Film Breakdown: Saints Offense vs Vikings Defense Did Not Disappoint

On Sunday, both the Saints Offense and the Vikings Defense looked completely different from the first half to the second. Minnesota forced 2 interceptions, generated 2 sacks, and shutout New Orleans through the first 30 minutes of the game. In the 2nd half, the Saints dropped 24 points on one of the best defenses in the league. While the finish to this game may have stolen the headlines, the chess match on the other side of the ball was the most intriguing matchup of the weekend.

We should start with the battle of the #5-ranked running game vs the #2-ranked rushing defense. The Saints have an extremely versatile ground game, but they were unable to do much of anything against the Vikings. To be able to consistently stop the run, every member of the defense has to play to their responsibilities, and Minnesota was exemplary in every way in this category on Sunday.

Their defensive line is a physical and athletic unit that was able to consistently win 1-on-1’s, get off blocks to make tackles, draw stalemates on double-teams, and even sometimes fight through double-teams to make tackles.

Minnesota’s 2nd level defenders were just as good. Vikings linebackers did a great job all afternoon of recognizing double-teams and immediately attacking the line of scrimmage to fill gaps. They constantly played to their responsibilities, eliminating cutback lanes, which Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have taken advantage of all season. We rarely saw Vikings defenders take on lead blockers with the wrong shoulder, and this forced Saints running backs inside towards the teeth of the defense, where tacklers were waiting.

The below play is a great illustration of the Vikings’ discipline. Here, the Saints were calling an outside zone run for Alvin Kamara to the left side.

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As you can see below, Vikings defenders were accounting for the 4 gaps right in front of Kamara.

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Linebacker Eric Kendricks recognized the play and immediately attacked the line of scrimmage. He did not get caught moving side-to-side with the flow of the offensive line. Instead, he remained in his gap, eliminating the possibility of a cutback for Kamara.

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Kamara had nowhere to go as Minnesota’s defense swallowed him up for just a 1-yard gain.

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This was a regular occurrence on Sunday, with Minnesota’s defensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, linebackers playing to their responsibilities, and Saints running backs left with barely any daylight. The Vikings limited New Orleans to just 80 yards on 24 carries, leaving it up to Drew Brees and the passing game.

Without the ability to run the ball, Brees needed to be on top of his game. In the first half, he was not. Brees uncharacteristically missed a few throws early and badly underthrew an open Ted Ginn for his first of two interceptions. His early erratic play seemed to be due to the fact that he was playing a little too fast. He was obviously aware of Minnesota’s pass rush, and the internal clock in his head was sped up despite the fact that his offensive line was doing a pretty good job protecting him.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer didn’t really start bringing much blitz pressure until the final drive of the first half. This seemed to throw off the Saints’ timing and execution even further. All of the moving parts of Sean Payton’s offense were just unable to click at the same time. Either Brees was getting rid of the ball too early, his receivers were dropping passes or weren’t ready for his anticipation throws, or the protection was unclear about where the 5th rusher was coming from.

Just before the end of the half, the Vikings knocked the Saints to the very edge of field goal range by utilizing an overload blitz to generate a critical sack, as shown below.

Here, the Saints had 6 blockers (5 offensive linemen and running back Mark Ingram) to block 6 potential rushers (4 down-linemen and 2 linebackers). Notice that safety Harrison Smith was not accounted for.

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With defensive tackle Tom Johnson aligned in the A-gap to center Max Unger’s right, Unger was forced to react to him at the snap.

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This ensured that to Unger’s left, the Saints only had 3 blockers. The Vikings were bringing 4 pass rushers to that side, though. This included safety Harrison Smith, who, as we mentioned before, was not initially accounted for in the 6-man protection.

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In order to create a pass-rushing lane straight to Drew Brees, the Vikings sent defensive end #96 Brian Robison across the left guard’s face, taking him to the inside. With Everson Griffen (#97) rushing to the outside, Minnesota was able to split the left guard and left tackle.

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This left just Mark Ingram to block linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith.

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Ingram took Kendricks, who was his responsibility, leaving Smith with a free path to Brees.

