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Examining the New Orleans Saints Pass-Run Balance through 2020

The New Orleans Saints found impeccable balance through 2020. A look into how it affected them and what made it possible.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the last few years the New Orleans Saints have become a fairly balanced team in terms of run to pass split. Back in the 2014-2016 season we saw Sean Payton offenses near the bottom of run percentage stats because of their reliance on the passing game and abysmal defenses.

Now that the Saints have pulled together what was a top-five defense in 2020 and have an All-Pro talent at running back, we can see the tides begin to change and a great balance being struck.

Many times throughout the Saints’ franchise history, Saints fans would call upon the team to not abandon the run game. Upon further examination of their regular season numbers, the team actually maintained one of their best balances of the Payton-Brees era.

In 2020, the Saints had 522 total passing attempts along with 494 rushing attempts. That means the Saints’ split in terms of attempted passes and rushes was 51.4% pass and 49.6% rushing. Let’s see where that ranked among NFL teams.

2020 NFL Pass-Run Split

Team Pass Attempts Run Attempts Play +/- Pass % Rush % % +/-
Team Pass Attempts Run Attempts Play +/- Pass % Rush % % +/-
Baltimore Ravens 406 555 -149 42.2% 57.8% -15.5%
New Endgland Patriots 440 502 -62 46.7% 53.3% -6.6%
Tennessee Titans 485 521 -36 48.2% 51.8% -3.6%
Cleveland Browns 501 495 6 50.3% 49.7% 0.6%
New Orleans Saints 522 494 28 51.4% 48.6% 2.8%
Minnesota Vikings 516 468 48 52.4% 47.6% 4.9%

Saints had the fifth-highest run percentage in the NFL, the fifth-most attempts, sixth-most yards (2,265), and the NFL’s most rushing touchdowns with 30. It helped to get seven on Christmas night.

Perhaps more importantly than their run percentage, New Orleans was the second-most balanced team behind only the Cleveland Browns who only threw six more passes than they attempted runs in 2020. New Orleans only had a heavier passing game by 28 attempts, good for just a 2.8% swing in the share.

Now, New Orleans also played one of the weirdest games in the NFL this season in a 31-3 victory over a quarterback-less Denver Broncos team at Mile High Stadium. In that game, the Saints were able to boost their rushing attempts carrying the ball 44 times as compared to Taysom Hill’s 16 passes.

If you remove that game, which featured a 28 play swing in favor of the run game, there’s very little effect on the overall numbers.

Doing so shifts the Saints to a 52.9% to 47.1% split in favor of the pass, only a 5.8% differential between the two. That adjustment would move the Saints to sixth on the run percentage board, dropping only one spot and would give them the third-lowest differential.

If you were to remove the heaviest run games of each of these six teams, the results would be the same. The Saints would then drop to the sixth-heaviest run percentage by just .1%.

Now that we’ve looked at where the Saints rank in 2020, let’s see where they rank against themselves across the Payton-Brees era.

Payton-Brees Era Pass-Run Splits

Team Pass Attempts Run Attempts Play +/- Pass % Rush % % +/-
Team Pass Attempts Run Attempts Play +/- Pass % Rush % % +/-
2020 522 494 28 51.4% 48.6% 2.8%
2019 581 405 176 58.9% 41.1% 17.8%
2018 519 471 48 52.4% 47.6% 4.8%
2017 536 444 92 54.7% 45.3% 9.4%
2016 674 404 270 62.5% 37.5% 25.0%
2015 667 397 270 62.7% 37.3% 25.4%
2014 659 406 253 61.9% 38.1% 23.8%
2013 651 391 260 62.5% 37.5% 25.0%
2012 671 370 301 64.5% 35.5% 28.9%
2011 662 431 231 60.6% 39.4% 21.1%
2010 661 380 281 63.5% 36.5% 27.0%
2009 544 468 76 53.8% 46.2% 7.5%
2008 636 398 238 61.5% 38.5% 23.0%
2007 652 392 260 62.5% 37.5% 24.9%
2006 580 472 108 55.1% 44.9% 10.3%

By the numbers, New Orleans achieved its most balanced offensive attack of the last 15 seasons in 2020.

Just looking at this timeline gives you a pretty good idea of why that is. Notice that the most disproportionate seasons are 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016.

In 2010, the Saints’ leading rusher was Chris Ivory with only 137 carries and 716 yards. That was because the team lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush for extended time due to injury. Worse, the injuries were compounded with Reggie Bush missing Weeks 3-10 and Thomas out Weeks 4-12.

Meanwhile the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees put up the third most passing yards that season along with the second most passing attempts. Despite having a top-5 defense in terms of yardage that year, there just simply wasn’t a healthy run game to consistently rely upon.

2012 was the dreaded suspension season while 2015 and 2016 were parts of a forgotten time with atrocious defensive play ranking 32nd in points allowed and 31st in yardage in 2015 while going 31st and 27th respectively the following year.

Defense, an all-world talent at running back, and a continued focus on the offensive line have made the difference for the Saints. You can see that from 2017 through 2020, New Orleans achieved a run percentage of 40+ percent. All four of those teams were playoff teams. The only other instances in which the Saints have topped that mark were in 2009 and 2006. Both very successful seasons, obviously.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, running back Alvin Kamara nearly posted his first 1,000-yard season. Were it not for the positive COVID-19 diagnosis right before the final week of the season. His 932 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns were still his career high though, despite rushing for only the second-most times since he was drafted in 2017.

To emphasize Kamara’s importance to this success, you’ll notice the small drop in run percentage in 2019. That feels likely to lie on the fault of Kamara’s injuries which held him back most of the year.

With the impending (though still only expected) retirement of Drew Brees seemingly around the corner, two primary possibilities stand out. Moving forward with Taysom Hill who was given four starts this season or re-sign Jameis Winston who closed out this year’s action with the Saints with a trick-play touchdown pass in the playoffs against his old squad. Taysom Hill most certain helps in maintain balance considering his ability to run the ball himself. But truthfully in either case, Kamara could be leaned on more in the years to come as the Saints work in their new starting signal caller.

From the looks of it, if they do so effectively while maintaining a reliable defense on the other side, they can keep themselves in position to be at their best. The history tells us that the Saints operate most optimally when balanced. The key pieces that have bolstered their potential to do so should still be in place next season, with the possible exception of a couple outgoing free agents. Despite their precarious-looking cap situation New Orleans should be able to manage their way and maintain enough talent to keep on this path.

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