The Saints’ slow start as a team has been well-covered by the media. They’re 1-2, and they’re third in the NFC South, which of course is heavily underperforming for a team with the kind of talent that the Saints have. However, offensively, the Saints have actually come out of the gate very strong. They’re currently 4th in the league in total offense, and 6th in rushing yards at 140.3 yards per game. A big part of this strong start was the now-injured Mark Ingram, who was averaging 6 yards per carry before being sidelined by a broken hand.
With that being said, the Saints have a veritable stable of talented running backs. Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas are both averaging over 4 yards per carry, and Thomas is still a strong cog in the Saints’ passing game.
Of course, being ranked 6th in the league should be taken with a grain of salt due to them only playing 3 games to this point. However, the Saints are running the ball in a very convincing fashion that cannot be ignored, and them being 19 spots up from their 25th ranking in 2013 isn’t by accident.
Of course, the Saints’ transition to the Zone Blocking Scheme was covered extensively during the offseason, but this isn’t necessarily the sole cause for the Saints’ improvement. It’s more Sean Payton’s ability to cater to the players that he has out on the field on any given play.
On this play, the Saints come out in a big formation. Ingram is the back that is in on the play. The Saints run the classic zone stretch play out of the Big "I." Atlanta has their basic 7 men in the box, and are in their base 3-4. The free safety (#20) plays up by the line, while the corners line up outside with one safety over the top.
At the point that Ingram gets the ball, we can see that all of the Falcons that were in the box are either accounted for or taken out of the play due to being on the backside of it (the players in black are the ones accounted for whereas the ones in red are simply taken out of the play). The whole offensive line pulls, which allows Ingram to easily get off tackle. And if we look at the other angle:
Austin Johnson now has a clear path to block the corner on the outside. This allows Ingram to get off tackle uncontested, and it sets up his blocks for when he actually gets there.
This is the risk that the zone scheme runs. Teams can get so caught up moving East-West that by the time they get outside, there’s no room to bounce it out any further before hitting the sideline. Luckily, however, Ingram sees a small seam in the convoluted mess that is the blocking of this play.
Running backs can’t be completely reliant on their blocking to be successful. If that were the case, they’d never get any blame. Something about the ZBS just makes Ingram seem to run so much angrier than he did in the one read offense. He finds a small seam, in which he directly confronts Atlanta linebacker Paul Worrilow. Ingram crashes into Worrilow head-on, barreling forward.
The circle is only here to show the important part of the play: Ingram takes Worrilow for 2 yards before breaking his tackle and being pushed out of bounds. Ingram’s vision and toughness are what defines his niche as a ZBS running back. He’s very patient and adamant about setting his blocks up. However, more importantly is the fact that he’s willing to take (and give) a hit if he has to in order to push forward for a few more yards. On this, a play in which he runs out of real estate completely, he is still able to create a 4 yard gain, and the ability to make something out of nothing is what makes this year’s Ingram different from the Ingram of years’ past.
When Thomas gets the carry, the schemes tend to vary. Out of Ingram’s 24 carries, there is yet to be one in which the offensive line doesn’t pull as a unit. However, Thomas is a bit more of a read and cut runner than Ingram, who likes to get outside and then follow his blocks from there.
Getting Thomas in space is one of Payton’s favorite pastimes, and one of the ways that he’ll do it is to come out in this Pistol formation. The Pistol gives the Saints the ability to run play action, go over the top, or simply hand the ball off. Each player assignment is indicated by a bar on this play. The primary gap for Thomas to get through is going to be the 2 gap, or the one between the Center and the right guard. Minnesota has only 6 men in the box due to the Saints’ personnel. This is why Jimmy Graham’s value goes so far beyond that of a traditional tight end. This is technically a "big" set in which two tight ends are on the field, but Minnesota still has to consider him a massive receiving threat.
