When asked about the Saints offense Jim Harbuagh simply responded "Machine-like". While Jim is usually coy with the media, he was spot on with his analysis of Sunday’ opponent. Having spent nearly 7 seasons together, Sean Payton and Drew Brees have mastered the art of creating and exploiting mismatches in the passing game.
Add in two of the more unique offensive players in 6’7 Jimmy Graham and 5’8 Darren Sproles, Sean Payton has the ingredients to make his offense hum. Whether the defense sits back in zone or attacks with press coverage, Drew Brees has a match-up that favors the offense.
Sproles vs a LB: With linebackers traditionally covering running backs in man coverage, the Saints have always isolated their running backs in the passing game. First it was Reggie Bush, but after he left in free agency Sean Payton got his hands on the most dynamic scat back in the NFL, Darren Sproles. The numbers highlight his importance to the Saint offense, where he has averaged over 5.5 catches for 50 yards per game during 2 plus seasons in New Orleans.
Let’s look at how the Saints motioned Darren Sproles out wide against the Patriots man coverage to exploit his mismatch against a linebacker.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 4:20, 1st and 10 at the NO 39, Patriots 17, Saints 7
Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, Marques Colston) 1 RB (Darren Sproles) 1 TE (Jimmy Graham)
Formation: Empty Shotgun
Offensive Concept: Quick Slants
Defensive Scheme: Man 1 (with an underneath zone)
Pre-Snap: The Saints motion WR Stills across the formation to create a trips right shotgun set. CB Arrington follows WR Stills, confirming the man coverage defense. In response, the Saints spilt out both TE Graham and RB Sproles into a stack formation left, forcing LB Mayo over to cover RB Sproles one on one.
Post-Snap: The stack formation prevents LB Mayo from jamming RB Sproles at the line of scrimmage. With the free release, RB Sproles runs an arrow route under TE Graham’s slant across the field.
In addition to giving Sproles a free release, the slant route by TE Graham occupies the underneath middle zone of LB Hightower leaving LB Mayo without help on RB Sproles in space. After releasing on a 45 degree angle, RB Sproles cuts back inside on his arrow route leaving the slower LB Mayo in the dust.
QB Brees’ pass hits RB Sproles, who is wide open between LBs Mayo and Hightower, in stride for a 14 yard gain.
Summary: By showing man coverage pre-snap the Patriots were doomed. Knowing Darren Sproles was matched up one on one with a MLB, Sean Payton and Drew Brees quickly motioned him outside further exposing the mismatch. Additionally, the stack formation prevented the bigger LB from altering the timing of the route by putting 6’7 Jimmy Graham in between them.
While the play highlighted above may seem like a nightmare for opposing defenses, the Saints are even scarier when they use Darren Sproles on the option route, where he can run a flat or an arrow route given the positioning of the man covering him. With his quickness and understanding with Drew Brees it’s nearly impossible to defend Sproles with a single player when he can break off his route in any direction.
Irregardless of where Sproles lines up the 49ers will have their hands full Sunday. Luckily, Navorro Bowman is among the quickest linebackers in the league and should do better than most trying to stay with Sproles in pass coverage.
From an scheme standpoint, look for Vic Fangio to try and jam Sproles on the outside when presented with the chance, but the Saints do a good job of giving Sproles free releases through a variety of alignments. Other than that, the main goal is to limit the yards after the catch and prevent a 5 yard quick slant from turning into a 60 yard touchdown.
Brees to Graham: On the other end of the size spectrum, the 6’7 Jimmy Graham will present serious issues to the 49ers defense. With his combination of speed and size he can challenge defenses anywhere on the field. Yet he is most dangerous when he is allowed to attack zone defenses down the field.
Let's look at how Drew Brees found his massive tight end against Dallas Sunday for one of 40 first downs.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 4:55, 1st and 10 at the NO 9, Saints 28, Cowboys 10
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Kenny Stills, Marques Colston) 1 RB (Pierre Thomas) 2 TE (Jimmy Graham, Josh Hill)
Formation: Ace Single Back
Offensive Concept: Crossing route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The Cowboys show their normal Cover 2 defense with both safeties deep and LB Sims several yards off the line of scrimmage.
Post-Snap: S Church comes forward as CB Carr and Scandrick drop into deep zones on the outside with S Heath in a deep middle forming a Cover 3 coverage. Expecting zone coverage the Saints flood the right side of the field with WR Colston running a flat route, WR Stills running a go route and TE Graham coming across the field on a crossing route.
