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New Orleans Saints’ passing game has unique opportunity to improve vs. Tennessee Titans

Titans’ zone-heavy scheme could work in favor of Saints top two receivers.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Despite their attempts to lure him back to New Orleans, the Saints were unable to sign Odell Beckham Jr this week. With OBJ headed to Los Angeles instead, head coach Sean Payton and the gang will have to find another way to bolster the passing attack after a disappointing outing against the Atlanta Falcons last week.

With no help on the way, the New Orleans Saints pass-catching corps has to find a way to build on a strong fourth quarter to close out last week’s loss. As the team heads to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans this weekend, a unique opportunity to continue on the right foot presents itself.

Over the course of the Tennessee Titans’ five-game win streak, their cornerbacks have been asked to play fewer and fewer man coverage snaps. Throughout their recent success the heaviest usage of man coverage from their top corners was merely 34.8% by Greg Mabin who has been ruled out for Sunday’s matchup.

Tennessee has focused very heavily on zone coverage over the course of this season. Their top three cornerbacks in terms of snaps, former Saint Janoris Jenkins, Elijah Molden, and Chris Jackson have played only 30.6, 25.6, and 30.8 man coverage percentages individually. The Titans defense has been outstanding in zone coverage, allowing only a 33 QBR before another stellar performance against Matt Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams last week.

Tennessee Titans v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Meanwhile they’ve each been called upon for 58% or more snaps in zone coverage (some match and miscellaneous coverages aren’t counted into either category by Pro Football Focus). In those zone coverage snaps, the three corners have surrendered a combined 70.3% completion rate. They have also missed a combined 5 tackles in zone coverage as well.

How this impacts the Saints’ receiving corps is simple; New Orleans pass-catchers can target holes in the zone defense, cash in on uncontested targets, and hopefully produce greater yards after catch numbers where the receivers currently rank second to last in the league.

Where this goes from wishful thinking to absolute possibility is important. The Saints’ top two wide receivers so far this season are Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway. Harris leads the team with 323 receiving yards while Callaway is second behind running back Alvin Kamara with 309.

Of Harris’ 323 yards, 273 of them have come against zone coverage according to PFF. As have 15 of his 21 receptions on the season. He’s also averaged 18.2 yards per catch against zone and scored both of his touchdowns against zone, totaling 111 yards after catch. Harris is only credited with nine yards after catch against man.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Marquez Callaway has seen similar success, but particularly in efficiency. While he’s pulled in the majority of his catches and yardage against zone coverage this season, perhaps the most important detail is that his 56.4 completion percentage is heavily impacted by incompletions against man coverage. Against zone, he’s reeled in a much better rate of 73.7% of his targets.

Similarly, tight end Adam Trautman has struggled mightily against man coverage. He has not been credited with a catch in those situations and has only been targeted five times including one drop and three contested targets. However, against zone, the second-year tight end has converted 13 of his 17 targets for catches. That’s a rate of 76.5% which he’s converted for 139 of his 151 season receiving yards.

The trick in excelling against the Titans’ zone scheme will be avoiding safety Kevin Byard who is tied for second in the NFL in interceptions. Byard has accounted for five of the Titans’ nine picks. Pass selection will be critical for Trevor Siemian in attacking the weak areas of the zone without being enticed into bad decisions deep.

The New Orleans Saints have no choice with Michael Thomas not returning and with Odell Beckham Jr not returning home to save the day. They’ll have to get things going with the players the have, and like, within the facility. This zone-heavy scheme from Tennessee may be just what they needed.

It is worth pointing out that the Atlanta Falcons ran the highest rate of man coverage in their Week 9 win over New Orleans than they have in any other game this season, at least by PFF’s rates. Tennessee could see that success and look to replicate it, especially with a strong man coverage corner like Janoris Jenkins leading their young group. If Tennessee were to go that route, it would be interesting to see if they find the same level of success against the New Orleans receivers as Atlanta or if the success is tightly bound to infrequency.

If New Orleans wants to help themselves against the Tennessee zone scheme, pass protection will be a huge piece. Vrabel’s defense wants to get pressure by sending only four. They’ll vary where that fourth rusher comes from, but the goal is to send four and drop seven. If the Saints hampered offensive line that will be without Terron Armstead can hold up again with James Hurst and Calvin Throckmorton, it means even more opportunity for Trevor Siemian and his pass-catchers.

There is already so much intrigue in this matchup thanks to availability questions and injuries to key starters. But even with big names like Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry out, this contest is sure to entertain.

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