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Saints Must Fix Early-Down Play Calling Heading into Final Stretch

Does Sean Payton need to change it up in early downs game plans???

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

When I received the alert on my phone that Dan Arnold would be inactive vs the Bucs, I sent the following text message to a friend of mine: “The Saints are going to mess around trying to establish the run against a team that is fully aware it’s coming and are going to find themselves down 10-3 halfway through the second quarter.” While I’m a fan of Dan Arnold’s skill set, it wasn’t the fact that the Saints would be without the tight end that made me pessimistic about the team; it was what the decision to deactivate Arnold signified to me. To me, it showed that Sean Payton was intent on establishing the run and trying to grind out a win given the poor weather conditions.

Even as short as a decade ago, this could have been thought of by most of the football world as a sound strategy: in a game with adverse conditions, take the air out of the ball and lean on your run game. Nowadays, being a “run-first” team leads to sluggish starts and forcing your team to come back in games.

A bit of background on some of the stats I looked at: most are pretty basic (Yards Per Carry, Yards Per Attempt), but a couple are a bit more advanced (though still pretty simple) such as First Down Rate (% of plays that result in a first down and Success Rate. A “successful” play is one that picks up 50% of the yards to go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd/4th down. When I looked at the play calling, I looked at “early down” play calling, meaning just 1st and 2nd down. I did this because there is more left to the coach’s discretion on 1st/2nd down. 3rd down play calls are generally determined by yards to go. The last bit of background needed is that passing is generally more efficient than rushing: the Saints average 8.4 Yards Per Attempt with a 58% success rate on the season when passing. When rushing, the Saints average 4.1 Yards Per Carry with a 54% success rate.

Digging into the data from the Bucs game, the Saints were far too committed to the run, particularly on 1st downs and 2nd and longs.

Rush vs Pass

Type Count Average Success Rate
Type Count Average Success Rate
Runs 22 4.41 36.36%
Passes 20 6.05 55.00%

Now this is just a simple count of every early down play call from the Bucs game, but it’s still interesting to see that despite the fact that the Saints were averaging more than a yard and a half more per play and a success rate of 55% passing the ball compared to just 36% rushing, they still ran more than passed.

The following table shows every early down run from the Bucs game and the overall stats. A couple of notes: I did not keep track of goal-to-go situations since the distances and play calls change dramatically near the goal line. I also counted any penalties that occurred as actual plays (for example, the Saints had 2 holding penalties on runs so those are charted here).

Bucs Early Down Runs

Early Down Runs Starting Yards Ending Success
Early Down Runs Starting Yards Ending Success
1 1st and 10 1 2nd and 10 N
2 2nd and 9 1 3rd and 8 N
3* 1st and 10 -10 1st and 20 N
4 1st and 10 0 2nd and 10 N
5 2nd and 10 -7 3rd and 17 N
6 1st and 10 -1 2nd and 11 N
7 2nd and 6 4 3rd and 2 Y
8 1st and 10 4 2nd and 6 N
9 1st and 10 2 2nd and 8 N
10 1st and 10 11 1st and 10 Y
11 1st and 10 4 2nd and 6 N
12 1st and 10 8 2nd and 2 Y
13 2nd and 2 0 3rd and 2 N
14 2nd and 7 12 1st and 10 Y
15 2nd and 10 5 3rd and 5 N
16 1st and 10 2 2nd and 8 N
17 1st and 10 9 2nd and 1 Y
18 2nd and 1 17 Touchdown Y
19 1st and 10 0 2nd and 10 N
20 1st and 10 12 1st and 10 Y
21 1st and 10 1 2nd and 9 N
22* 1st and 10 -10 1st and 20 N
23 1st and 20 9 2nd and 11 Y
24 2nd and 11 3 3rd and 8 N

Bucs Runs Distance

Distance Count YPC 1st Down % Success
Distance Count YPC 1st Down % Success
Short 2 8.5 50.00% 50.00%
Medium 1 4 100.00% 100.00%
Long 21 2.7 9.52% 28.57%

The distances used were short (3 or fewer yards to go), medium (4-6 yards to go), and long (7+ yards to go). Amazingly, despite averaging just 2.7 yards per carry, the Saints ran the ball 21 times on early downs from a distance of 1st/2nd and 7+. They only passed the ball 20 times TOTAL on early downs all game. The passing stats are as follows:

Bucs Early Passes

Early Down Passes Starting Yards Ending Success
Early Down Passes Starting Yards Ending Success
1 1st and 10 20 1st and 10 Y
2 1st and 10 0 2nd and 10 N
3 2nd and 20 3 3rd and 17 N
4 1st and 10 17 1st and 10 Y
5 1st and 10 11 1st and 10 Y
6 1st and 10 6 2nd and 4 Y
7 2nd and 4 0 Interception N
8 2nd and 11 8 3rd and 3 Y
9 1st and 10 4 2nd and 6 N
10 2nd and 6 0 3rd and 6 N
11 1st and 10 4 2nd and 6 N
12 2nd and 6 -6 Fumble N
13 2nd and 8 7 3rd and 1 Y
14 2nd and 6 7 1st and 10 Y
15 1st and 10 20 1st and 10 Y
16 1st and 10 3 2nd and 7 N
17 1st and 10 0 2nd and 10 N
18 2nd and 8 9 1st and 10 Y
19 2nd and 10 0 3rd and 10 N
20 2nd and 9 8 3rd and 1 Y

Bucs Passes by Distance

Distance Count YPA 1st Down % Success
Distance Count YPA 1st Down % Success
Short (1-3 Yds) 0 - - -
Medium (4-6 Yds) 4 0.25 0% 25%
Long (7+ Yds) 16 7.5 37.50% 56.25%

Remember before how the Saints ran the ball 21 times on 1st/2nd and long despite a 29% success rate? The team passed just 16 times in the same situations, despite the fact that they were successful almost twice as often on pass plays. And while the Saints struggled through the early part of the Bucs game, overall for the game, they averaged the same yards per drop-back as the Patriots have this season.