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The Vikings didn’t really bring elaborate blitzes like this all that often. However, this play illustrates how they were able to sometimes break down New Orleans’ protection schemes by disguising who was actually blitzing and who was dropping into coverage. The Vikings are among the league’s best in not tipping which defenders are blitzing pre-snap. Through the first 30 minutes, the Saints didn’t have any answers. Brees was just 1-6, for 13 yards with 2 sacks against the blitz.

A few things changed in the second half. The Vikings lost starting safety Andrew Sendejo with the score 17-0. They also lost cornerback Xavier Rhodes for a critical stretch. This definitely had an impact. Additionally, the Saints were able to start two of their touchdown drives inside of Vikings territory off of a Marcus Williams interception and a blocked punt.

More importantly for the Saints, though, Drew Brees settled in. This is the benefit of having a 17-year veteran and future Hall-of-Famer under center. Brees and the Saints started doing things to be able to more clearly identify the coverage and the potential pressure. Their 2nd and 3rd touchdowns were great illustrations of this.

With the score 17-7, the Saints had the ball on the Vikings 3-yard line. On this particular play, Alvin Kamara was initially aligned offset in the backfield.

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Brees used a silent hard-count (tapped the center who dropped his head down then up to simulate that he was about to snap the ball) to see how the defense would react. This enabled him to recognize that Eric Kendricks was creeping towards the line of scrimmage about to blitz.

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Brees also noticed that he had an advantageous matchup in the slot to his right, with Michael Thomas in a 1-on-1 situation with Terence Newman. This was during the stretch of the game where Xavier Rhodes had been sidelined after a big hit.

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Brees immediately yelled “kill, kill!” This meant that the Saints had called two plays in the huddle and he was “killing” the first playcall so they could run the second. Brees moved Kamara directly behind him so that he would be in a position to legitimately sell a run fake.

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To ensure the defense bit on the fake, tight end Josh Hill motioned to the perimeter and back, a type of motion often used for crack-back blocks on tosses.

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At the snap, Brees faked a toss to the left side. Keep in mind that a toss away from a blitz is an oft-used concept. This further helped sell the run. Minnesota’s deep safety and linebacker to the side of the toss action reacted hard to the play fake, and Kendricks carried out the blitz he was showing right before the snap. With his adjustments at the line, Brees had created a huge void in the center of the field.

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Michael Thomas was easily able to beat Newman, now completely on an island, for the touchdown.

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Later in the 4th quarter, with just over 3 minutes remaining and trailing 20-14, the Saints had the ball at the Vikings’ 14-yard line. Once again, Drew Brees needed to make some adjustments at the line to stave off a potential blitz. Just before the snap, with Alvin Kamara aligned in the backfield next to him, Brees looked over Minnesota’s defense and saw that he likely had man-to-man coverage across the board. He wasn’t so sure about the two linebackers in the middle of the field, though.

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Based on what he had seen all game, either of those defenders could be blitzing. Either could be covering Kamara. Brees wanted more clarity. He sent Kamara to the inside-slot position to his right. Eric Kendricks followed.

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Now Brees had a much clearer picture of the 5 man-to-man matchups he had to choose from. The alignment also made it easier for the offensive line to identify where potential rushers were coming from and understand their pass protection responsibilities.

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A few beats after the snap, Brees was able to confirm the matchups he knew he would likely have pre-snap. Below you can see the route concept New Orleans was running to the right side of the formation.

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Brees liked his matchup of Kamara running a wheel route from the slot versus Kendricks.

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Despite the decent coverage by Kendricks, Kamara had enough of a step to give his quarterback a window. Brees put the ball on the money.

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The touchdown gave New Orleans its first lead of the game.

The Saints were ultimately able to handle Minnesota’s pressure schemes in the 2nd half by making a few small adjustments to help define the location and magnitude of the pressure as well as the resulting matchups in coverage. As a result, Brees was 8 of 8 for 67 yards and 2 touchdowns against the blitz in the final 30 minutes. Talk about night and day from the first half to the second.

Drew Brees was simply outstanding in the 2nd half on Sunday, and if not for a never-before-seen finish to the game, this would have gone down as one of the signature moments of his Hall-of-Fame career. Instead, the Vikings are going to the NFC Championship game, where their defense will try to make sure that the Nick Foles-led Eagles offense doesn’t have nearly as much success as New Orleans did.

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Tennessee’s Defensive Approach Fails to Slow Down Patriots Offense

The Titans’ chances of beating the Patriots on Saturday night in Gillette stadium were not great to begin with. However, the way they approached the game on defense all but ensured that they would have absolutely no shot.

The Patriots have such a well-balanced attack and one of the more underrated running games you’ll find in the NFL. However, to thwart them as a defense, it has to start with the passing game. As we have mentioned many times before, the Patriots do a great job of distributing personnel and manufacturing mismatches. Their passing game is based on Tom Brady planting his back foot, making immediate decisions, and getting rid of the ball quickly. Between Brady’s accuracy and coverage recognition skills, the talent he has around him, and the advanced scheme we see every week, slowing down New England’s passing game is always a daunting task. It isn’t impossible, though.

We’ve heard a thousand times that you need to get pressure on Brady with your front-4 to have a chance. What always gets missed in this piece of analysis is that pass-rush pressure cannot happen unless Brady is actually forced to hold onto the ball. If he can plant his back foot and quickly get rid of the ball where he wants to, it doesn’t matter what your pass rush does. This is why defenses cannot predominantly play soft coverage against the Patriots, whether in man or zone. You have to physically disrupt New England’s receivers, throw off Brady’s timing, and give your pass rush a chance. The Titans did not do this on Saturday night.

The play below perfectly illustrates this. The Patriots faced a 3rd-and-3 here. Focus on the bottom of the screen, where Rob Gronkowski was aligned to the outside next to Danny Amendola, who had just motioned across the formation.

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You can see that cornerback Tye Smith was playing with outside leverage and safety help to his inside. Notice the cushion he was playing with on 3rd-and-3.

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At the snap Smith dropped a few yards, giving even more cushion. Again, this was 3rd-and-3.

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At this point, you can see that Brady had already planted his back foot at the top of his drop and was ready to get rid of the ball. Look at the space between Amendola, who Brady was targeting, and the defenders in coverage.

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Below you can see where Tennessee’s defenders ended up in relation to Amendola as he caught Brady’s pass.

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The result was another easy 3rd-down conversion for the Patriots. And as you could probably tell, it didn’t matter if Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White were rushing Brady there. They would have been irrelevant given this type of coverage.

Again, it is hard to understand why the Titans played this particular coverage on 3rd-and-3. Perhaps it was a miscommunication. After all, the Titans did have trouble adjusting to the Patriots’ use of motion all night. And to be fair, Gronkowski and Amendola were in a stacked alignment tight to the formation. Both their alignment and the motion made it difficult for Tennessee to jam or disrupt them at the line of scrimmage.

Difficult, but again, not impossible. Defenses across the NFL are willing to jam the point man of a stack all the time in order to disrupt the timing of the routes. Or, they’ll play the receivers’ releases. We showed you last week how the Falcons were able to deal with a trips bunch formation and still play tight coverage.

Furthermore, the Patriots use motion, stacks, and tight formations to deter press-man coverage all the time. These are consistent traits of their offensive scheme and have been for several years. That’s why it was shocking to see how ill-prepared Dick LeBeau’s defense was for New England’s approach.

If you’re looking for more evidence that Tennessee’s decision to play so much soft coverage on Saturday night made life too easy for Tom Brady, consider the following numbers. Of Brady’s 35 completions on the night, 20 came on throws less than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. He was also 10 of 10 for 79 yards and a touchdown on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage. These numbers are staggering. When it was all said and done, Brady was able to comfortably throw 41 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He completed 28 of those 41 attempts (68.3%) for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns. This is what the Patriots do on offense. If you give them a few yards, they will take them over and over, up and down the field.

One of the many reasons the Patriots are so tough to defend is that they will throw the ball on any down. Defenses can’t get away with playing soft on 1st down and expect not to get burned. Brady will take those easy short throws no matter when they occur, ensuring that the Patriots stay in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Case in point, on the 27 throws Brady attempted within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage on Saturday night, 24 came on 1st or 2nd down. Brady completed 18 of those 24 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Now, that might not seem like a lot of yards per attempt (5.46), but considering that 14 of those 18 completions gained at least 5 yards, the Patriots were able to consistently live in easily manageable situations all night. This made it extra difficult for Tennessee’s defense to get off the field. For any defense to have a shot of stopping the Patriots offense, an easy 5 yards on so many 1st and 2nd downs simply can’t happen.

