The New Orleans Saints are looking to revamp their passing attack against the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football, and they’re looking to do so without their main man at receiver: Michael Thomas.
This, in and of itself, obviously creates a huge challenge for Head Coach Sean Payton, as to how he should best put the Saints’ weapons in a position to make plays without the opposing defense’s attention on Thomas.
But now, we also have to take into account that our Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees is coming off of one of the worst performances I’ve seen from in in the past few years (yes, seriously).
After FINALLY getting my hands on some All-22 tape (thanks for waiting a decade, NFL Gamepass), I dove into some of the Saints film from Sunday’s match against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Surely, after I see some context, this Brees performance won’t look quite as bad,” I thought.
No, it made it look worse.
Brees wasn’t only inaccurate, but he was passing up on opportunities and throwing windows that he usually hits on. He looked hesitant, uncomfortable in the pocket and untrustworthy of his receivers — which, considering the current circumstances, doesn’t sound great.
Now, all of this being said, they still put up a decent amount of points on a very underrated defense that played really, really well. And they did so with Thomas barely even touching the ball — three catches for 17 yards.
Considering this, the limited practice time, Sean Payton’s questionable play-calling in some instances and the new faces Brees is getting used to, I’m definitely not panicking after Week 1.
However, there definitely are some adjustments that need to be made through the air going into Week 2 against a sub-par Raiders pass defense.
And the first one has to do with Brees’s aggressiveness.
Be aggressive, and throw over the middle of the field
In CSC “Interview with the enemy” this week, we asked Cam Mellor of Silver and Black Pride a few questions about this Raiders squad. One thing he said about the passing attack stuck out to me.
When asked how he would attack the Raiders’ defense if he were Sean Payton, he said:
“Eat up the middle of the field in the passing game. Attack, attack, attack. Teddy Bridgewater was 13-for-17 on throws over the middle of the field.”
He’s referring to the Raiders’ Week 1 oppenent, the Carolina Panthers, who did in fact strike the ball over the middle of the field a good bit.
If even the conservative Teddy Bridgewater can air it out vs. the Raiders, with an average depth of target of 8.5 yards (14th out of 32 QBs in Week 1), then you would think Brees, who was at 5.2 yards (29th), could as well.
There’s one play that particularly stuck out to me from their game:
Carolina is running a drive concept to Hi-Lo the curl/hook zone defender in the middle of the field here, with a drag route underneath him and a dig behind him.
The defender bites down.
So, Bridgewater throws the dig/curl behind him. Voila.
Now, here’s a similar scenario with Brees in Week 1:
The underneath defender bites down on the drag by Emmanuel Sanders, and Tre’Quan Smith is open behind him.
Throw it, Drew!!! Nope. Checkdown, fourth down, punt.
And another one:
This is another drive concept, where Sanders breaks wide open in the middle of the field.
But for whatever reason, Brees won’t pull the trigger, and he forces it to MT for a short gain.
There are going to be opportunities for throwing windows like this over the middle of the field Monday night. While Raiders linebacker Cory Littleton is a heck of a coverage player, Nick Kwiatkoski, their middle linebacker, is out with an injury.
This leaves Nicholas Morrow, who has struggled mightily in coverage his entire career with the Raiders, to play next to Littleton and man those middle zones.
Brees will have the chances. He’s just got to take them when they’re there.
And with Thomas out, these will probably provide a large portion of his opportunities to get Sanders and Jared Cook, his two most dynamic options, the ball.
He’s going to have to switch the safety to off and let it rip, as well as trust these guys, to get the most out of the passing game.
Split Alvin Kamara out, attack their linebackers
If Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to leave linebackers like Morrow manned up with Alvin Kamara when he splits out, the Saints have to make him pay.
Guenther let it happen with Christian McCaffery last week.
The Raiders are in a one-high, man-to-man look, and CMC is split out all the way to the left. The Panthers get the matchup they want, the safety help can’t get there in time and Morrow gets called for pass interference after getting beat on the double move by McCaffery.
