Break It Down: Saints’ defense fails to learn from Week 1 mistakes
Last week’s “Break It Down” focused on how Tampa Bay stuffed Carolina. This week, we take a look at what went wrong for the Saints’ defense against that same Cam Newton-led attack. (And next week’s “Break It Down” will have nothing to do with the Panthers or the NFC South, I promise).
But we focus on the Saints here because their stumble out of the gate is one of the NFL’s biggest early storylines. New Orleans has given up more yards (922) than any other team in the league, and the Saints 75 points allowed is tied with Kansas City for the worst.
The back-to-back the Saints drew to open the year — vs. Washington, at Carolina — was tricky, in that both teams feature unusual, college-like offenses with mobile quarterbacks. What’s perhaps most worrisome for New Orleans, though, is that its defense failed to make adjustments to those offenses, both week to week and play to play.
Drew Brees marched New Orleans down the field for a game-opening touchdown on Sunday in Carolina, but the Saints’ problems started immediately thereafter.
The Panthers lined up for their first offensive play with DeAngelo Williams behind Cam Newton in the backfield, two wide receivers, and a pair of tight ends — both TEs lined up to Newton’s left. Gary Barnidge stayed in to block, while Williams hesitated at the line, then dove into the flat. Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen all broke long, with Newton eventually hitting LaFell up the left sideline for 27 yards.
The Saints were in a 4-3 defense — safety Malcolm Jenkins, as he often does, walked up to the line in press coverage on LaFell, while cornerback Corey White dropped deep. The Saints’ linebackers (Scott Shanle, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne) did … well, it’s hard to say what they were doing.
If the coverage was for New Orleans’ linebackers to handle the underneath routes, they failed — not only was Williams (circled in yellow) wide open sliding out of the backfield, but also there was ample room for Newton to run, if he wanted.
And if the idea was for the linebackers to take care of the deep middle, they failed there too. White slid inside to cover Olsen, once he got behind the LBs, and LaFell ran past Jenkins up the sideline (bottom of the above image).
Granted, this took a perfect pass-and-catch from Newton and LaFell for the play to be successful, but the Saints already were struggling with positioning.
It wasn’t always bad, though. Later in the same drive, New Orleans recorded a key sack of Newton. That result came about much in the same way Tampa Bay frustrated Newton in Week 1: By pinning him in the pocket with four pass-rushers and covering well downfield.
Unfortunately for the Saints, those plays were few and far between.
As mentioned, part of the difficulty in defending the Panthers is that they incorporate elements into their offense that few teams do, making it hard to prepare for them. Carolina unveiled one such element to start its next drive, when it dropped Newton into the pistol — a fullback to his left and a back behind him — and ran the triple option.
Here’s the basic setup, with the blue arrow showing Mike Tolbert’s decoy route into the line, as Newton and Williams took off to the right.
The Saints again lined up in a 4-3 with Jenkins up tight, this time off the left side of New Orleans’ line. And, oh, so many things went wrong here.
The entire Saints’ linebacking corps wound up out of position. Both David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton crashed inside on the Tolbert fake, taking them out of position for the play. Scott Shanle, meanwhile, was blocked completely by Olsen.
Making matters worse, left end Cameron Jordan (red line into the backfield) loses contain on the edge, allowing Newton to get to the outside.
The only player who does his job against the run is Jenkins (green arrow), but a) he’s left on an island against Newton and Williams; and b) he totally neglects the wide receiver up top — had the Panthers had a pass option in the mix here, it may have gone for even more than the 40 yards Newton gained.
Jenkins had to make a choice between Newton and Williams once the play kicked outside. His responsibility, if everyone else does his job, should be the pitch man (Williams), with help on the quarterback.
But with no help there, Jenkins got turned around and let Newton escape through a pitiful arm tackle.
OK, but let’s be fair: How often do NFL defenses see an option out of the pistol?
Well, the Saints saw it in Week 1, too. The picture below is Robert Griffin III’s setup on a play during Washington’s win over New Orleans. Look familiar?
The Redskins had a play-action pass called here — RGIII faked the handoff right, then rolled left. And the Saints’ linebackers had the same problem overcommitting that they did against Newton …
Jenkins again wound up all alone on the outside, this time one-on-one against Griffin. But Jenkins, just as against Newton, failed to bring him down. RGIII escaped the pressure, rolled back to his right and then hit Fred Davis downfield for a big gain.
Two weeks, similar looks, no adjustments or recognition for New Orleans.
The Saints had similar issues with the shotgun read-option look, utilized by both Washington and Carolina. First, the Redskins:
That play turned into about a 12-yard run by Griffin, but frankly, the Saints are lucky it wasn’t more. All three linebackers, as we’ve seen them do several times now, bit on the inside fake. And with the Saints’ DE blocked and a tight end in front of Griffin kicking out to block the lone defensive back to his right, this was an easy decision for Griffin to keep the ball.
The Saints’ problems have not been any less pronounced when the QB hands off on those read plays.
Maybe this counts as a defensive adjustment — albeit, a failed one — but multiple times Sunday, the Saints let Carolina’s running backs get to the edge by flying toward Newton.
First, a Jonathan Stewart run to the right for a big gain, where the Saints blitzed from the backside and crashed several guys toward the middle, leaving Carolina with two blockers on one defender:
And then, the very next play produced the exact same issue, only headed in the other direction. The Panthers ran Williams from Newton’s right to the left side of the field; the Saints blitzed off Newton’s right to take away the QB run … and Williams went for a huge gain around left end.
The Saints’ defensive problems thus far? Plentiful. The answers have not been there yet, either.
Steve Spagnuolo has just those two games under his belt as the Saints’ defensive coordinator, and we all know about the absences of Sean Payton and Joe Vitt. Improvement takes time whenever there is coach turnover, and so this may just be a case of New Orleans needing to be patient.
Without better play from their linebackers and better recognition overall by the defense, though, it’s hard to see how the Saints will take any big steps forward.