Last month, we looked at how the Saints use Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara as part of their weakside option package. Today we’re going to look at another way the team bullies the weakside linebacker to get completions.
Over the past 2 years, when Brees targets a wheel route from one of his running backs on the weakside of the field, he’s a perfect 10 for 10. Kamara was targeted 8 times with the remaining 2 targets going to Mark Ingram. If Sean Payton called the weakside wheel concept, the ball was going to be moving forward.
When defenses started spending too much energy trying to get tight to the running back to defend the weakside option route, the Saints answer was the wheel. They ran it 2 ways:
Out Of The Backfield
The Saints will run their weakside option route with the running back starting in the backfield therefore their wheel progression has to come from the same look as well.
Brees and the boys will line up in some sort of backside isolation formation with Michael Thomas always working as the backside X receiver. Often this will be in a 2 back formation with the fullback to the side of the slot receiver and the running back (Kamara or Ingram) to the side of Thomas.
In the above picture, Zach Line creates the 3 receiver side by being a pseudo tight end to the slot receiver, while Ingram and Thomas exist on the weakside of the formation.
Because of the gravity that Michael Thomas demands, defenses almost have to play him in man to man. It’s also one of the base checks in the NFL to play the single receiver in man to man but either way MT13 demands it.
Thomas’ job is to create a pick on the first defender inside of him. He’s supposed to make it look like he’s running an actual inside hook route but really he’s never getting the ball. You can see on some clips he even stick his hand out trying to create even more of an obstacle.
With Thomas manned up, this means the next interior defender has to be man to man against the running back. The pick frees up the running back to wheel down the field to get open.
Thomas’ job is to take 2 defenders, the one covering him and then the one he is picking to get the running back open.
In an ideal world, the linebacker who is being picked tries to fight through underneath the pick because then the running back is long gone. The one in Cincinnati this past season shows what happens when the linebacker does that.
The Saints wish every time they ran the wheel from the backfield this would be the result. The running back wheeling up field and Brees deftly lofting it in stride down the field for 20+ yard gains. Unfortunately, defenses aren’t that dumb. New Orleans knows they’ll get the pick play and get the running back free because through film studies they see when they’re getting man coverage on the backside. Therefore, the danger defender is the safety. If the ball stays in the air long enough, a good safety can get over there and make a play on the ball.
That’s why Brees has two separate balls that he throws based on where the safety is. Most quarterbacks want to throw this ball down the field all the time but Brees, the vet, is trying to throw completions and not put the ball in danger.
The wheel concept calls for Brees to take a regular 3 step drop when the route is to his right and a 3 open drop when it’s too his left. I’ve written about these dropbacks before here. As a righty, when Brees wants to throw to his left on quicker hitting concepts, he will keep his shoulder parallel to the line of scrimmage while dropping so he doesn’t strain his neck trying to look to the left.
This allows Brees to throw the wheel route to either side without stress. Drew always throws this on the last step of the drop. He tries his best not to take false steps and ultimately allow the defense to recover.
During the dropback, Brees looks at the safety to determine what throw he will make. If the safety is either looking to the opposite side of the field or is on the hash mark (or wider) on the far side of the field, Brees can float the ball for a big play. If not, he fires the ball on a rope before the safety can get over top. The linebacker running with the running back can’t afford himself the luxury of turning his head to find the ball and make a play because he’s still trying to get close to the running back.
This is what that looks like:
With Thomas and Kamara lined up on 1 side of the field, safeties tend to over play that side. No matter, Brees is 6 for 6 throwing the bullet wheel pass. If you go back to the Bengals clip, you can see how the safety rotates and his eyes are on the wide side of the field so Brees is allowed to throw the deeper ball to Ingram.
One of the things I noticed was the Brees seemed to have a specific audible/signal to get into the wheel concept. You can see him use both hands to point to his helmet.
7 for 7 for 109 yards.
From The Slot
When Payton wants to dial up a deeper shot play, he lines Kamara in the slot. The outside receiver runs a post route with the goal being to set a “pick” on the safety this time so that Kamara can wheel down the sideline for a bigger play.
We can see Michael Thomas’s job is draw the attention of the safety while Kamara gets a favorable matchup with the linebacker.
Being that this route is deeper, Brees will have to take a deeper dropback. This time he takes a 5 step and hitches at least once to throw it.
This is your classic Post-Wheel combination but the Saints are really only trying to hit the wheel. You can see in the next 2 clips, how they adjust the post route to set half of a pick on the linebacker (like on the shorter wheel route) before getting up to the safety.
3 for 3 for 97 yards.
Brees is a surgeon.
You might be asking yourself how come it feels like you’ve seen a lot more wheels than the 10 I found. I went looking just for the weakside, isolated receiver ones. This are the Saints progression off their bread and butter weakside option concept. The Saints also have a concept to both the wide side of the field and to the shortside where the wheel is run from the #3 receiver with 2 receivers outside of him. The Kamara touchdown in the playoff game vs. the Vikings is on this one.
Brees being perfect when targeting the weakside wheel route is almost unheard of but between the play caller and his elite quarterback play, the Saints make it look so easy.
Here’s a compilation of all 10 plays: