Twenty-six times in 2012, Drew Brees was sacked. In 2011, it was 24. Both are low numbers for the NFL.
In fact, heading into 2013, the offense only had given up 148 sacks since 2006, an average of 21 per year and best in professional football over that time.
But in 2013, Brees already has been sacked 10 times in just three games. He’s on pace to go down in the backfield 53 times. Let that sink in for a second.
I don’t need to be the first to tell you that’s a problem and one that could come back to haunt a 3-0 team beginning to gain confidence.
It’s a combination of things.
In spite of rushing for 104 yards Sunday, the Saints’ run game is not necessarily well. Whether it’s the loss of Carl Nicks or the change to a zone-blocking scheme or the running backs not hitting the holes, something is holding New Orleans’ ground game back. Opponents just aren’t respecting New Orleans’ ability to run the ball.
Opponents are playing more exotic schemes, giving the Saints something they’re not expecting and unprepared for, forcing adjustments to be made midstream.
“…Everyone plays a certain type of coverage philosophically,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. “(Sunday) we got a lot of man-to-man (and) sometimes that makes you hold the ball a half-count longer. In other words, it’s a little bit different in the passing game and sometimes it can lead to a sack or two more.”
Brees was sacked four times by the Cardinals, though to be fair, one came when a whistle was blown quickly, disallowing a completion to Lance Moore over the middle. The other three came on first downs. To New Orleans’ credit, only one put the offense in such a hole that it couldn’t recover to score points.
But against a better defense, say Chicago or New England, it could be a bigger problem. The more hits Brees takes, the better chance there is that he begins to become contact-averse and alters either his motion or his timing.
“We just have to do a better job,” center Brian de la Puente said. “That’s unacceptable and we take full responsibility for it because we’ve got to do a better job in giving him time. We know when he has time, he’s very dangerous. We’ve got to do a better job of it.”
If the Saints are to finish the season on a high note, they’ll have to figure out this issue sooner rather than later. And chances are, they’re already working on it.
“We pay close attention to it,” Payton said. “It’s something that we’ve done a good job with and we feel like it’s important if we’re going to throw the football. If we’re going to be successful, then we’ve got to keep him upright.”
With that in mind, here is our breakdown of the four plays in which Brees was sacked and the three first-half run plays that netted negative yards. (With apologies to the defense, questions on offense are the most intriguing aspect of Sunday’s game that has yet to be covered.)
It’s Seven Plays from Sunday: The Arizona Game
New Orleans ball, First-and-10 at the Cardinals’ 21, 6:09 to go in the first quarter:
The Saints lined up in three wide with two running backs – Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas – flanked to each side of Brees. Marques Colston was short wide right and Lance Moore was short wide left. Kenny Stills was on the numbers beside Colston.
And Brees never had a chance.
Both running backs went out on routes, leaving Brees uncovered should one of the defensive front seven get past the offensive line.
Right tackle Zach Strief flared Arizona linebacker Lorenzo Alexander deep and wide, generally what the offense needs. But the presence of Alexander made Brees step up in the pocket a step and that was right into the oncoming rush of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who basically ran right by Tim Lelito, making his first-ever NFL start.
Lelito’s initial contact was straight up and Dockett used his left hand to press away the right guard. At that point, Lelito was beat as the veteran tackle just ran by him. Dockett got to Brees as he was stepping up in the pocket.
Lelito wasn’t the only player beaten on the play, however. Left tackle Charles Brown would have been credited with giving up the sack had Lelito not. Linebacker John Abraham all but ran right by Brown and was making a play on Brees when Dockett took the quarterback down.
The only reason Lelito was in was because Jahri Evans had to miss his first career game with a hamstring issue. As consistent as Evans has been in his 114 straight regular starts, it’s easy to forget just what he means to this offensive line. Now we know.
New Orleans ball, First-and-10 at the Saints’ 41, :33 to play in the first quarter:
The Saints lined up in three wide with Pierre Thomas to Brees’ right. Colston was outside the numbers on the right sideline. Moore was out right before motioning back to the left, leaving Colston and Jimmy Graham – wide left – in what was basically single coverage.
None of that mattered.
Tight end Benjamin Watson, who is seeing more and more playing time and came to New Orleans with a blocking background, couldn’t slow down linebacker Sam Acho and he didn’t get any help.
Thomas crossed in front of Brees after the snap and appeared set to help Watson on the fast-approaching Acho. But instead, he stepped up to pick up a blitz by Jasper Brinkley, who was coming in unblocked.
On this particular play, Acho was faster off the snap than Watson was coming out his stance. The linebacker just sprinted past Watson and Thomas had to choose on whether to help the tight end or handle the free-running blitzer.
New Orleans ball, First-and-10 at the Saints’ 39, 7:07 to play in the third quarter:
On the previous play, the Cardinals’ Abraham came free to Brees’ right, but the veteran quarterback felt the rush, stepped up and delivered a 19-yard completion to Colston.
He wasn’t so lucky this time.
One of the trademarks of Payton’s offense is the bevy of offensive sets they have and this time, New Orleans lined up in four wide, but both sets lined within five yards of the tackles. Graham and Watson were split left with Robert Meachem and Moore split right. Thomas was the lone back as Brees took the snap from under center.
Dockett, once again, did the job on Lelito. The veteran spun around the rookie, who was in one-on-one blocking. The rest of the pocket held for Brees.
But this one could fall into coverage sack as well. Brees was sacked nearly five seconds after taking the snap from center. Meachem chipped off the line, Thomas chipped on his way through the line and Watson stepped back and held his block. Brees, though, had nowhere to go with the ball.
New Orleans ball, Second-and-Three at the Cardinals’ 32, 1:28 to play in the third quarter:
In yet a different formation, Brees has four players to his left and a receiver lined up outside the numbers to his left. Kenny Stills was the farthest to his right, with Moore just inside of him. Graham was lined up on the hash before motioning to his right. Colston was the lone player out right and Sproles was next to the quarterback in the backfield.
Once again, Lelito’s man forced the design of the play to break down. And it was Dockett for the third time. The savvy veteran engaged Lelito, then used his right hand to knock away the guard’s block. He then sprinted towards Brees, who had to pull the ball down.
But Moore was open in the middle and Brees saw the receiver. As Dockett was bringing Brees to the ground, the quarterback flipped it to Moore. But referee Walt Coleman ruled that Brees was “in the grasp” and called the play dead. It’s not reviewable so Payton and the Saints had no recourse.
The Saints were on the short end of a bad call, but it only delayed another Saints score by one play.
The First Half Runs
New Orleans ball, Second-and-One at the Saints’ 43, 8:01 to play in the first quarter:
The Saints used two receivers stacked left and another wide right outside the numbers. Thomas was the running back and Graham was on the line to the right with his hand in the turf. New Orleans players and Payton said they saw defensive fronts made to stop the run. On this play, the Cardinals had six in the box, playing a 3-3-5.
At the snap, Arizona sent two linebackers off each edge of the Saints’ line and a linebacker up the middle. But it was what the Cardinals were able to do with their three down linemen that made the play not work.
Graham had a nice block on Acho on the right edge. But Lelito couldn’t stick on Calais Campbell, who began the play lined up in the gap between the guard and Graham.
As Lelito came off the ball, stepping to his right, Campbell shot inside. At the time, de la Puente, the center, was engaged with Dockett and couldn’t help Lelito. Campbell got to Thomas for a two-yard loss.
New Orleans ball, First-and-10 at the Saints’ 17, 11:25 to play in the second quarter:
The Saints had two receivers line up wide right and double tight ends on the left side. Thomas was the lone back behind Brees, who was under center.
This time Arizona had three down linemen and a linebacker at the line of scrimmage with two linebackers at the second level. Defensive back Yeremiah Bell was floating near the line until Watson motioned to the right. Once again, Arizona had six in the box.
Brees took the snap and pitched to Thomas, who was running towards the right sideline.
Cardinals end Matt Shaughnessy forced Saints right tackle Zach Strief to back pedal and begin his block in the backfield; in other words, he set a hard edge forcing Thomas back inside.
Lelito missed Dockett at the snap and the defensive tackle was right where he was supposed to – at the point where Thomas was forced to cut back inside. He slowed down the running back and linebacker Jasper Brinkley finished off the play. Brinkley was unblocked. De la Puente and Lelito had an unsuccessful double-team of Dockett.
New Orleans ball, Third-and-One at the Saints’ 28, 7:28 to play in the second quarter:
For once, the Saints used a fullback on a running down. Of course, that hasn’t helped this year and it didn’t help Sunday.
Meachem was lined up split left and Watson was lined up as a tight end on the right side of the line. Bryce Harris checked into the game as a tackle eligible and lined up in front of Watson. Jed Collins, the aforementioned fullback, started out to the left behind Brees before motioning to the right, with Thomas lined up as the single back.
Being that it was third-and-one, Arizona was in its short-yardage defense with five down linemen and a linebacker on the line on the Saints’ strongside (where Watson and Harris were lined up).
Not really sure where to start on this one as nearly all of Arizona’s defense seemed to be in the backfield. It’s hard to tell on the TV copy exactly what happened (the All-22 coaches tape comes out Wednesdays).
While Strief held up Dockett nicely, Harris completely whiffs on his block. Watson’s man takes an inside release. Left tackle Ben Grubbs was pulling, but you can’t tell who he was trying to block. He was caught up in the wash anyway.
Regardless, the play was doomed from the beginning and being that it was third-and-one, it’s hard to imagine the Saints were surprised by Arizona’s defensive alignment.