The world would be a different place if the Saints had played with any sort of defense for the vast majority of the Drew Brees era. Since 2006, the Saints have trotted out more below 30 defenses than a Canadian winter. Offenses drive teams forward, and certainly the Saints have had the offensive equivalent to the Batmobile in the same 13-year time span, but to consistently make and win Super Bowls, the defense has to be something more than a 2007 Honda Civic.
In 8 of Brees’ 13 years, the defense has ranked 22nd or lower in DVOA. Five times they’ve been 30th or worse. The 2017 and 2018 Saints found the defense they were looking for and finished 8th and 11th respectively on that side of the ball. The results were two straight playoff berths.
The more you win, the more your past is presented as some sort of grand tale of defying the odds and inventive scheming. The Saints haven’t won enough for how good their offense is, so the mainstream media doesn’t talk about them.
Hopefully, after the Brees-Payton era has long finished, it will get the legendary status that it deserves.
The Patriots just won a Super Bowl where in their game-winning drive, they lined up in an Empty formation for four straight plays of the drive. They ran the same play on each of those plays. Brady went 4/4. Patriots win. The stuff of legends. Now, the whole world knows what Hoss Y-Juke is. The play that won the Super Bowl.
This is a great play, and the Patriots have been deadly from Empty formations running this play or their Hoss X-Follow concepts for a number of years.
With that said, the Saints have been just as dominant, if not more dominant from their Empty package that has evolved in the last two years to become almost unstoppable.
The Saints might only have one Super Bowl, but it’s time to start mythologizing this team. This tale is called Never Been Wrong: The story of the Weak Side Option Route.
Both the Saints and Patriots prefer to run option routes when they go Empty. The Pats tend to do it from the strong side (the three-receiver side), while the Saints do it from the weak side (the two-receiver side).
The reason why option (or “choice”) routes are so prevalent from Empty formations is because with the defense spread out, it forces them to concede certain one versus one situations.
The Saints get their isolated matchup between the weak side slot and the weak side linebacker (Will) or the weak side safety. Either Michael Thomas, a very good receiver, or Alvin Kamara, another very good receiver, will be put in this position.
The goal is for the outside receiver to run off whoever is covering him to set up the isolation for the slot receiver.
You can see here against 1-high coverage, that the cornerback has to respect the deep route of the the wide receiver
The option route gives the slot receiver three choices predicated on the how the defender on top of him is playing. Essentially, he’s doing the opposite of that defender. After about 4-5 yards, if the guy is playing inside, run out. If he’s playing outside, run inside on a slant. If you feel like he’s playing deeper in zone, you sit down and hook up.
Defenses generally don’t want to give away the inside, so from these positions Kamara or Thomas will often run an out for the easiest completion of all time.
You don’t want to give the an inside release to either Thomas or Kamara, because then this happens:
With a quarterback as smart and accurate as Brees, the defense can never be right unless they put extra defenders to that side. Both 13 and 41 have caught so many balls from this concept. It’s always open.
The first answer for defenses is to bring the middle linebacker to the weak side slot receiver to effectively double cover him. Now, the receiver can’t go out, can’t go in and has to run a hook. The Saints don’t want that.
How Brees will combat this is by always looking at the middle linebacker right when he takes the snap. If he does run to the weak side, Brees will then look to the strong side and find his “Stick” concept. By committing an extra player to the weak side, the defense is conceding territory to the strong side. Brees has run this “stick” play since he was in high school, it’s one of the most common pass plays in football and he can usually find a completion to that side.
The Saints will run a few different variations of this concept like this slot fade version.
One of my favorite progressions was when they felt like the Mike would start jumping the stick route. The Saints would run the same stick route, but the No. 2 receiver would run a deeper in route to take advantage of a low Mike.
It really helps when you can put your best receiver there.
Okay, so the Stick route and its variations take care of a defense when the linebacker moves to double the slot receiver, but what if they double the slot receiver with the cornerback?
The first answer is to throw over the cornerback before the safety can get there. Quarterbacks don’t generally like throwing into this window but if there’s anyone that can do it it’s Drew Brees.
Brees also knows that he’s so supremely accurate and quick that he can fit the ball into the slot receiver before the cornerback comes inside. Even if the defense does everything right, Brees can still find a 5-yard completion.
As Brees has mastered the art of playing quarterback, he’s been able to manipulate his drop back to be more efficient. Sean Payton will put the option route to both the right or left of his quarterback and Brees changes his footwork to account for either side.
To his right, there is no issue. He just opens normally, turns his shoulders to the right sideline, crosses his feet over and can see the the whole play develop before he softly puts the ball right into his receivers hands.
He can’t perform the same drop back looking for a receiver on the left because a human neck is not that flexible. For this drop back, he’ll keep his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage for as long as possible before finishing his drop back and firing the ball in.
The weak side option route is not the only concept the Saints will run out of Empty sets, but it’s there most used and, ultimately, their best one. They can also get into the same play by lining the running back in the backfield but then releasing him to that same slot back position after the snap.
As a bonus, here’s a cut up I made of every time Kamara caught this route in 2017.