METAIRIE, La. — Darren Sproles delayed his release from the backfield, shuffled a few steps to his right and turned around.
The pass from quarterback Drew Brees already was there while linemen Brian de la Puente and Jahri Evans already had released from their blocks.
And Dallas already was beaten on the play.
Sproles scored on a 28-yard screen pass, the Saints’ most important and game-changing play in its arsenal.
For a team driven by as potent a passing attack as the NFL has seen, the screen pass has become the Saints’ answer for a strong pass rush. It’s New Orleans’ answer to a sudden run call, one that puts a defense back on its heels.
“I think because we are somewhat effective throwing the football, we are rushed a certain way and it is a good element much like a draw to slow people down,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “There is a lot that goes into having a good screen pass. Sometimes it is just getting the right defensive look, but the timing, the linemen, the backs are important, and the quarterback.”
According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints have called 32 screen passes this season, gaining an average of 8.7 yards on 29 completions. Most come in long distance situations averaging 11.3 yards needed.
And 28 percent of the plays have gained first downs, including two touchdowns.
The play to Sproles was a perfect example of usage at the exact moment it could create the biggest gain.
New Orleans (7-2) forced a punt by Dallas and gained possession with less than a minute to play. The Saints, even with timeouts in their pocket, were 75 yards away from the end zone. Passing was the easiest, and quickest, way down the field.
Five plays put the Saints in second-and-10 at the Dallas 28 with just 13 seconds to play in the half.
At the snap, four Cowboys defensive players burst through the middle of the line, allowing de la Puente, Evans and Zach Strief to set up a wall for Sproles and down the field, receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore had defensive backs blocked.
All Sproles had to do was run and instead of settling for a field goal, the Saints finished the half with a touchdown and a 28-10 lead.
“(Drew Brees) had that call and you get in one of those two minute drills and he is really good about kind of taking the drill, handling the clock and then I’ll peep in periodically when the clock stops or third down or reminders or maybe, but the timing was perfect because you can do that if you have a timeout left and you can’t if you don’t,” Payton said. “Darren made a great run at it after the catch. It was well-blocked. It was well-executed.”
Payton added, “I think our players though the runner and the lineman, our players have a good feel for the timing of it.”