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Pass or Run: What Does the Revamping of the Saints' Offensive Line Really Mean

We seem to hear it yearly of late. We have to commit to the run game. Yet we still continue to be one of the top heavy passing percentage teams in the league. Will the recent moves mean a different philosophy. Probably not!

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numberFire has recently put out an article debating the effect of multiple roster changes and their potential meanings to the Saints offensive philosophy. You can read the article at numberFire, and with their permission I'm going to use some of their interpretations, as well as give my own feelings.

From the majority of the roster moves New Orleans has made this offseason, many have speculated a shift to a more run-oriented approach on offense. The Saints traded away Jimmy Graham in exchange for center Max Unger, they re-signed Mark Ingram to a four-year contract, and they also brought in C.J. Spiller as a free agent. They spent their first of two first-round draft picks on offensive lineman Andrus Peat from Stanford, who will either start his career inside or play tackle where he's projecting long term, which could bump Zach Strief in to guard.

How would such a switch impact the Saints overall?

Up in the Air

A switch to a run heavy offense would be a complete 180 from how the Saints have played during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They've been efficiently pass heavy during that time, too. The Oakland Raiders were the most pass heavy team in 2014, but that was mostly due to being behind in a majority of games and needing to catch up. The Saints found themselves behind in more games than they've been accustomed to, but they were able to be relatively efficient with their passing regardless.

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Saints were one of the top passing offenses in the league last season. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player's production to historical expectation levels.

During the 2014 season, New Orleans ranked 10th in schedule-adjusted Passing NEP while having the fourth highest pass ratio in the league. To go back to the Raiders for a moment, they were the the 30th best passing offense by Adjusted Passing NEP while throwing the ball the most. But this is what New Orleans has been. They throw the ball and they throw it often. Since 2011, the Saints have not ranked lower than fifth in the league in terms of percentage of pass plays run.

Despite the continued high passing percentage, the team was actually also better in the running game.

On the Ground

The numbers back up why New Orleans might want to rely a bit more on the ground game. The Saints ranked fifth on the ground last season by Adjusted Rushing NEP. This might surprise some, but New Orleans has been very effective running the ball over the past few seasons. The last time the Saints weren't in the top half of the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP was 2010. Three of those seasons, including 2014, were in the top 10. On a per-play basis, the Saints were even better, ranking in the top 14 each of the past four seasons. In both 2014 and 2011, they ranked fourth.

With Ingram coming off his best season as a pro, 14th among running backs in Rushing NEP per attempt, and the addition of Spiller, New Orleans should be able to effectively use the committee backfield they've used during the Payton era.

On the two key players traded, Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham.

Loss of Weapons

The offseason additions aren't the only thing suggesting the Saints will be keeping the ball on the ground more in 2015. New Orleans voluntarily traded away two of the three most targeted receivers on the team from 2014. The trades of Graham to Seattle and Kenny Stills to Miami vacated 208 targets from the 2014 offense, 31.5 percent of Brees' pass attempts last year.

Many of those targets will now go to second-year receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Josh Hill. Cooks had 69 targets, fourth on the team, in just 10 games played before suffering a season ending thumb injury. Cooks likely won't have a problem taking on a bigger role in the offense. On a per-game basis, he was the most targeted wide receiver, above Stills and Marques Colston, who finished the year with 100 targets.

Hill is the most interesting piece in this puzzle. Graham was the most targeted player on the Saints last season but wasn't very efficient in those targets. Graham ranked just 24th among tight ends with at least 30 targets in Reception NEP per target. Graham was eighth in that metric during the 2013 season.

My personal feelings of these 2 trades is that Kenny Stills was the slightly greater loss. I really believe that Drew had developed tunnel-vision when it came to Jimmy Graham, and the trade will help him to return to form. Spread the damn ball around Drew!

Their conclusions:

Defensive Key

If the Saints truly do want to rely on running the ball more, it might not even be up to the offense to dictate whether that is a viable option. That could fall on the Rob Ryan-led defense. It is atypical to run the ball while trailing, and if the Saints do not improve their defense -- they ranked last in the league in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- then New Orleans might be forced into their passing ways of old.

Oakland didn't want to be the most pass heavy team last season, but they didn't have a choice. They were constantly behind and needed to score points.

The good news is that the Saints have also made strides to improve the defense this offseason. Six of their nine draft selections were on the defensive side of the ball, and they also brought in cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive end Anthony Spencer as free agents. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was brought in as part of the Stills trade with Miami. They key to the offense and the pass-run ratio may come down to how these players perform rather than the likes of Ingram, Spiller, and Hill.

In a vacuum, the Saints want to ease the load on Drew Brees as he enters his age-36 season. For that to truly work, New Orleans is going to have to give up a fewer points in that vacuum.

I agreed totally with the last thoughts written. In 2009 the Saints relied heavily on our opportunistic defense to carry us to and through the XLIV Superbowl winning season. Not surprisingly we also had one of our best seasons running the ball.

I think Sean Payton's and Mickey Loomis' new apparent commitment this offseason to the defense, will make or break our season in 2015.

My views on the extension of Mark Ingram and the signing of C. J. Spiller actually speaks more to the continuation of Sean's offensive leanings, than any sudden change of heart. What is most telling is the revamping of the O-line that is "in process".

Shoring up the middle with the bringing in of Max Unger, the trade of Ben Grubbs and the drafting of Andrus Peat, was not all about gaining cap space. Drew Brees has been sacked and hurried more the past 2 seasons than any other time since 2006. Yes, the improved O-line should shore up the running game, but the key piece to this puzzle is and will continue to be protecting Drew. Improving our run game will also be an important part of that puzzle. For the play fake to actually work, the running game or rather the commitment to it, must be consistent to keep defenses honest.   Drew took a lot of punishment in 2013, having his highest sack totals as a Saint. Some of the worst decision making he has ever made was in 2014 and lead to very many turnovers. This can also be attributed to the pressure he received. I still see the team being a high percentage passing team, but do hope we can drastically lower the imbalance.

So will we be a pass or run team. I think we'll still be very much a passing team, that honestly relies more on our running game. It's a successful plan that brought us one championship, and is one that can bring us another. Ultimately for it to have success, our defense must also do it's part. In my opinion, the moves made in both free agency and the draft on defense must make the difference this year for us to return to glory. A hopefully healthy Jairus Byrd, our marque signing of 2014, as well as the signing of Brandon Browner, must protect the secondary. The drafting of key defensive players in the 2015 draft, must be instant upgrades. We have to be able to bring pressure, stop the run and stop the ridiculous 3rd and long fails, that were guaranteed in 2014.  If all of that happens, then we can be both the passing success that we were in 2009, as well as the running power we wish to be in 2015.

Ever the optimist, I really believe we've made the moves necessary to make us contenders this year. I believe we can return to past glory. I believe "We Can Go All The Way"! I'll go on record as predicting a 12-4 regular season, and at least another NFC South Championship. Yeah, you can list that.