.

The importance of the power running game is evident in this play, the play that gave the Saints momentum and allowed them to never look back.  The Saints come out in another Jumbo set, this time giving a 22 look.  Green Bay is in their base 3-4, with a safety cheating down towards the box to help with the running game.  Brandin Cooks, the only receiver on the field, runs a skinny post down the middle, in the hopes of splitting the safety and the corner.

At the time of the fake, Green Bay’s single high safety gets caught flat-footed and staring into the backfield.  Green Bay is in a Cover 3 defense, as the corner can be seen bailing downfield as Cooks advances upon him.

At the very same moment on the line of scrimmage, Green Bay’s linebackers are already sold on the run.  They’re all moving towards their gap assignments on the play, which results in this:

Drew Brees has all the space in the world to step up in the perfect pocket that he has formed for him, set his feet, and deliver an absolute dot to Cooks.

As we see here, Cooks is able to split the safety and the corner, thus giving Brees room to make the throw.  This play illustrates how dangerous the Saints offense can be if all the parts are working correctly.  When the running game gets to clicking, defenses are forced to help out underneath, which then opens up the play action pass.  When a speed threat like Cooks is on the field, it’s even more evident.  The safety paused for only a fraction of a second, but that was enough time for Cooks to move inside on his corner and get behind the Green Bay secondary for a huge 50 yard touchdown.

The Saints had another 40+ yard play in this game, and this one also came off of a play action pass.  Back in the first quarter, Brees completed a 45 yard pass to Kenny Stills.  From the exact same position on the field.

This play is a flood levels route, designed to isolate Packer defenders in zone coverage.  It calls for:

Kenny Stills (Red): Post route over the top.

Brandin Cooks (Blue): Dig route across formation.

Marques Colston (Yellow): Motion pre-snap, block & release to sell PA, flow out weak side on an out.

Mark Ingram (Black): Sell the PA before leaking into the flat.

This play gets Stills, Cooks and Ingram in different levels of the same side, thus stretching out Packer zones (while they’re still recovering from the play fake, so it’s particularly effective at the intermediate level [Cooks’s route]).

A fundamental flaw with any zone defense is that it can be exploited by an effective play action.  The Packers run a cover 3 defense with a 4 man rush on this play.  The linebackers are responsible for the intermediate routes, the corners and free safety take away a third each deep, and the strong safety buzzes down to the strong side flat.  The 4 unmarked players are rushing the quarterback.

The Green Bay backers play the ball well, with their eyes staying in the backfield, but they waste steps.   AJ Hawk (#50, the Right ILB) takes a lateral hop to his left, thus losing balance on his inside leg.  The Saints’ line sells the fake as well, thus forcing the Packer backers to commit to their gaps.

Now that Brees has his pocket established, the Saints are in business.  Cooks is dragging across the field while the linebackers are falling back into their zones. The Left ILB is 5 yards ahead of Cooks, the Left OLB is 8 yards in.  Cooks is going to the space in the zone, which the free safety then recognizes topside.

The moment that Brees sees that FS commit to Cooks and get into his sprint, he’s winding up to throw to Stills, who just found a wide open third of the field.  Stills is breaking inside from the corner that is now trailing him, and Cooks is lollygagging underneath.  The beauty of a levels flood is evident on this play.  It’s very difficult to read a quarterback’s eyes.  It’s very likely that the FS saw Brees looking at Cooks underneath and recognized the play, and Brees saw the FS commit in his peripherals.  With the speed of Stills, it makes for an easy throw and a 45 yard gain for New Orleans.

This game brought back the affectionately coined "Gulf Coast Offense" that Saints’ fans have become accustomed to.  The heavy establishment of the run led to a pair of huge plays out of play action, one of which arguably was the biggest turning point in the game.  Brees’s deep ball also continued to improve.  The Saints need the threat of the big play to remain effective, and between the two tonight and the touchdown pass to Stills against Detroit, they seem to be finding a groove that they were lacking early on (perhaps Brees is developing better chemistry with his receivers?).

All in all, the Saints’ offense was extremely impressive on Sunday.  Any time your QB throws for 300 yards and you have a guy rush for over 100 (let alone the 172 that Ingram put up) something is flowing.  If the Saints can continue to run the ball effectively and have that translate to their passing game, this game could be one that Saints’ fans look back on as the turning point of 2014.