Looking back on the game as a whole, it’s easy to see why the Saints struggled so much prior to Taysom Hill’s blocked punt. Despite the fact that the passing game had a success rate of 54% prior to the blocked punt, the Saints still had 8 early down runs which averaged 0.5 YPC with just one of those runs earning a successful grade.

I also decided to look back at a game where the Saints were more successful offensively to see if the play calling changed at all. The following stats and tables are all from the Saints’ 45-35 victory over the Rams.

Rams Run vs Pass

Type Count Average Success Rate
Type Count Average Success Rate
Run 24 4.54 37.50%
Pass 26 8.15 58%

Overall, there really wasn’t THAT much of a difference in how the Saints ran the ball. They were slightly more efficient, but the key difference was that the Saints were more dedicated to the passing game and were more efficient doing so. The split is even more favorable to the passing game as this includes two runs when the Saints were simply trying to kill the clock. When the Saints were focused on scoring, they passed the ball 26 times on early downs compared to 22 runs, and even that might not be enough.

Rams Run vs Pass by Distance

Play Type Count YPC 1st Down % Success
Play Type Count YPC 1st Down % Success
Run on Short 0 0 0.00% 0.00%
Run on Medium 4 6.5 50.00% 75.00%
Run on Long 20 4.15 20.00% 30.00%
Pass on Short 1 6 100.00% 100.00%
Pass on Medium 2 4.5 50.00% 50.00%
Pass on Long 23 8.6 47.80% 56.50%

We can see here that the Saints run/pass split on 1st/2nd and long basically flipped, and that made a huge difference in their offensive success. Rather than the 16/21 Pass/Run split in the Bucs game, the Saints had a 23/20 Pass/Run split against the Rams. But even in this more efficient decision, Sean Payton still had plenty of room to pass more in these key situations. The Saints were still almost twice as successful passing the ball on 1st/2nd and long as they were rushing it, yet the split was still almost 50/50. Think about it another way: in the most explosive offensive game of the season, the Chiefs and Rams ran the ball 20 and 21 times TOTAL during the game. So the Saints ran the ball 21 times in inefficient situations on 1st and 2nd down while the Chiefs and Rams, in a game they knew they’d need to score nearly every possession, ran the ball 20 times each during the entire game.

The last thing I decided to do with these games was to look at the 1st/2nd down play calls and results on each series where the Saints were forced to punt or kick a field goal. Basically, I wanted to see what play calls led the drive to stall. They are as follows:

  1. Bucs: 1st Down: Incomplete Pass; 2nd Down: 10 yard holding call on run; 2nd down: 3 yard pass
  2. Bucs: 1st Down: 0 yard run; 2nd Down: -7 yard run
  3. Bucs: 1st Down: -1 yard run; 2nd Down: 8 yard pass
  4. Bucs: 1st Down: 2 yard run; 2nd Down: 7 yard pass
  5. Rams: 1st Down: -4 yard run; 2nd Down: 7 yard pass
  6. Rams: 1st Down: 2 yard run; 2nd Down: 2 yard run
  7. Rams: 1st Down: 3 yard run; 2nd Down: 2 yard run

Of the seven Saints drives that stalled (outside of turnovers), six started off with a run on 1st and 10 (all of which were unsuccessful). The one that started with a pass turned into a 2nd and 20 when the Saints were called for holding when trying to run on 2nd and 10. Four of the seven series featured runs that resulted in negative yardage. Overall, in these 7 sequences featuring 15 total plays (including the penalty), there were 10 runs (all unsuccessful) for -11 yards including the 10 yard holding penalty. This is obviously a small sample size, but this is a trend that’s been proven true in studies over recent years. The Saints were passing the ball with incredible efficiency vs the Rams which helped them build a 35-14 lead. When they decided to try and sit on the lead and run the ball, their next 3 possessions resulted in 2 punts and a field goal. Against the Bucs, the Saints tried to come out and run the ball given the expected weather conditions. Their first 6 rushes were unsuccessful, and the Saints scored 3 points in the first half.

Passing the ball more isn’t a simple cure-all for some of the inefficiencies in the Saints offense over parts of the last 2-3 games. Nor is running the ball a surefire detriment to the team’s Super Bowl hopes. But if the Saints are going to win the next 6 games to secure home field advantage and then beat 3 good-elite teams to win the Super Bowl, they can’t afford to give the other team the analytical advantage when it comes to smart play calling on early downs. The Saints very well might be the best overall team in the NFL, and taking the low-hanging fruit that is passing more on 1st and 10 and 2nd and long could help propel them these next 6 games.