However, instead of taking the pessimistic approach, we’re going to lunge into some of the schematics that got the 49ers and Chiefs to the Super Bowl and see what plays/tendencies the Saints can learn from.
Call it the glass half-full approach.
Sean Payton, Pete Carmichael and the rest of the Saints offensive coaching staff have had over a decade of success with Drew Brees at quarterback. Most of the time, teams are learning from them.
Yet this Super bowl was unique in that both head coaches in Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are innovative play-callers and play-designers, making the chess match between their playbooks very interesting to dissect and digest.
One of my few gripes with Sean Payton’s play-calling over the years has been his reluctancy to rely on play action passing, which is an aspect Shanahan and Reid rely heavily upon.
The Saints haven’t ranked inside the top 20 in the NFL in play action percentage since 2013.
They get away with it, because they have Drew Brees at quarterback. The Saints were one of seven teams in the league to post a positive estimated points added (EPA) per play on non-play action dropbacks in 2019.
But there’s no reason not to make things easier on Brees by calling more play action, considering how effective it is league-wide.
In 2019, the average EPA per play on play action dropbacks was +0.127, while the EPA per play on non-play action dropbacks was -0.088.
Now, this discrepancy is partially due to game situations. For instance, a ton of non-PA dropbacks are going to be on third-and-longs or late-game situations where not as many estimated points are being added.
However, the point still remains that using play action regularly (especially on early downs) is effective, because it keeps the underneath coverage guessing.
Shanahan and Reid seem to know this.
Check how low the linebackers are on this quick play action glance route by the NIners early in the third quarter. It’s on a second-and-five, which is a run down, so they bite hard on the run fake.
It leaves this space behind them for an easy 15-yard completion to Emmanuel Sanders. Shanahan knows how to make it easy on his quarterback.
The Niners ranked sixth in play action rate (31.2 percent of snaps) in 2019, while the Chiefs ranked third (32.1).
The Saints, on the other hand, were all the way down at 28th. They only used play action on 19.7 percent of their snaps.
The Chiefs and Niners upped their play action usage to the max during the Super Bowl, both using it on over 40 percent of their pass plays. It was a heavy part of their gameplan and a huge part of what got them to the Super Bowl to begin with.
Now, let’s delve into some of the specifics other than just play action that the Saints’ coaching staff can take away from Sunday’s matchup.
Andy Reid gave Sean Payton some ideas on how to use Taysom Hill
We saw Taysom Hill air one out to Deonte Harris in the Wild Card game against the Vikings on a deep play action shot. This was an attempt by Sean Payton to stretch the field without asking Brees to, due to his declining ability to hit on those long balls.
Late in the game, Patrick Mahomes hit Tyreek Hill deep on a gorgeous play design, resulting in a 44-yard gain in a high-leverage moment in the game. Watching this play, the first thing that came to mind was that it could be a Hill-to-Harris call next year.
The Niners had been playing soft coverage on Tyreek Hill for most of the game, due to his explosive-play potential against press coverage, so up to this point in the game the vast majority of Mahomes’ passes were coming underneath and on curl/comeback type routes. Kansas City needed a big play down 10, so they dialed up the post-corner by Hill out of the slot.
The Niners are in a Cover 3 shell on this play and the Chiefs are in 12 personnel trips left. The outside receiver to the left (Sammy Watkins) runs hard vertical at the outside cornerback, who’s manning the strong-side deep third of the zone, then he cuts in on a deep dig route.
This pulls the the corner down with him, leaving that deep third of the field open.
Hill looks like he’s running a deep post at the middle-of-the-field safety, but as soon as he gets the free safety’s hips turned inside, he breaks out on the post-corner into the voided space deep left.
There’s plenty of room for Mahomes to launch to Hill, even though it’s slightly underthrown.
This play could work to perfection with Michael Thomas running Watkins’ dig route, garnering the corner’s attention, and leaving Deonte Harris open on Hill’s post-corner.
Pretty fun to think about.
A concept we haven’t seen much from Taysom Hill in the Saints offense is the speed option. The Chiefs ran it multiple times with Mahomes on Sunday, including once on a big fourth-and-one early in the second quarter.
The Chiefs run it to the weak-side out of 11 personnel with bunch trips left. As a result of the formation, there are only three defenders on the weak-side of the center.
The mike linebacker is head-up with the running back, probably in man coverage pre-snap. What the Chiefs do is leak their best offensive lineman (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz) through the line to match up with the mike linebacker at the next level, leaving the defensive end (Nick Bosa) on an island.
Mahomes holds the ball long enough for Bosa to clamp down on him, and he pitches to Damien Williams for an easy first down.
This would be an interesting play to run with Taysom Hill and Alvin Kamara in short yardage situations.
Kyle Shanahan presented plays Payton could utilize to make things easier on Brees
If Brees returns for next season, I would imagine one of Sean Payton’s objectives will be to make things as easy on him as possible. This is what Kyle Shanahan does with Jimmy Garoppolo.
While Brees is a much better quarterback than Jimmy G and can handle more on his plate from a passing aspect, implementing some more creative plays in the Saints offense would make them more diverse and unpredictable.
The Niners fake Power reverse to Deebo Samuel is a great example of creative play-calling that takes the ball out of the QB’s hands and sets the defense up to bite on a fake later on.
The play starts off looking just like a Power run to the right. You’ve got a pulling guard and the strong-side tight end (George Kittle) leading to the weak-side.
But as soon as Garoppolo fakes the handoff, Kittle switches directions and starts leading in front of Samuel strong-side on the reverse.
A monster blocker, Kittle chips the defensive end and clears out a corner.
It results in a 15-yard gain.
The Niners are always picking up this type of cheap yardage on plays like this. Part of why it’s so effect is because they have great players.
It’s hard to find a guy as good with the ball in his hands as Deebo Samuel and as good of a blocker as George Kittle.
Nonetheless, Payton would be smart to try to replicate a play like this, even if it’s with Deonte Harris carrying the ball and Josh Hill blocking.
The beautiful thing about running a reverse with a built-in run fake is the effect it has on the linebackers. Later in the game, the Niners ran a play action pass with a fake reverse behind it, and this was the result.
Not only did the run fake pull the linebackers down, but the reverse fake pulled the mike linebacker outside the hash, as well.
Look at the huge gap in the middle of the field between linebackers #53 and #59.
This huge void in coverage allows Kittle to sneak right into it on the glance post for an easy 13-yard gain.
These are the types of wide open windows to throw into that Shanahan creates for Garoppolo on a regular basis. And don’t get me wrong, Brees also gets his fair share of open windows to throw into.
However, with a few of these tweaks made here and there by Sean Payton, concepts like the one above could easily be implemented into the Saints playbook.
With more creative play-calling and less reliance on Brees to save the day with his dropback passing, you could be looking at a more explosive Saints offense next season.