I needed to know.
How does a team with a plethora of talented defensive backs, and coaches that specialize in the secondary, give up as many chunk plays as the New Orleans Saints did in 2019?
The short answer: Youth. In fact, the four players in the image above were all culprits of coverage breakdowns, terrible angles, or missed tackles that lead to big plays in 11 of the 17 games New Orleans played last season.
But first, an honorable mention goes to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, with a couple ill-timed calls.
But mostly, this is on the players. Let’s get into it.
1st and 10 at HOU 6 - Nickel (Cover 3) vs 11 Personnel.
The Texans call a shot play from their own six-yard line and pull it off. New Orleans rush four drop seven and Houston keeps the running back and tight end in to block making it a seven-man protection. Will Fuller runs a “Go,” Deandre Hopkins an “In,” and Kenny Stills runs a crosser.
Vonn Bell (5) is eyeing Hopkins and jumps the in-route leaving Eli Apple in 1-on-1 coverage with the wide receiver. The Ball is caught by Fuller where Bell would have been had he covered the deep 3rd and the result is a 54-yard pass and catch. Notice the five players reacting to the routes of two receivers.
Culprit: Vonn Bell (Deep Safety)
3rd and 2 at LA 33 - Nickel (Man Blitz) vs 11 Personnel
Impressive play design by the Rams that puts stress on key players in the defense. They come out in an empty set with the RB flexed out wide to the left and the TE flexed out wide to the right, putting Marshon Lattimore in the slot vs a superior route runner in Cooper Kupp.
At the top of his route he shakes Lattimore to create separation and bad tackling and pursuit in the secondary results in a 66-yard catch and run.
Culprit: Bad tackling by Williams and Lattimore and sagging pursuit by P.J. and Eli Apple.
3rd and 16 LA 32 - Nickel (Cover 3) vs 11 Personnel
Dennis Allen went with a wrinkle here to his typical Nickel front. It still employs four defensive linemen but its three defensive ends and one tackle with Cam Jordan as a stand-up rusher sugaring the A-gap. Los Angeles has the TE chip the defensive end and release to a route giving Jared Goff a clean pocket, allowing Brandin Cooks to develop his route.
The Secondary shows a Cover 4 shell that morphs to a Cover 3 as the play develops, or at least it should have. Bell drops down to rob the post from Cooper Kupp but Marcus Williams fails to get over the top of the deep route by Cooks who blows past Lattimore for 57 yards.
Culprit(s): Marcus Williams (Deep Safety) and maybe Lattimore who got his cushion destroyed.
2nd and 10 at SEA 38 - Nickel (Cover 4) vs 11 Personnel
This is a similar defensive deployment as the above play except it is truly a Cover 4 but this time Marcus Davenport has taken Jordan’s spot as the A Gap rusher, and Jordan is now the stand-up rusher off the left end. At the snap the Saints only send three and Davenport is instead used as a spy that chips the RB as he attempts to get into his route.
The TE and WR to the right run a smash corner concept and the WR’s to the left run a smash corner-post. Bell bites on the false corner route by Tyler Lockett and loses leverage on the post resulting in a 40 yard catch and run.
Culprit: Vonn Bell (Deep Safety)
2nd and 1 at SEA 30 - Nickel (Cover 3) vs 11 Personnel
Same look as above but it’s the Cover 3 variation however this time I’ll complain about the three-man rush. Davenport again is used as a spy and checks the runner out of the backfield. Coverage is solid but only sending three allows Wilson to move around in the pocket affording himself six seconds to find a receiver.
The coverage eventually breaks down as D.K. Metcalf gets behind Lattimore and Williams for 54 yards. You cannot expect zone coverage to last that long.
Culprit: Pass-rush and arguably the play-call. Nothing I hate worse than dropping eight defenders into coverage and still allowing a big play.
2nd and 8 at ARZ 39 - Nickel (Cover 3) vs 22 Personnel
Really good play-call, timing and design by the Cardinals. At the snap Kyler Murray pitches the ball to the running back who heads toward the sideline drawing nearly the entire defense in. Williams recognizes it before the pitch back to Murray and tries to direct someone to pick up the TE leaking out.
Bell covers the crossing Larry Fitzgerald while Lattimore hustles to get back to the deep 3rd. The TE runs a corner route and is wide open for a 47-yard catch and run.
Culprit: Marshon Lattimore. He crashed hard on the run fake and the TE hit where he should have been in coverage.
1st and 10 ATL 28 - Base (Man Blitz) vs 12 personnel
Saints Blitz six and Falcons keep seven to nullify the rush. Matt Ryan has a clean pocket to deliver the ball to Julio Jones who gets additional help from an inadvertent rub resulting in a 54 yard catch and run. This play-call was destined to fail from the beginning. Lattimore was injured on the previous play leaving Eli Apple and P.J. Williams on the boundary.
This is not the time to run a blitz that leaves Apple on Julio Jomes, P.J. Williams on Calvin Ridley, and A.J. Klein on Austin Hooper. All receivers gained separation and Ryan could have hit any of them.
