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Film Study: How the Saints Pass O shapes up against the Panthers zone-heavy Pass D

This is the second week in a row this Saints offense will face a Cover 3-heavy defense. They’ll have to be efficient with the underneath attack and make guys miss after the catch.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This is the second week in a row the New Orleans Saints passing attack will face up against a defense that deploys a Cover 3-heavy scheme, as the Carolina Panthers defense now leads the league in the usage of that coverage.

The week before, Drew Brees and the offense faced off against the Chargers, who were also no. 1 in Cover 3 rate at the time. Now they’re no. 2 behind the Panthers, who run it on nearly 50% of of their defensive pass snaps.

While the Chargers were more susceptible to biting on play action and allowing a few more big plays, the Panthers play a pretty conservative brand of three-deep zone.

The formula for the Panthers defense is clear — allow completions underneath, rally and tackle — like they do here short of the sticks on 3rd and short.

They allow an NFL-low of 6.1 yards per pass attempt, 7.1 average depth of target (2nd-lowest) and 9.2 yards per reception (lowest). And what makes even more sense is they allow a top 10-highest completion percentage, at 67%,

They don’t gamble or blitz much, and they rely on their back-end to stay safe deep and force the quarterback to make good decisions every snap, while hoping they can get home with a four-man rush.

Their pass rush is kind of confusing, because they have the lowest amount of sacks in the league, with only 5, but ESPN has them with the 6th-highest pass-rush win rate, at 49%.

They also have a group of young, talented pass-rushers, headlined by Brian Burns — who has the fourth highest PFF pass-rush grade in the league, at 89.0.

I think the reason the sack count is low is because QBs get the ball out relatively quickly when considering they usually only rush four guys.

Even with they show a pressure look, like this double A-gap look, they typically will bluff it and drop back.

They trade the threat of a blitz for sound coverage, and they trust their defenders to open-field tackle when the ball is dropped off in front of them.

And for the most part, it’s worked, with solid numbers against the pass.

Now, we all know Brees has no qualms with throwing quick passes/check-downs if nothing is there deep. His 6.3 ADOT is the lowest in the league, and he throws short of the sticks more than most QBs.

You could look at this one of two ways: He’s playing right into the Panthers’ hands, or they’re playing right into his.

But the recent Emmanuel Sanders news is no-good.

We were at least aware Michael Thomas might not play, but this Sanders news is brutal.

It’s pretty much impossible to splice Brees not having his two best wide receivers as anything but bad news.

BUT even if they’re both not playing, the Saints already have the best YAC guy in the league in Alvin Kamara.

If the Panthers want to concede completions underneath, Brees is just going to swing it out to AK, and he’ll make some people miss.

This is a good answer to Carolina’s defensive approach, but they’re still going to have to air it out at some point. And if the defense starts to creep down on the underneath routes, then there are some windows available in the intermediate level of the field — an area Brees has been solid in.

One of the best concepts to open those windows vs. a Cover 3 defense is the flood concept.

Take this play against the Chicago Bears in Week 6 for instance:

It’s 3rd and 7, and the Panthers are in a Cover 3 look (shocker). The Bears motion a receiver over to the left and run a flood concept — with a Go route to carry the deep defender and an flat route/out route to Hi-Lo the underneath defender.

The flat route is being run by David Montgomery, who a defense shouldn’t be THAT worried of as a receiver (he’s not a bad receiver, just not an elite threat out of the backfield). But, the underneath defender still clamps down on him just enough when Nick Foles is eyeing him that it creates a window for Foles to come off of Montgomery and throw into.

The thing about these throws is they’re generally the more tougher throws you’ll see QBs make — 10+ yards and to the sideline.

Brees has shown the ability to make these, though. Like this one from last week:

It’s not necessarily a flood concept, but there’s still a Hi-Lo of the underneath defender. The Saints are just asking Sanders to sell the deep defender on an inside stem before breaking out, instead of clearing him out with a Go route.

What’s important is the underneath defender. He hesitates looking down at that flat route juuuuust enough for Brees to have enough room to throw it over him for the first down.

And if Brees is making his money with the short stuff for a lot of the game, then the defenders will probably get greedy at some point and bite down to open up one of these windows behind them for a big gain — especially if Kamara is tearing them up on those dump-offs all game.

It should be an interesting chess match to see Sunday afternoon. Will old man Brees psych the Panthers defense out and fool them into biting down and leaving receivers open deep because of his dink and dunk reputation? Or will they stay discipline and stagnate the Saints offense?

We’ll wait and see.

But one thing is for sure — some guys other than Kamara, like Tre’Quan Smith, Jared Cook or Marquez Callaway, are going to have to step up big time in order for the offense to consistently produce yardage in the pass game.


What are you looking for from the Saints passing attack on Sunday? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.