After Sunday's victory over the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was asked about the defensive front they got and the effect it had on the lack of rushing attempts throughout the game.
Payton said, "I'm not concerned, we just rushed for (104) yards and it was a decision. It's hard for me to sit up here and diagram the defense for you, but we made some changes early in the first half when we kept seeing that what we were getting was a five-man rush and heavy fronts."
Coach Payton would not diagram the Cardinal defensive adjustment for you, but I will. Here is a picture from my notes that illustrates what Arizona was throwing at the New Orleans Offense:
The Cardinals were going to keep one more defender inside near the line of scrimmage (LOS) than the Saints could block. In this illustration, the Saints have six potential blockers against seven internal defenders.
Arizona consistently covered all five offensive linemen to create one-on-one matchups. With rookie Tim Lelito starting at right guard for Jahri Evans, the Cardinals wanted to isolate defensive tackle Darnell Dockett over him where he could not get any help.
The strategy was effective. Dockett had three sacks and four quarterback hits.
However, just as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Cardinals had to take some inherent risks in order to outnumber the Saints on the LOS.
Arizona could outnumber New Orleans on the line of scrimmage because they played Man Free coverage in the secondary. The cornerbacks and strong safety would match up with the receivers while the inside linebackers matched up with the backs. If there were two backs, both LBers would align inside; one back, one LBer; no backs, no LBer.
Of course, this created matchup problems in the secondary as long as Drew Brees could get the ball off. Jimmy Graham, especially, was a nightmare for Arizona. Everyone in the defensive backfield took a shot with little effectiveness.
This was especially true inside the 20 or the "Red Zone." For the Cardinals to outnumber the Saints on the LOS, they had to play man coverage on the back end. They could have played without a free safety to double cover Graham or removed someone from the LOS. Arizona Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles chose not to do so.
Single covering Graham consistently was suicide. As Fox Analyst Heath Evans said on the telecast, "It was a guaranteed touchdown when the defense broke the huddle. Arizona Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles did not give his defense a chance."
Payton gave up on the run early spreading the defense, making them play in space and then running the ball late in the game. There was no use beating your head against a wall when the numbers were not there.
That is exactly what happened. Enter Khiry Robinson with 4:26 remaining in the game. This time period is referred to as "4-minute Offense." Four carries later Robinson had 38 yards against the exhausted Cardinals. The clock expired with Drew Brees kneeling down at the Arizona 11.
We may soon get a chance to see if Robinson can do the same thing when the defense is fresh.
The New Orleans special teams had their best outing. The punt coverage team held the dangerous Patrick Peterson to only 15 yards on two returns. The 50-yard net punt out of the end zone before the half kept the Cardinals from scoring late in the half.
On the other hand, Darren Sproles gained 53 yards on three returns for a 17.7 yard average.
The kickoff coverage team did give up a 46 yard return, although two other returns were stopped for gains of 21 and 20 yards.
The Black and Gold Defense was, of course, outstanding. After driving 80 yards on their initial drive, Arizona was only able to gain 167 yards the rest of the game. The Saints consistently got the Cardinals off the field giving NO a 35:31 to 24:29 time of possession advantage. Throw in two interceptions, and you had a dominant defensive effort.
Rob Ryan's utilization of personnel was once again terrific. Once again an opponent cannot consistently run against his six-man front, Nickel and Dime defenses.
It is amazing to see the speed and aggressiveness of the defenders. The tackling in the secondary is vastly improved limiting yards after catch. Secondary coach Wesley McGriff has to get a lot of credit for that.
When a secondary can run and tackle, it allows the front to play with abandon. The defensive front knows that even if there is an error, someone on the back end can make up for it.
It is beautiful to watch Junior Galette, Cam Jordan and Martez Wilson come off the edge. The rapid development of the interior allows them to come hard. The group of Glenn Foster, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Akiem Hicks push the pocket, not allowing opposing QBs to step up. They also occupy three blockers internally freeing up the edge rushers against single blocking.
Rob Ryan has done an excellent job teaching his defense to his troops. He was depending on three veteran players, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper, to provide the initial foundation for the unit until younger players would develop and take over. With these three hurt, and Smith not returning, the younger players have had to come forward sooner than anticipated.
Successful without dialing up exotic defenses and blitzes, Ryan has been more coverage oriented on the back end where he has be exquisite in his use of talent and personnel. Pure, fundamental football is still beautiful to see.
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