The National Football Post’s Matt Bowen analyzes his notes from the Monday night matchup in New Orleans from a scheme perspective.
Big-play New Orleans offense
The two big plays the Saints had in the first half were a direct reflection of poor secondary play by the Patriots. On Devery Henderson’s 75-yard TD catch, we could all see that New England busted a coverage — and busting a coverage against Drew Brees always results in points. But what did the Pats do that left Henderson open down the middle of the field?
The Patriots were running a Nickel Fire Blitz — a common zone blitz run in passing situations. The nickel corner blitzes off the edge, and a linebacker or defensive end will carry No. 2 vertical to the deep middle of the field safety. But in this case, no one carried Henderson on the vertical, the outside corner sat on a deep curl, and the middle-of-the-field safety jumped an underneath route. A classic example of a busted zone blitz and a standard result — six points.
On the 38-yard TD pass to Robert Meachem, the Saints used max protection and ran the two-man “speedo” route, which consists of a deep crossing route with a deep post route over the top. This route, with the protection now to wait for it to develop, forces the free safety to choose — stay on the post or jump the deep crosser. Brandon Meriweather of the Patriots chose to jump the crosser, and left the post exposed — with the corner playing man coverage from an outside leverage position with no help in the middle of the field.
Two huge plays that could have been prevented if the Patriots’ secondary played its responsibilities and didn’t take gambles against one of the league’s best QBs in Brees.
Gregg Williams’ game plan
New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known as a pressure coach, but he called this game with coverage principles in mind — often rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage when the Pats put Brady in the shotgun on passing situations. And that’s a standard against Tom Brady and the Patriots, but what Williams played on the back end usually isn’t. Instead of dropping eight and playing Cover 2 — which most teams do against New England to play a safety over the top of Randy Moss on the numbers — Williams used man coverage principles. Most often, the Saints played a version of “Cover 1 Robber,” where FS Darren Sharper played the deep middle of the field, and either a linebacker or an extra defensive back played a “rover” position — sitting 10 yards deep in between the hashes. What this did was allow the Saints to play man coverage with outside leverage — forcing everything to the middle of the field — and allowing Mike McKenzie to pick off Brady by jumping the underneath route. Because he had the help to do it with the “rover” sitting 10 yards off of the ball.
The New England variety
I’ve always thought that New England was tough to prepare for because of its ability to produce points and yardage from a variety of formations. Last night, we saw the Pats in Tank (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR), Kings (4 WR, 1 TE), Empty (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB removed from formation) and, earlier in the game, Jumbo (1 WR, 3 TE, 1 RB) with an unbalanced line to go along with their standard pro sets. By doing this, it requires the defense to sub in and out multiple personnel packages of their own and study hours of tape, because you never know what you’re going to get, as the Pats change personnel on almost every snap of the game.
What is so special about Brees as a quarterback is his ability to put the ball where he wants it to go versus man coverage. Unlike the two big plays the Saints had in the first half, guys are covered at this level when they run routes, and only the best QBs can still complete passes versus that type of coverage. Watching Brees last night, it’s amazing how he can constantly throw the ball away from the defender, who has his back turned to the ball. Yes, give some credit to his receivers, who are taught to expect the ball to be thrown to their back shoulder versus man coverage, but is there a QB in the league that does this better than Brees right now? He owned that New England secondary, and finished 18 of 23 for 371 and 5 TDs — completing over 78 percent of his passes.
Combo coverage on Welker
Stopping Wes Welker on third downs has been as issue for every defense this season, and I wasn’t surprised to see the Saints play Cover 7 against him when he aligned in the slot on third-and-medium situations. Cover 7 is a combo — or double — coverage on the inside slot receiver. The nickel corner plays man coverage with heavy outside leverage, knowing that the strong safety will drive on any inside breaking route. And that’s exactly what Welker is known for on third downs. It is a classic option route. Welker sees outside man, breaks his route off inside, but the Saints had a safety to drive down and make the tackle on the catch — leading to fourth down. On the night, the Pats went 4 for 12 on third downs. Good preparation and film study by New Orleans.
Mike McKenzie was basically signed off the street this week, and I was impressed with his ability to come in and play man coverage — especially off man coverage in Williams defense — which requires corners to sit at seven yards and flat-foot read any three-step route. None was bigger than McKenzie breaking on the out thrown to Randy Moss on fourth down in the red zone. He made plays all night.
From my perspective, Tom Brady looked confused most of the night — and I was surprised that the Saints secondary could shut down his playmakers. He didn’t have windows to throw to, he missed on deep ball opportunities, the Saints were able to take away his third down option in Welker, and even against the three man rush, Brady looked hesitant in the pocket. He finished the night going 21-36 for 231 and 2 INTs. The last pick he threw to Sharper looked to be out of frustration more than anything. Not what you’d expect from Brady — or the Patriots for that matter — in a game on a big stage.
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