The New Orleans Saints will look to conclude the regular season against a familiar opponent Sunday afternoon, and that means facing off against a familiar zone-heavy pass defense in the process.
Unless the Carolina Panthers drastically shift from what they’ve been doing all season in this season finale, they’ll probably look to counteract Drew Brees and the Saints offense with their Cover 3 defense.
Cover 3 rates (3-deep, 4-under zone)— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 2, 2020
% of dropbacks
1. CAR — 38.9%
2. NYG —38.4 %
3. LAC — 36.5%
4. WASH — 32.7%
5. HOU — 31.1%
28. PIT — 13.7%
29. MIN— 13.1%
30. NO — 12.8%
31. LV — 11.4%
32. DEN — 9.2% #NFL
ESPN pass classification using NFL Next Gen Stats data
NOLA was pretty darn effective in shredding it in Week 7, as Brees completed 29 of 36 passes for 287 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs and Thomas Morstead didn’t punt a single time on their way to a victory.
It’s pretty telling that the “Drew Brees’ can’t win b/c of arm strength” truthers go silent when, ya know, the #Saints win— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) October 26, 2020
For the second time this season Brees didn’t attempt a single pass of 20-plus yards
More important: He was pinpoint from 10-20...
- 8 for 9, 133 yards, TD pic.twitter.com/Nq2uNYtR8w
And this time around, they’ll even have Emmanuel Sanders back
But in their first showdown with Carolina, they made due without him — thanks to Marquez Callaway. The undrafted rookie had a showing out party, catching eight of 10 targets for 75 yards.
He did so almost entirely by finding holes in zones and displaying some great chemistry with Brees.
Take this play for example, where the Panthers are in Cover 3 Sky Zone, and the Saints are horizontally stretching the flat defender with a swing route by Alvin Kamara and a hunt route by Callaway.
This play is vintage Brees, as he looks off the flat defender coming down from his safety position by hitching to Kamara’s direction, opening the window for the hunt route.
It may not seem like a huge play, but these static defenses where you know what to expect are the ones Brees can feast on with his eyes and anticipation.
So, if he and Callaway are clicking like they were in that game, they could have a few more nice connections on Sunday.
Another aspect to look out for against the Panthers defense is how conservative they are. They have a simple formula — drop back in zone, rally and tackle underneath.
They have a bottom five blitz rate, according to PFF, and the average depth targeted against them is sixth-lowest in the league at around 8.0 yards.
Their 68% completion rate allowed is the eighth-highest mark in the league, but their 6.6 yards per attempt allowed is tied for 11th-lowest. They give up completions underneath to prevent the big play, and force offenses to make a ton of efficient, small plays to drive down the field on a consistent basis.
They did a rather solid job of limiting said big plays against the Green Bay Packers a couple of weeks ago, holding MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers to 4.9 YPA and an average depth of target of 5.9 yards. They ultimately lost the game due to an inept outing by Teddy Bridgewater and the offense, but they made Green Bay work for it offensively.
Plays like this were scattered all over the tape, where everything was shored up downfield, and the check-down was the safest option.
The advantage New Orleans has is that, unlike other teams, they have this guy named Alvin Kamara. And you don’t necessarily want to dare him to rack up yards after the catch.
His 729 yards after the catch this season leads all receivers from any position by 139 yards, and his 20 avoided tackles after the catch is tied for third-most.
So, if Carolina wants to concede completions to him underneath all day, they can be Sean Payton’s guest.
Getting the ball out quickly could also be in Brees’s best interests, after falling victim to a sack-fumble in Week 7 to the stud that is Brian Burns.
Luckily for Brees, Terron Armstead will be back at the left tackle position this time around to protect his blindside.
There are plenty of ways the Saints can effectively attack this Carolina defense, especially with more healthy pieces available now. And with how devastating their running game has been as of late, they seem to be able to put away games in the fourth quarter.
The only way they lose this game, in my opinion, is losing the turnover battle. Brees did have a few turnover-worthy plays last week, as he seemed to be airing it out downfield a bit more than usual, resulting in the ball being put in harm’s way on a couple of errant throws.
While I like this trend of aggression from him come playoff time, I don’t think he needs to be particularly greedy in this game for them to come away with a win. If they execute normally and Brees takes what the defense gives him, they should end the year 12-4, and the rest of the playoffs chips will fall where they may.
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.