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49ers-Saints preview: All about Drew Brees and Rob Ryan

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Finding a way to limit Drew Brees and the Saints offense is the top priority for the 49ers in New Orleans this week, but it might not be in the way that you expect. Plus, how should the 49ers attack Rob Ryan's newfound conservatism on defense?

Wesley Hitt

A lot can change in the NFL in just a few weeks. Following a Week 5 victory over the Chiefs, the 49ers appeared to have shaken off their early season woes with back-to-back victories over quality opponents. With some schedule relief on the horizon, Peyton Manning and the Broncos aside, it was fair to expect Jim Harbaugh’s team to round into the championship-caliber form we’ve come to expect over the last three seasons. An unimpressive win over the Rams and two ugly losses later and everything from San Francisco’s playoff hopes to Harbaugh’s future looks to be in question.

The conclusion of Week 5 brought a much-needed bye week for the Saints. Sean Payton’s squad was one of the season’s biggest early disappointments, going 2–3 with their only Ws coming at home against the Vikings and Bucs. New Orleans regrouped during their off week and have played their best football of the season in the past three weeks.

Both teams currently sit at 4–4 in the standings, but appear to be headed in opposite directions. The Saints are now the clear favorite in an otherwise abysmal NFC South while the Niners are looking up at the Cardinals and Seahawks in the NFC West and struggling to find something they do well on offense.

If the 49ers are going to pick-up a crucial road victory and attempt to get back on the playoff track, it starts with finding a way to limit Drew Brees.

Drew Brees and the Shotgun

No team in the league has been better at sustaining drives this season than the Saints. Drew Bress & Co. are 1st in yards per drive (42.6), points per drive (2.71), and plays per drive (6.81) this season. No team has had fewer drives end in a punt and only the Ravens have gone three-and-out less frequently. But you don’t need me to tell you that the Saints’ offense is really good. What might surprise you, however, is how they’re doing it.

With the gaudy passing numbers Brees has posted in New Orleans, the Saints have a reputation of sitting in the Shotgun and slinging the ball all over the field. However, the Saints’ offense has actually been much better with Brees operating under center.

New Orleans has been a respectable 13th in DVOA from Shotgun sets in 2014. But put Brees under center and the Saints have been the best offense in football by the same metric. Only the Bills have seen a larger increase in DVOA going from Shotgun to under center this season. From my film study of Sean Payton’s offense, that increase seems to stem from, 1) an incredibly effective rushing attack and 2) a devastating play action game.

The Saints have been an efficient rushing offense in the past, but that had a lot to do with how defenses often sold out to stop Brees, leaving a good amount of space in the box for New Orleans’s committee of backs to work with. More than any other season in the Brees era, the 2014 Saints might actually have a more effective rushing game than passing game.

Mark Ingram has built on the promise he showed late last season and has spearheaded a rushing attack that’s been the second-best in football in 2014. Ingram is averaging 4.9 yards a pop and he’s doing it by picking up consistent chunks of yardage, evidenced by his fourth-best mark in DVOA among running backs.

The increase in effectiveness rushing the football has been a huge boost to the Saints’ play-action passes. After finishing slightly above average on play-action passes the last two seasons, Brees has the league’s best passer rating (134.8) after a play fake in 2014, per Pro Football Focus. Brees has completed 44 of 58 attempts (75.9%) for 568 yards and a 5-to–0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

When the Saints go to play action, that’s when they look to take their shots downfield. With speedsters like Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills stretching the field vertically, it just feels unfair how easily the Saints are able to generate explosive plays in the passing game. This play from the third quarter against the Packers is a perfect example.

Ingram had been very effective to this point in the game. So when the Saints come out with 22 personnel, the Packers respond by dropping a safety into the box, leaving Micah Hyde (33) as the lone deep safety. The play action fake leaves Hyde flat-footed for a split-second after the snap, which is all it takes to get him out of position. Cooks turns around Tramon Williams at the top of his post route and it’s game over for the Green Bay secondary. Brees drops the football in over the top for an easy touchdown.

Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will need to be at the top of their games this week, as the Saints’ passing game puts a lot of stress on the middle of the defense. The Saints utilize a lot of reduced splits from their receivers (less distance between the receivers and offensive line) and Marques Colton and Jimmy Graham are deadly working the middle of the field up the seam and on intermediate crossing routes. Toss in the vertical threat of players like Cooks and Stills on the deep post/crossing route combination, a Sean Payton favorite, from the GIF above and it’s a lot for the safeties to account for.