There is, apparently, one massive problem with the scheme, however. One of the Minnesota linebackers is left unaccounted for, and he is, apparently, easily in position to make a play on the ball once it’s handed to Thomas. However, if we go back to the original assignment diagram:
Note the blue, and the blue only. This small amendment is very important. It’s an indication that the RG’s real job is to engage and release the defensive tackle, before picking up the linebacker in the gap. Which goes…
Swimmingly, in fact. The RG bounces off of his man and engages the linebacker. This allows Thomas into the second level of the defense, and gains the Saints 7 yards. Payton loves using sets like this to give Thomas room, and it also keeps his line fresh & honest. If they’re pulling on every play, it can be exhausting for the big guys up front. This is why having backs with different fortes can be so important to a successful offense. The Saints will never be a one feature back type of team, because they have a coach that prefers to utilize the best assets of a lot of individuals.
On this play, out of the same formation, the Saints give Thomas another opportunity to run out of the Pistol. It’s both the same offensive and defensive formation.
Out of the exact same set in the exact same situation, we see the line pull right at the snap. They’re moving to an area, rather than to a man, and Thomas is instantly going off-tackle. Rather than engaging 92 at the snap, the RG and the Right Tackle pull, trying to get to the other side of the field.
The key difference between Ingram & Thomas is how quickly they make their cuts. Thomas is a north south runner, who doesn’t like to let his blocks set for too long in case gaps close up. On this play, he cuts upfield just as he gets outside of the tackle box.
Once again, the importance of having a physical back in the ZBS is apparent. Once you're past the line of scrimmage, there is very little help at the next level to block secondary players. Thomas initiates contact, and takes 3 Vikings for about a 5 yard ride, eventually carrying for an 11 yard gain.
The dichotomy between these plays highlights the importance of having a back like Thomas. He keeps defenses honest. The play could be a screen, a swing, a draw, a stretch, well it could be anything is what I’m saying. An inability to pinpoint something as basic as a blocking scheme can be an invaluable asset for a coach to have.
The final piece to the running back puzzle is Khiry Robinson. Robinson is a runner that thrives off his agility (namely his initial jump cut) and his explosive acceleration. Robinson can run in both the ZBS and a Power Man scheme, but he’s at his best in the man scheme due to the quick, reactive nature necessary for a running back to succeed in such a scheme.
Of course, one 21 yard play is extrapolative by nature, but this play perfectly indicates everything that Robinson needs to be successful. The RG pulls to the middle to create a gap, while the right defensive end is double teamed by the tight end and the RT. Meanwhile, the left defensive end is double teamed by the left guard and the left tackle.
Number 52 for Atlanta (the LILB in the original picture) is drawn into the backfield by the misdirection. Robinson reaches a huge hole that opens up when the Saints’ blockers engage. The LG is now upfield, able to make a block for Robinson up ahead.
Oh, did I say "a" block? I meant a block in which the LG blocks one Falcon into another. Robinson sees this, he makes a jump cut back inside. Colston, #12 on the outside, blocks the corner.
After this inside-out move, Robinson is able to cut back and rip off a 21 yard run to put the Saints in striking distance.
Robinson is effective in both schemes, but it’s clear by his style that he prefers the power man scheme. This isn’t without good cause, as he is a very powerful runner with a style that isn’t impatient, but is very direct.
The Saints’ running game isn’t reliant on gimmicks or trick plays. It’s reliant on the versatility of the talent that they have. Payton is adaptive by nature, and he’s very careful to not run his players down. By running the multiple schemes that he does, he keeps his offensive line fresh from play to play and he allows his backs to do what they do best.
From Ingram’s stretch plays, to Thomas’s jack of all trades style, to Robinson’s power one cut game, the Saints’ running back corps has a lot of things that it can do. For this reason, losing Ingram won’t be the end all be all of the Saints’ 6th ranked rushing attack, but regaining him will make a huge difference. If Ingram gets back after the Week 6 Bye, as is expected, expect him to run as angry as ever. Furthermore, anticipate that Payton will do everything that he can to make sure that his backs are doing what they do best. After all, as stubborn as his play calling can be at times, no one ever accused Sean Payton of not knowing his talent.