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Saints Film Room: How the Pass Offense can exploit a depleted Niners Defense

This sure isn’t the same stacked defense the Saints offense matched up against last year, but the 49ers still have some talent. How can Drew Brees and company shred them through the air on Sunday?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the New Orleans Saints Week 10 matchup with the depleted San Francisco 49ers, getting the passing game going early and often will be key.

The Niners run defense is pretty stingy, despite the following players being out or on Injured Reserve:

  • Nick Bosa
  • Jaquiski Tartt
  • Solomon Thomas
  • Dee Ford
  • Ezekial Ansah
  • Richard Sherman

They’re only allowing 4.0 yards per rush, which is the 7th-best in the league, and are top three in the league in EPA allowed per rush.

However, they’re bottom 10 against the pass. This evens out to the being a pretty average overall defense, statistically.

They’ve allowed 5.3 yards per play (11th best) and 6.8 yards per pass attempt (T-15th best) so far this year.

Even with the myriad of injuries they’ve faced, they still have some studs on defense. Their defensive line is talented, with guys like Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Jones.

And it’s been cool to see the resurgence of a now-healthy Jason Verrett, who’s been their best corner. He’s got a 77.6 PFF coverage grade and has broken up three passes this year.

But the strength of the defense is probably their linebackers, led by the elite Fred Warner. Warner’s 90.3 PFF coverage grade is the highest in the league, among LBs. He’s allowing 6.0 yards per catch, hasn’t allowed a TD and has picked off two passes.

Strong side LB Dre Greenlaw is no slouch in that aspect either, allowing only 8.2 yards per catch and allowing no TDs, to go along with a pass breakup.

Their confidence in these backers probably has something to do with them running more Base Defense (4 DBs, 3 LBS) than any other defense in the league, along with seeing a lot of 12 personnel from their opponents.

One thing I noticed on tape when re-watching their game vs. the Packers was how quick the LBs are to get back and drop into coverage off of play action or just on straight drop-backs. You can tell they’re well-coached to do so. They waste no time and close windows behind them quickly.

However, I think this will provide the Saints with many opportunities to do one of the things they’ve done best throughout the years: Screens.

The Niners play a lot of zone defense. They’re top 10 in the league in Cover 3, Quarters and Cover 6 usage.

Their linebacking core is really good at carrying routes deep into their zones, whether it be off straight drop-backs or play action. This is why their yards per reception allowed is so low, and their coverage grades are high. They don’t allow big plays very often.

But, this does sometimes make them susceptible to screen passes. According to PFF, the Saints are averaging about five yards per screen attempt. And I think that average would be higher in this game.

Screens would be a good substitute for those wasted early down runs that Sean Payton has fallen in love with a bit over the first half of the season — besides last game.

Another thing to watch out for with this Niners defense is how deceptive they are. This is a relatively complex defense. They mix things up and will disguise coverages a good but.

Take this play for example:

The Packers run motion across the formation, and the defender follows the receiver — usually a key indicator that it’s Man coverage. But the 49ers re-align their coverage once he gets over there and drop back into Cover 3 zone.

This confuses Aaron Rodgers, as he hesitates and runs out of the pocket.

Not much confuses Drew Brees, but the same could be said for A-Rod. When a defense executes something like this correctly, it’s pretty hard to process for the QB.

The Colts did something similar in the 2018 playoffs to confuse Deshaun Watson, resulting in a pick.

The Texans send someone in motion, the defender follows and Watson thinks it’s Man. So, when he goes through his progressions and comes to his backside tight end, who has the a linebacker inside leverage on him, he doesn’t expect for there to be another curl/hook player there playing his outside shoulder.

I’m sure Brees knows to look out for this, but it’ll be an interesting thing to monitor come Sunday.

One way that I think the Saints should be able to gash the Niners with with Michael Thomas in the slot.

San Fran Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh likes to play Quarter coverage with three underneath linebackers. And while I mentioned that they are good in coverage, they’re not good enough to hang with Mike.

The Packers took advantage of these looks with Davante Adams in the slot last week, like on this play where he gets singled up on an out/option route against the weakside backer.

It’s not a big gain, but if you keep giving MT these looks all game, he’ll take the free yards continually.

Adams had the 2nd-highest yards per route run mark from the slot among all receivers in Week 9, at 5,23 YPRR. He only played 13 snaps there, but caught six balls for 68 yards.

Now, what’s strange to me is that MT didn’t really play out of the slot much when the Saints played the 49ers last year.

But I see a lot of different ways Coach Payton can use his multiple philosophy to his advantage, when it comes to formations, to get MT matched up with safeties and LBs in the slot.

The Niners go to Base defense with three LBs pretty much any time the opposing team is in a personnel package with two receivers or less. The Packers knew this, and they manipulated it to get WRs matched up with LBs early by trotting out big personnel packages with tight ends out wide,

Here you can see there is a TE out wide, a WR in the slot and another TE inside of him. Of course, the Niners have their Base personnel package against this.

SP does this kind of stuff all the time.

Coach Payton is really clowning with this stuff. He’s got 22 personnel out there (2 TEs, 2 RBs, 1 WR), so the Bucs respond with their Base 5-man front, getting MT matched up with a safety in the slot.

They don’t end up going to him, but the look is there to exploit.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big day from Thomas, especially with some plays from the slot, if Payton decides to utilize him there.

I also am expecting a solid day from Emmanuel Sanders against his old team. He should get some of the slot opportunities as well, and when he’s outside, he’ll have favorable matchups all game.

The term “trap game” has been lingering around in mention of this game recently. It makes sense to think that, given how well-coached this Niners team is. But if the Saints are clicking even a little bit, they should be able to take care of this team. And as always, it starts and end with their passing game.

How do you think the Saints Pass O will fare against the Niners D? 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, follow us on Instagram at @SaintsCSC, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.