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From the Coach’s Office: Sean Payton's Curious Late Half Decisions in Cardinals Win

Saints head coach Sean Payton went with a highly-aggressive approach late in the first half of a big New Orleans win over the Arizona Cardinals (Photo: Parker Waters).Saints head coach Sean Payton went with a highly-aggressive approach late in the first half of a big New Orleans win over the Arizona Cardinals (Photo: Parker Waters).

When the New Orleans Saints win as convincingly as they did Sunday in their 31-7 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals, it is easy to overlook situations during the game that were not handled well.  However, championship caliber teams are always critical of their performance, and constantly striving to improve.

An area of concern for me was the end of half decisions by Sean Payton.  On the surface he put his defense in a difficult situation that could have been avoided.  He also gave Arizona an opportunity to seize momentum and get back in the game.

Lindy Infante, while the Offensive Coordinator at Tulane University and later an NFL Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, said that the first rule of game planning is to “Avoid losing while you try to win.”  To some, this may seem like a negative thought, and such thoughts are to be avoided at all costs.  In actuality, that thought process is what every leader of troops needs to consider when they begin their planning process.

Sean Payton’s end of half decision making process began with the Saints ahead 14-7 and the ball on their own four yard line (-4) with 1:43 remaining.  The NO offense had struggled throughout much of the first half.  The Cardinals had one time out left and the Saints had three.  NO would get the ball to start the second half.

The ideal would be to score without giving the Cardinals the ball back.  If you do not score, the next best objective would be to possess the ball until halftime.  The worst would be to give the Cardinals the ball with an opportunity to score and take momentum into the locker room at halftime.

Here were the end of half plays:

1-10-NO 4(1:43) Drew Brees pass short left to Marques Colston to NO 10 for 6 yards.

Timeout #1 by NO at 01:38. Payton shows everyone that he is going to be aggressive by going with an empty (no back) formation in his own end zone and calling a time out immediately after the completion inbounds.  His offensive line had struggled in the first half, giving up two sacks and a holding penalty that was declined.  Payton does show confidence in them even after a rocky first half.

2-4-NO 10(1:38) Brees pass incomplete short left to Darren Sproles.

Arizona adequately covered a flare route to Sproles and the ball was thrown away.

3-4-NO 10(1:34) Brees pass incomplete short middle to Jimmy Graham.

The Saints needed a first down here to keep pressing forward.  However, the incompletion leaves plenty of time for the Cardinals to respond.  Aggressive game management potentially puts the Saints at risk.

4-4-NO 10(1:30) Thomas Morstead punts 58 yards; Patrick Peterson returns to ARI 40 for 8 yards.

Morestead shows why he is such a dynamic weapon launching one 58 yards and allowing the coverage team to hold Patrick Peterson to a short return.  The net yardage gain for the Saints is 50 yards.  While with good field position, the great punt and coverage has put Arizona in a situation to have to work hard to secure points.

Arizona Cardinals Offense at 01:19.  Arizona one TO, NO two TOs.

1-10-ARI 40(1:19) Carson Palmer sacked for -5 yards.

It is a beautiful thing to watch Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan come off the edge.  The development of the interior defenders allows these two to be effective edge rushers.

Timeout #2 by NO at 01:11.

Another aggressive message from Payton.  The message:  “Defense, I am not worried about you stopping the other team.  You will do that and we can get the ball back with another opportunity to score.”

2-15-ARI 35(1:11) Palmer pass incomplete to Andre Roberts.  PENALTY on NO-27-M.Jenkins, Defensive Offside, 5 yards, enforced at ARI 35 - No Play.

Malcolm Jenkins lined up in the neutral zone giving the Cardinals a free play.  They do not take advantage of the opportunity and get  an extra snap.

2-10-ARI 40(1:07) Palmer pass to Andre Ellington for 8 yards.

A great tackle by Keenan Lewis allows no yards after catch and keeps Arizona short of the first down.  You may expect the Cardinals to call a time out but:

Timeout #3 by NO at 01:01.

This is Payton’s most aggressive move.  The Cardinals are near mid-field and still have their time out left.  Arizona was not going to use their last time out until they were inside of a minute.  A NO time out here puts some pressure on the Cardinal offense, but squarely put the onus on the Saint D.

3-2-ARI 48(1:01) Palmer pass to Ellington at NO 41 for 11 yards.

This play earns Arizona a first down and puts them in range of a score.  This is the situation that could have been avoided.  The Saints defense responds to the challenge, however over the next three plays.

1-10-NO 41(:57) Palmer pass incomplete.

2-10-NO 41(:53) Palmer pass incomplete.

3-10-NO 41(:46) Palmer pass incomplete deep left to Roberts.

The effect of the pass rush on the three previous plays was evident.  Even on the third down play where there was less pressure, Palmer had poor footwork and the ball sailed over the receiver’s head.

This forced the Cardinals to punt and NO used their “Punt Safe.”  The return team covered the receivers and potential fakes without an organized punt block or return.  The objective at this point was to get into the locker room.

In the end of half decision making was Sean Payton overly aggressive?  Definitely.  Out of all the things that could happen, many more were bad than good.  The risk/reward ratio was not in his favor.  Yet, everyone loves the “pedal to the metal” approach.

Former Saint and Fox TV Analyst Heath Evans said on the telecast, “Aggressive?  There needs to be a better adjective for Sean Payton.”

Since it worked out, Payton left the offense, defense and kicking game with confidence.  Though the offense failed, Payton showed he believed in them.  The punt team and the defense stepped up when called upon.  Therefore, the decision making was effective.

I suspect Sean Payton will thoroughly review his end of half decision making.  Then he will probably do the same thing again.


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