The game against the San Francisco 49ers last weekend seemed more like a game from the 2016 season than the post-Lattimore perennial-playoff team we’ve come to see the past three seasons.
As in those 7-9 seasons (2014-2016), we saw Drew Brees have nearly a perfect performance just to keep the team in the game while the defense gave up explosive plays through the air and on the ground. Yet the biggest déjà-vu of all was seeing Craig Robertson and Stephone Anthony starting as the base linebackers. Wild.
But though the team lost, we got to see a vintage Brees performance that featured five touchdown passes and included his signature goal-line leap. At the age of 40 Brees’s playing days are most likely numbered, so getting to see a performance like this was even more meaningful albeit disappointing due to the end results. But nonetheless Brees’s five touchdown passes deserve a second look.
Touchdown 1: 1st Quarter 11:42 3rd & 10
The Saints waste no time after receiving the opening kick and find themselves just inside of 49ers’ territory at the 38 yard line.
The offense comes out with 11 personnel in shotgun with trips to the field side and Kamara to Brees’s right. Cook is the inner most receiver on the trips side with Tre’Quan Smith in the slot and Ted Ginn Jr. split out wide. On the boundary side, Michael Thomas will run a corner route and Kamara will break his option route to the outside.
The defense is in cover 3, but will have the boundary corner in man to man on Thomas, due to the trips on the other side of the formation. The middle safety is shading towards the trips side and cheats over at the snap, giving Cook the inside leverage to break his deep over route behind the linebacker (#54). Brees will place the ball in between the two defenders, hitting Cook in stride who then breaks a tackle and scores the first touchdown of the game.
Touchdown 2: 1st Quarter 4:58 1st & 10
The offense will start at their own 46 yard line after a nice kick return by Deonte Harris and find themselves just outside the red zone after 5 plays.
Once again in shotgun, the offense will go with a two tight end look with Josh Hill and Cook to the boundary and Murray (12 personnel) in the backfield. Brees will motion Cook from right to left to create another trips formation with Thomas in the slot and Taysom Hill out wide. The playcall is Payton’s signature four verts with a play action fake to Murray. Thomas and Cook will run a vertical switch route combination that has Thomas running a post route and Cook running the seam route. The threat of Thomas’s post route will take both safeties out of the middle of the field leaving no one defending the seam.
Brees steps to his left out of the pocket to avoid the pressure from Nick Bosa forcing an off platform throw. This leads to the ball being placed behind Cook, but he is able to adjust and make the catch while taking a big hit.
Touchdown 3: 2nd Quarter 15:00 1st & Goal
The offense is set up nicely again thanks to another Harris return and have a 1st and goal from the 3 yard line after five plays.
In 11 personnel with Brees under center and Murray in the backfield, Josh Hill will initially line up out wide towards the boundary. Brees will motion Hill into the backfield and the safety (#36) will follow him as he motions, indicating that the defense is playing a man coverage.
Here the Saints will run a play action mesh concept with Thomas and Smith both running the shallow crossing routes and Hill running a flat route. After faking the handoff from Brees, Murray will do a good job of making a cut block on the defensive end who is barreling down towards Brees.
The crossing route by Smith creates a natural “rub” on the safety covering Hill, allowing the tight end to be wide open on his flat route without any defender in the area. It’s an easy pitch and catch for Brees and they score on their third possession in a row.
Touchdown 4: 4th Quarter 6:12 2nd & 15
Down nine points with time going against them, Payton dials up a play they scored their first touchdown on.
Once again in shotgun they send out 10 personnel (1 running back, 0 tight ends) and trips to the field. Kamara and Thomas will run the weakside option again while Smith will run the over route instead of Cook.
Thomas will release inside and attack the cornerback’s inside shoulder as if he is running an in-breaking route. He then uses a swim move to clear the defender’s hands and gains outside leverage as he breaks his corner route toward the pylon. The middle safety stays towards the trips side this time and is unable to get over the top to defend the pass.
The 49ers run a stunt that gives them a free rusher, but Brees is able to sidestep in the pocket and hit Thomas for the touchdown.
Touchdown 5: 4th Quarter 0:56 1st & 10
Leading yet another beautifully executed two-minute drill, Brees has his team in striking distance from the 18 yard line for the go-ahead touchdown.
Here the offense will run their version of the drive concept in 11 personnel with a bunch formation to the boundary and Josh Hill lined up on the field side with a tight split. Smith is the outside receiver in the bunch with Thomas at the point and Ginn inside.
The drive concept is a west coast offense staple that has the outside receiver running a shallow crossing route and an inside receiver running a dig, creating a high-low read for the quarterback. This variation has Ginn bending his route into a post and Thomas running a corner route. Brees will look to the post first, but the 49ers send a blitz and the route doesn’t have time to develop. Brees then looks to the out route from Hill, but the cornerback has it covered so he comes down to Smith on the crossing route. The middle linebacker (#54) will wall-off Ginn’s route, which is where he turns his body parallel to the sideline to disrupt any in-breaking routes. Once Ginn pushes vertical enough, the linebacker will work to the middle hook area, but by this time Smith is already a few steps ahead of him and can’t make the tackle. Smith then spins out of a tackle attempt and runs up the sideline for the touchdown.
Unfortunately the defense failed to make a stop on the next drive and allowed the 49ers to get down the field and set up the game winning field goal as time expired.
Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael had a great gameplan that Brees executed nearly perfectly while the offense also had solid contributions from players not named Thomas or Kamara, which is what this team has been waiting for all season. If the offense is peaking it’s coming at the perfect time with the defense suffering multiple injuries and the playoffs about a month away.