I’d love to see more of this with Kamara. It seems like we haven’t seen it in a while, for whatever reason.
It’s been mostly option routes and screens from him since the beginning of the 2019 season, whereas he was splitting out and running a bit more receiver-like patterns in the first two years of his career — especially his rookie season.
But now that he’s newly-signed, healthy and ready to go 100 percent, this is a matchup that would be worth searching for.
Smash concepts against Cover 6
Last week, I predicted the Saints would run a ton of out-breaking routes against the Bucs’ Cover 1 scheme. And what’d they do? Not that.
They barely tried, and when they did, the Bucs did a swell job of covering it.
BUT, one thing I predicted correctly was their usage of the Hi-Lo/Smash concept by taking advantage of greedy underneath defenders.
The Bucs may have ran a lot of Cover 6 in 2019, but literally no one ran more of it than the ‘19 Raiders.
As you may know by now, Cover 6 is a variation where one side of the field is deploying Cover 4 (Quarters), and the other side is deploying Cover 2. So, there are four defenders underneath, two safeties manning deep on one half of the field and one safety manning the other half.
The key is finding which side is the Cover 2 side with one safety, and running a concept that tries to exploit that “turkey hole” between the deep safety and the underneath defender.
You often can tell before the snap which side that is.
Here, you can see the shell forming where there are two deep defenders on the half of the field to the top of the screen and only one on the bottom half.
The Saints ran a Smash concept to perfection on Sunday. And while it wasn’t exactly a throw in the “turkey hole,” it still drives home the point of what you’re generally looking for.
This was one of Brees’s better plays from Sunday. He reads the leverage of this sitting corner absolutely perfectly.
He’s sitting on top of Jared Cook (who’s running a corner) and Deonte Harris (who’s running an underneath whip route), and as soon as he barely starts to break down on the Harris whip route, Brees let’s it rip right over him to Cook.
I think Jamel Dean actually gets a fingertip or two on this ball, as it could’ve used a bit more juice by Brees, but hey, it got the job done. Great read.
With as many underneath routes as I’m sure the Saints will run, at some point a defender will bite down and allow for an opportunity similar to this one on Monday.
And if Brees catches that lone-safety side when he notices a Cover 6 look pre-snap, a call with a Smash concept could create a big play.
It would obviously be nice to see Brees be more aggressive on Sunday, but I also expect more out of Sean Payton as a play-caller.
The personnel groupings that make runs to Latavius Murray, and even Taysom Hill sometimes, so predictable to the defense got old pretty quickly Sunday — and especially when the only reason we run those, which is to eventually run that play action leak play where Josh Hill tries to slip behind the defense for an easy touchdown, didn’t come close to working.
Also, as always, a bit more play action would be nice. The Saints are always on the lower end of play action-usage, but five play-action dropbacks for Brees is especially low.
And when play action is proven statistically to improve your offense the more you run it even if you’re not running the ball super effectively, I think it’d be a good idea to make things easier on Brees by pumping those numbers up.
Lastly, the protection will be important to watch. Cesar Ruiz looks to be making his debut at right guard after Nick Easton had some struggles there on Sunday.
The Saints offensive line was solid for the most part, but occasionally had some issues picking up blitzes and stunts. Peat, who was decent for the most part, missed one that resulted in a pressure.
Kamara, who was putrid in pass protection, allowed a few pressures and ran right past a blitzer who sacked Brees at one point.
Overall, I feel somewhat confident in the Saints offense going into this game, even while missing Thomas. They now have enough weapons to make up for that, and they have a group of unselfish skill players.
Plus, the Raiders’ defense is on the lower tier as far as talent and cohesiveness.
So I’m going to bank on Brees figuring it out and the Saints putting up a decent amount of points, as long as they don’t turn the ball over a ton.
And who knows, maybe the chemistry Brees will create with Emmanuel Sanders while MT is out could be a blessing in disguise moving forward.
How effective do you think the Saints offense will be through the air Monday night? 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.