Passive Rob Ryan?

Entering their bye week, New Orleans had been the worst defense in football. In the three games post-bye, they’ve put together their three best performances of the season with all three having a single-game DVOA of minus–12.7% or better. The biggest reason for that swing has been the improvement of the Saints’ pass defense.

In typical Ryan-family fashion, the Saints defense was one of the more aggressive, blitz-happy defenses in football under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan through the first five weeks of the season. During that time, the Saints sent five or more defenders after the quarterback on 43.1 percent of drop-backs according to data from Football Outsiders’ game charting. After the bye? The Saints’ blitz rate is down to 19.7 percent.

Rather than leave his shaky secondary — which is without prized free agent acquisition Jairus Byrd for the remainder of the season — on an island, Ryan has called off the dogs. The Saints still play a ton of man coverage, but they now have at least one safety deep on most plays and do a good job of mixing one- and two-high safety looks to give their cornerbacks help.

In order for this more conservative approach to be effective, the Saints still have to be able to generate some semblance of a pass rush with their front four. The combination of Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan have provided exactly that.

Galette and Jordan have combined for a solid 10 sacks on the season, but they’ve absolutely terrorized opposing passers since the bye. Few players have notched as many total quarterback pressures as the Saints’ pass-rushing duo over the past three weeks. Galette has recorded 18 pressures (3 sacks, 3 hits, 12 hurries) while Jordan has added 15 more (3 sacks, 1 hit, 11 hurries). That’s similar output to what we’ve seen from Robert Quinn (5 sacks, 1 hit, 10 hurries) since the Rams’ pass rush has returned from the dead over the same period.

On this play from last week’s matchup against the Panthers, you get an idea of the impact Galette and Jordan have had.

The play was eerily similar to the Quinn strip-sack of Colin Kaepernick last week. Galette (93) and Jordan (94) both get quick pressure off the edge, forcing Cam Newton to step up in the pocket. Newton’s motion up in the pocket takes him right into defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker (75). Much like Kaepernick, Cam is athletic enough to bounce away from the interior defender, but when he does, it’s right into the pursuing Galette. Galette knocks the ball loose and the Saints would recover, setting up their offense inside the 5-yard line. Ingram would punch the ball into the end zone two plays later for the first score of the game.

Most people — fans and media folk alike — are clamoring for the 49ers to get back to their heavy personnel, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. While I agree the 49ers must trim the fat off their offense and figure out what they do well, there are several reasons to think running Frank Gore into a mass of huge bodies isn’t the answer. Beyond the offensive line struggles I detailed earlier this week, the 49ers offense has been better operating out of the Shotgun this season.

Formation DVOA Rank Yards/Play Rank
Shotgun 2.6% 17 6.1 14
non-Shotgun -16.7% 23 4.6 22

Nearly every team in football picks up more yards per play when in the Shotgun, but San Francisco’s 19.3 percent improvement in DVOA when going with the Shotgun is the 9th-largest swing in football this season. And as it turns out, New Orleans is considerably worse defending plays from the Shotgun; the Saints 28.5 percent decline in DVOA when facing Shotgun sets is the fifth-worst differential in football.

Spreading things out and going with the Shotgun doesn’t mean suddenly asking Kaepernick to throw the ball 50 times per game. What it does do is put Kaepernick in looks where he’s most comfortable, creates running room for Gore and Carlos Hyde by removing defenders from the box, and allows for Kaepernick to be a greater threat running the ball via both designed runs and scrambles.

The large amount of man coverage played by the Saints defense could present several opportunities for Kaepernick to pick up big chunks of yardage with his feet. And at this point, that’s an attribute the 49ers need to take more advantage of.

★★★

Despite having the same record, their respective places in the standings would dictate that this is a much bigger game for the 49ers. A loss this week in New Orleans would force San Francisco into a position where they would essentially need to win out in order to secure a playoff position without some serious help from the other teams in the NFC Wild Card race.

Ultimately, I feel like this is a game where the absence of San Francisco’s three All-Pro linebackers hurts more than most. Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland have filled in admirably and have each shown flashes of brilliance, as Borland did last week against St. Louis. However, neither is remotely the caliber of pass defender that Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman are. It’s a deficiency that could rear its head on repeat against a team that attacks the middle of the field in the passing game as well as the Saints do.

Only an offensive explosion from Kaepernick & Co. would be enough to overcome that difference. Go ahead and raise your hand if you think that’s coming…

/not raising hand

Prediction: SAINTS (–5.5) over 49ers