None of this necessarily means that the Titans would have won this game had they changed their defensive approach. They had too many issues on both sides of the ball to be able to hang with this Patriots team. However, they gave themselves absolutely no shot by playing into New England’s hands. The Jaguars would be well served to pay close attention to the Titans’ defensive approach this past weekend so they’ll know exactly what not to do in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

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Falcons D Shuts Down Rams’ Top-Ranked Offense

The Falcons went into their Wild Card game against the Rams with the goal of taking away Todd Gurley and the running game early. The idea was to make Jared Goff and the Rams’ passing attack have to beat them. Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn had to feel good about his team’s chances if they could force the Rams to try and win through the air due to the personnel matchup being tilted in Atlanta’s favor. It would come down to being able to handle the Rams’ passing scheme, something Sean McVay employed brilliantly throughout 2017 to orchestrate one of the greatest offensive turnarounds in NFL history. On Saturday night, the Falcons looked more than prepared. The play below is a great illustration of this.

Here, the Rams faced a 3rd-and-7 and anticipated some form of man-coverage, a common look from Atlanta’s defense (and throughout the NFL) in this situation. They aligned with 3 wide receivers in a trips bunch formation to Jared Goff’s right.

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The idea with trips bunch is to make it difficult for defenses to play press-man coverage. The two receivers off the line of scrimmage have more wiggle room to make a move before defenders can get their hands on them. The idea with trips bunch is also to create traffic that defensive backs have to fight through. From an offensive perspective, the hope is that this will create a natural rub (or confusion in assignments if defensive backs are matching up to the receivers’ releases instead of to the man), and a receiver will be left wide open with room to run after the catch.

The Falcons were prepared for this, as the Rams have often used similar formations throughout the season. Atlanta aligned their corners, Brian Poole, Robert Alford, and Desmond Trufant, at three different levels.

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This was to avoid the potential for traffic and natural rubs. After the snap, you can see how the Falcons were able to cleanly match up to L.A.’s receivers.

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Another element to consider here is that the Falcons were actually playing 2-man (man coverage underneath with 2 safeties over the top).

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The Falcons are a predominant single-high safety team that utilizes both cover-3 and man-free variations. This 2-man look is something they call from time to time to switch things up, and they did this on multiple key plays throughout Saturday’s game. 2-man enables the defensive backs in man coverage to play inside and underneath in a “trail technique” to cut off any easy throws for the quarterback. They can do this because they know they have help over the top. A few more beats into the play, and you can see that this is exactly how Atlanta’s defensive backs were playing this.

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That’s tight coverage across the board, something we saw from the Falcons all night. The only receiver Goff had open was his shallow cross against Desmond Trufant. Not only was this route short of the first-down marker, but Trufant was closing fast and had a clear path to his receiver due to Atlanta’s initial alignment.

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By the time Goff was ready to throw the ball, Trufant was all over his receiver and in perfect position to make the play.

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The Falcons were aware of, and prepared for, the Rams’ approach all night. Because they were ready for any scheme Los Angeles threw their way, they were able to let their talented secondary take over. This was an advantage in Atlanta’s favor, and they smothered L.A.’s receivers.

The Falcons’ secondary is certainly among the NFL’s best. They are a fast and aggressive unit that quickly reads and reacts to routes when playing zone and regularly allows little breathing room in man coverage. Throw in the fact that the rest of the defense shares the same quick and aggressive trait, and you’re talking about a unit that no offense wants to face with their season on the line. The Rams certainly didn’t last weekend.

One other point to mention here is that the Falcons were able to get pressure on Goff throughout the night. This gave him even less time to find the open receiver or best matchup and exploit it. In particular, Atlanta’s rookie 1st-round draft pick, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, repeatedly jumped out on film. He regularly put pressure on Jared Goff and was the cause for several negative plays for the Rams offense.

The Falcons’ young and talented defense is peaking at the right time of the season. They are healthier and one year wiser than they were during last season’s playoff run. This could spell trouble for the #1-seeded Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round.

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