Following the 2013 National Football League season, New Orleans Saints fans were left with a bitter taste in their mouth. The main reason, of course, was the fact that the team prematurely exited the playoffs in the divisional round, after a 23-15 defeat at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks. Another cause for the angst within the "Who Dat Nation" was obviously the meager amount of points scored by the Saints in that game: 15!
For a team built by Head Coach Sean Payton to be an offensive juggernaut that leans on a defense until it breaks, New Orleans was outscored 57 to 22 in two games against Seattle in 2013. The high-flying scoring offense that was 2nd in the NFL in 2011 (34.2 points per game) and 3rd in 2012 (28.8 ppg) fell to 10th (25.9 ppg) in 2013.
Given these adequate yet ordinary numbers, it became fashionable last year among Saints fans and pundits to wonder aloud whether the Saints had lost their offensive mojo. Had they become too predictable? Was the league catching up to them?
To try and answer these questions, I chose to focus on the two games against the Seahawks last year and to higlight a staple of Sean Payton's offense in New Orleans: the screen play.
What's a screen play (also known as a screen pass)? It is one of the most ingenuous offensive designs in football: The quarterback drops back and makes it look as though he is about to throw the ball downfield. The offensive line briefly blocks the oncoming pass rushers then releases downfield. Eager pass rushers think they have a free path to the passer, while a running back sneaks behind them and receives a short pass from his quarterback. With offensive linemen now in front of him to block the linebackers and defensive backs, the running back rushes for what is usually a substantial gain.
Basically, the screen play is designed to exploit over-aggressive defenses. As images most often speak louder than words let's look at the most famous screen pass in Saints history. Trailing 10-6 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints ran the play to perfection, taking their first ever lead in a Super Bowl with a touchdown by running back Pierre Thomas.
Saints at Seahawks - Monday Night Football, 12/02/2013.
"Over-aggressive" is not how one would describe Seattle's 2013 defense. In their two games against the Seahawks this past season, the New Orleans Saints would quickly and painfully come to that realization.
In their first meeting with the Seahawks at Century Link Field in 2013, the Saints ran a fairly low total of 56 plays. Only four of those were screen plays (7.14%) with a miserable output of nine yards. What happened? How were could a team that had seemingly mastered the art of the screen pass suddenly become so bad at it? Several reasons were revealed by the tape.
Facing a Disciplined Defense.
Trailing 17-0 in the second quarter, the first screen play attempted by the Saints eerily resembled the one they ran for their famous first touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV. The play also highlighted the Seahawks' outstanding defensive discipline. Despite Brees' looking off the defense over the middle, the Seahawks linebackers mostly stayed home. Seattle's pass rush didn't overrun the play and despite some average blocking by his offensive linemen, running back Pierre Thomas was able to gain 6 yards thanks to his tackle-breaking abilities.
Shooting Themselves in the Foot.
The second screen play ran by the Saints underlined most of the problems that plagued the team's offensive output in 2013. Down by 20 points and in the shadow of their own endzone, the Saints ran another screen pass to Pierre Thomas. With shoddy blocking by the offensive line, which allows Brees very little time to fake and throw, Thomas once again finds a way to gain seven yards. Alas, the play is eventually nullified by a holding call on right guard Jahri Evans.
With the game all but out of reach, the Saints threw their third screen pass on a 3rd and 10 play, down by 27 points. The odd play call may have been aimed at taking the Seahawks by surprise, but the execution was dreadful. Seattle was undoubtedly determined not to let dangerous Saints running back Darren Sproles be a factor in the game. Brees' fake took less than a second, immediately alerting Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, whose eyes never left Sproles. With absolutely no blocking from his offensive line, Sproles is tackled for a four yards loss.
Did You Say Predictable?
Early in the fourth quarter, New Orleans tried its fourth and last screen play of the game. Having clearly done their homework in the film room, the Seahawks defense had plenty of eyes on Sproles and the possibility of yet another screen pass. Before the offensive line could set up the play, the Saints running back was surrounded and Brees had no other option but to throw the ball to the ground.
Saints at Seahawks - Divisional Playoffs, 01/11/2014.
Contrary to popular belief, the Saints didn't run an inordinate amount of screen plays in the two games against the Seahawks last year. It might have seemed so because of how poorly they fared when they ran those plays. In their second game at the "CLink," New Orleans had a more respectable total of 70 plays (up 14 from the first meeting), yet still threw only four screen passes (5.71%). The outcome was even worse than the second time around. Of the four screens, only one gained yards, but they came in the form of a holding penalty against Seattle. The other three plays lost a combined three yards! Let's look at the tape (if you can stomach it).
In the first encounter between the two teams, New Orleans had run all four of its screen plays with either Pierre Thomas or Darren Sproles as the receiving running back. Looking to catch the Seahawks by surprise, the Saints used running back Mark Ingram for the first of their four screen plays. The Seahawks defense clearly was not expecting it, as the play fake and blocking setup both worked well. Unfortunately, further endearing himself to Saints fans who already adore him, Ingram dropped Brees' pass with blockers in front of him and a potential big gain ahead.
Blocking is Optional.
On their second screen play of the game, New Orleans decided to go back to one of their usual screen pass receiver, running back Darren Sproles. Unfortunately for the Saints, Seattle knew it too. Despite a good fake by Brees who opens is shoulder to the right before passing to his left, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner explodes past Saints left guard Ben Grubbs and carries him through his tackle of Sproles for a three-yard loss.
Sometimes it's Not Your Day.
After he had dropped the ball on the first screen play, Sean Payton decided to give running back Mark Ingram another chance. The Seahawks defense was ready for Ingram to catch a pass this time. Chris Clemons, once he realized that the Saints running back would be the recipient of the pass, held him to ensure that he wouldn't run past him. Even more frustrating for Ingram, the blocking looked setup for a decent gain. Ironically, this is the only screen play that resulted in positive yards for the Saints in that game; it only took a penalty.
Nothing to Write Home About.
The last screen play of the game for New Orleans was abysmal and probably a reason why in 2013, the "screen" weapon became somewhat of a weakness for the Saints. At times last season, it simply seemed as if the Saints, starting with their quarterback Drew Brees, didn't apply themselves to these plays with their usual meticulous precision. With Seattle half expecting a screen to Darren Sproles every time he was in the backfield, the Saints still went back to it. Brees' feeble attempt at faking the defense didn't fool a single person in the stadium or watching at home, and with Seahawks defenders swarming, all the Saints quarterback could do was loft a risky pass to Sproles. The ball was too high and luckily was not intercepted.
2013 wasn't the "year of the screen play" for the New Orleans Saints, especially when they played disciplined defenses such as that of the Seattle Seahawks. Bad execution and predictability were the biggest culprits. The Saints remain one of the best screen offenses in the NFL. However, for more success in the future, they simply need to go back to running these plays with more discipline and conviction. Another solution could be to add new receivers into those plays in order to keep defenses guessing. New Orleans is still a top tier offense in the NFL. However, it might take them returning to elite status if they want to get back to, and win another Super Bowl. It will all start with executing the plays better.
Thanks to "Beware of Dog" aka "The Tweaker" for a great topic suggestion.
Special thanks to Maestro Clay Wendler for his help with the GIFs.