The routes of WRs Colston and Stills clear out the right side of the defense meaning that TE Graham’s crossing route will become wide open once he clears the underneath zones.
QB Brees’ pass arrives perfectly over the underneath defender allowing TE Graham to catch the ball and turn up field before getting pushed out of bounds by S Heath for a gain of 26 yards.
Summary: The Saints were multiple steps ahead of the Dallas defense all night and it was especially apparent by this play. Using a flood scheme, the Saints exposed the Cowboy’s predictability on defense and highlighted the rare athletic abilities of Jimmy Graham. When compared to some of his other catches, this one was mundane but his ability to stretch defenses, horizontally or vertically, is a difference maker for the Saints offense.
Similar to stopping Darren Sproles, there is no easy way to contain Jimmy Graham. He is simply the perfect receiving tight end due to his unique blend of size and speed, too big for corners and safeties and too fasts for linebackers. Because of the mismatch Graham creates, look for the 49ers to use either NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis in a trail technique man coverage with a safety over the top.
The one team that did limit Graham’s effectiveness was the Patriots, primarily due to Aqib Talib, a lengthy corner that could run with Graham and contest jump balls due to his size. It’s matchup like this where the loss of Chris Culliver, a 6’2 CB with speed, is truly felt.
Pressuring Brees: With the duo of Sproles and Graham and other solid receiving weapons like Marques Colston and Kenny Stills, the best way to contain the Saints offense is to get after Brees. Let’s look at how the Jets successfully did that in the second half of their 26-20 upset 3 weeks ago.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 9:51, 3rd and 5 at the NO 45, Jets 23, Saints 14
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Marques Colston, Kenny Stills) 1 RB (Pierre Thomas) 2 TE (Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson)
Formation: Shotgun Weak
Offensive Concept: Verticals
Defensive Scheme: Man 1 with Double on X receiver
Pre-Snap: The Jets shuffle defenders around settling into one of the Ryan family patented overload blitzes with 5 defenders on the right side. Expecting a blitz QB Brees shifts the protection and both TE Watson and RB Thomas stay in to protect.
Post-Snap: The two outside receivers release vertically on go routes that occupy 4 of the 5 Jets defenders in coverage. This leaves CB Allen isolated on TE Graham on a seam route from the slot position. CB Allen’s attempt to jam TE Graham goes predictably wrong and TE Graham gains separation down the seam. Luckily for the Jets and CB Allen, DE Muhammed prevents QB Brees from delivering what would have been a big gain if not a touchdown, with inside pressure.
QB Brees evades the oncoming rush but the timing of the route is now off, with Graham too far downfield for QB Brees to throw down the middle. To compensate, TE Graham breaks off his route left, which allows CB Allen to recoup the lost ground.
Despite the tight coverage, QB Brees throws to TE Graham giving his playmaker a chance to win a one on one match up. While TE Graham gets both hands on the football, he is unable to control it due to CB Allen’s pressure and the pass falls harmlessly to the ground.
Summary: After Jimmy Graham won at the line of scrimmage this looked to be an easy pitch and catch down the middle of the field for a big gain. But the Jets were set on disrupting Drew Brees by bringing pressure and it saved them big time.
Given the 49ers reluctance to bring multiple blitzers, Ahmad Brooks and the other pass rushers will have to create pressure with only 4 rushers. The big question mark is how many snaps will Aldon Smith will play and how effective can he be on the field. If he can return to his dominant old self, he showed flashes of it in limited time last week, the 49ers have a chance to disrupt Drew Brees and the Saints timing based passing offense.
A week after facing a run heavy physical team, the 49ers will go up against one of the best passing offenses in the league. With previous knowledge of each other having played the past three seasons, neither team will be caught off guard and the game will boil down to execution more than scheme. Mainly, can the 49ers duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman help limit the match up nightmare combo of Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles?
A scary fact for the 49ers is the Saints only two losses came on games where Jimmy Graham or Darren Sproles were limited/injured, Graham left the Patriots game early and Sproles was concussed early in the Jets contest.
Prediction: The 49ers offense will dominate the time of possession by establishing the Frank Gore early and limit the number of attempts Drew Brees has to attack the 49ers defense. The key, like with most games, is whether the 49ers can force a turnover or two and create short fields for the struggling offense. I think they do, as they did last year with 2 pick sixes, and the 49ers walk out of the Superdome 28-24.