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Saints play-calling tweaks that should be made moving forward

Jameis has been great at throwing off play action, Sean, run it more!

NFL: New York Giants at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton’s decision-making since the squad’s heart-breaking 27-21 overtime loss to the New York Giants on Sunday.

While some of this heat has maybe been taken out of proportion, the majority of the issues are underlying ones having to do with the play-calling that have been going on all season. This game just happened to expose them.

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about Payton’s trust, or lack thereof, in Jameis Winston. But the thing is, he hasn’t given him the reins to the offense all year, not just in this past game.

The Saints are 3rd in the league in rush attempts per game — 33.2. Now, a lot of what rushing attempts per game is correlated to is simply if the team is winning or not and the Saints have had two games where they were up on teams from the start, meaning more rushes to milk the clock and hold on to the lead.

However, they also are 2nd in the league in first down rush attempt % on the season — with a whopping 60% of their first down plays being runs. They have not been up enough in all four of their games combined to justify that number being so high.

I have two issues with this:

First off, it’s not like they’ve been that successful at running the ball. Alvin Kamara’s 78 rush attempts is the 3rd highest mark in the league, yet his 3.8 yard-per-carry clip is tied for 32nd best among RBs — according to PFF. And his rushing grade (69.5) is 27th.

Knowing what we know about how NFL offenses are currently constructed, being a run-heavy offense and trying to rely on your defense to win games with the field position game is just not reliable enough of a process to lean on for the entirety of a season — No matter WHO your quarterback is! There’s just too much variance when it comes to defensive success.

Not to mention, Saints fans know that running between the tackles is something Kamara is definitely capable of but it’s not the most effective way to utilize his strengths. He’s been targeted only 13 times this season with an average depth of target of -0.3 yards (so behind the line of scrimmage) and he had zero targets in the pass game against the Giants.

So with this type of offensive game plan, not only are you limiting your offense to running the hell out of the ball on the 19th best team yards-per-rush rate in the league, but you’re taking arguably your best player in AK and not utilizing his strengths to the maximum ability.

Secondly, it’s the Jameis factor. Obviously, a huge part of why the rush rate has skyrocketed is because Sean is adjusting to life without Drew Brees and how much responsibility he needs to put on Jameis Winston’s plate.

But with what we know about modern offensive success and how defenses defend these offenses, running the ball so much on early downs is just a poor process — even if you’re up by a touchdown or two.

Not only have the Saints been a run-heavy team on early downs, but the team’s play-action rate is simply not high enough especially when you consider how effective Jameis has been at it this year.

On the year, Jameis has a 25.7% play action rate on his drop backs, which ranks 18th among qualifying QBs.

On 26 PA drop backs, Winston’s 12.6 yards per attempt ranks third, his 91.2 PFF passing grade ranks fourth and his three big time throws is tied for 5th most. Oh and he has thrown ZERO turnover-worthy throws off of PA.

Now, he has been sacked four times on these drop backs, which is a good bit. But man, you live with those for the big plays that come from the run fake the majority of the time.

The theory that you have to be running it effectively to be successful on play-action is nonsense and it’s supported by the fact that the Saints have been a mediocre run team this year, yet Jameis has been flaming hot off of PA.

The defense doesn’t have to suspect that you’re going to run the ball well to respect the run fake. They just have to suspect that you’re going to run the ball, period. And well, Sean has more than given that impression thus far in this disappointing offensive output of a season.

What makes it worse is these early down runs have put Jameis in more long down and distance situations, where he’s dropping back with the opposing defensive line knowing it’s going to be a pass.

And that’s probably part of why on pure drop backs with NO play-action this season, Winston’s YPA is sitting at 5.6 — 31st out of 34 qualifying QBs. His 53.1 PFF passing grade and 61.2 completion rate on these drop backs both sit at T-29th.

Not only is it easier to throw off of play action on early downs, but it’s also just easier to throw on early downs in general — as opposed to later downs when the defense knows you’re passing. It also gives you a higher chance of big plays, as well as setting yourself up for less 3rd downs and less 3rd and longs.

And I get that it’s Jameis. He has to prove himself to Sean and the rest of the offense.

Not to mention, the receiving talent is clearly lacking right now. We know this.

But you have to at least give yourself a shot on offense, and this predictable early-down run game stuff is the type of stuff that allows a winless Giants team to come into the Dome and score 17 unanswered points and beat you. You have to find a way to execute the passing game better to maximize your team.

If your passing game isn’t as good as it once was, you can’t abandon it. You have to make it easier on your QB/weapons — hence passing more on early downs, when it’s easier to throw, and using play action.

Simply increasing the play action rate by 8-10% would not only achieve this, but I dare say it might improve the run game, as well.

Everyone talks about setting up the play action with the run game. But what about setting up the run game with play action?

Run more play action on early downs, and if the defense starts dropping a safety back to stop the pass, that’s when you check to the run more often.

And look, Sean Payton is a great offensive mind and has proved that through the years. He knows a lot more about football than anyone at Canal St. Chronicles does.

So, I’m not calling for the guy’s head after four games. It just seems that there are a variety of ways these simple adjustments can improve, not only Jameis Winston’s effectiveness and value, but the entire offense as a whole.

Hopefully, we see some of this come to fruition in D.C. this upcoming Sunday.


What do you think of Sean Payton’s play-calling thus far into the season? 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.