Culprit: Dennis Allen makes a bad play-call based on available personnel.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1st and 10 at NO 49 - Nickel (Man Blitz) vs 11 Personnel
Six-man blitz vs a seven-man protection. The Buccaneers call a play that stacks their WR’s to the right and the Saints counter with press coverage from the slot and left corner (Williams) with Eli Apple lined up in off coverage.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is lined up over the inside receiver but at the snap mirrors Sheldon Miller who takes an outside release and runs a go. The rookie-safety can’t hang with a 4.3 runner in man coverage and the result is a 48-yard pitch and catch.
Culprit: This is good play design by the Buccaneers who knew what to expect based on the personnel they deployed. New Orleans adjusted accordingly rest of game.
1st and 10 at CAR 49 - Nickel (Man Single High) vs 12 Personnel
This is all on P.J. as everyone is playing man coverage while he has his eyes on the QB as though in zone. Ball is hiked and a play action fake draws Demario Davis in briefly. Inside release and post from the slot receiver holds the free safety between the hashes and D.J. Moore just blows past Williams on the vertical route for an easy 51-yard touchdown.
Culprit: P.J. Williams got caught asleep at the wheel.
2nd and 11 at CAR 28 - Nickel (Man Blitz) vs 11 Personnel
Saints initially rush four with Bell coming on a delayed blitz once the TE stays in to block. David Onyemata however stops his rush to catch the TE leaking out back across the formation. Behind them Gardner-Johnson is beat off the snap as he turns back to communicate with Marcus Williams, while P.J. is in the process of getting turned around on the in-route by Moore. Ball is delivered and caught at the 45 but Moore’s not pushed out until the 20, gaining 52 yards on the play.
Culprit: Bad Tackling by P.J. and pursuit angle by Marcus Williams. Easily could have limited the damage to 23 yards. Apple was called for holding but it was declined.
1st and 10 at SF 25 = Nickel (Cover 2) vs 11 personnel
Yankee concept and the route running of Emmanuel Sanders really sells it. Receivers lined up inside the numbers gives a false run key. George Kittle goes into motion and is involved in the PA fake leaving Sanders as the lone receiver on the right side running the deep route. The RB runs the flat route and Deebo Samuels runs the deep over. At the top of his route Sanders sells the corner causing Bell to bite hard then returns to the post.
Williams recognizes it early, bails to the deep 3rd and plays it about as well as you could up until the catch point. Alas, he stumbles, Sanders makes the catch, Bell misses the tackle and it turns into a 75-yard touchdown for the 49ers.
Culprit(s): Bell misdiagnosed the route concept then later misses the tackle and Marcus Williams gets knocked for not being able to make the initial play on the ball.
2nd and 10 at NO 41 - Nickel (Cover 1 Man) vs 11 Personnel
The play starts trips left formation with the inside receiver motioning to the right and lining up inside the numbers. Another false run key that works to perfection as Klein misdiagnosis and fails to cover the TE leaking out for a crosser.
The catch is made and could have been stopped for a 12-yard gain but Gardner-Johnson whiffs on his tackle attempt at the 28 and Jonnu Smith outruns everyone else for a 41-yard touchdown.
Culprit: A.J. Klein but Gardner-Johnson had the cleanest angle on him to halt the play and just missed. He must make that tackle.
2nd and 10 at NO 43 - Nickel (Cover 1 Man SS Robber) vs 11 Personnel
Not much to this play as the Panthers run their patented 999 concept. The outside WR gets a clean outside release on Justin Hardee and streaks down the sideline. Kyle Allen delivers the ball high and on the inside shoulder of Brandon Zylstra who makes the catch for a 40-yard gain.
Culprit: Justin Hardee
1st and 10 at NO 45 - Nickel (Cover 1 Man Blitz) vs 12 Personnel
Yankee damn doodle and the Vikings went after Marcus Williams on this play. Used his eyes against him. Stefon Diggs is running the post corner, Kyle Rudolph the Drag, Adam Thielen the vertical, and Dalvin Cook stays in to block for a second before an attempted release into the flats. The route by Diggs holds Williams in place between the hashes and the Vikings depended on this.
Patrick Robinson falls into a trail technique, Craig Robertson bodies the drag, and Jenkins stays on top of Diggs refusing to bite on the initial corner fake. With Robinson in trail Cousins completes his drop and lets if fly, placing it over his head as Thielen completes the catch for a 43-yard gain.
Culprit: Marcus Williams (Deep Safety). Jenkins technique put him in very good position to defend the post route and Robinson’s technique suggest he was expecting help over the top. Can argue play-call did no favors as the blitz leaves Robinson 1 on 1 with Thielen following the loss of Lattimore one play prior.
Following the 49ers loss Coach Sean Payton held his conference call and laid out the facts.
“You’re playing down safety defense. We have to be able to stay on top. We have, quite honestly, to play better at the deep safety position. They beat our corners, they beat our safeties and we didn’t have much of a pass rush to affect the passers. So all those combinations aren’t very good. So I don’t think it’s just one thing.”
You got that right coach.
The good news is Malcolm Jenkins addition gives them a more seasoned option at deep safety on occasion while simultaneously serving as a mentor to Marcus Williams and offering an upgrade in pass coverage to Vonn Bell. Janoris provides ball skills that are better than his predecessors Apple and Ken Crawley, and Zach Baun gives Allen an additional option to help pressure the quarterback.
All things equal I’m betting on this statistic going down to single digits in 2020.