Why the Saints are so hard to stop

December 9th, 2008 - 12:00 am

According to NFL.com’s record book, in 2000, the record for most passing yards in a season was set by the St. Louis Rams, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” as a spin-off of P.T. Barnum’s circus. While it’s not likely to happen, it’s possible the circus could pack up and head down the Mississippi River to the Crescent City.

The Rams had 5,232 passing yards that season. The Saints have 4,033 yards with three games to go. That means New Orleans would have to average exactly 400 yards per game over the final three weeks to set the record. While that seems a bit extreme — and it is obscene — Drew Brees has already topped 400 yards twice this season and has thrown for more than 300 yards 6 other times. The Saints still have the Bears and Lions, two teams with below-average pass defenses, left on their schedule. And it’s possible they could be playing for their playoff lives the last week of the season against Carolina in the friendly confines in New Orleans.

That’s neither here nor there when it comes to this week’s game against the Bears, but it is intriguing how easy they make downfield passing look. So, why is it so easy for the Big Easy to pass the ball?

There are four reasons, three of which came to New Orleans in 2006. Those three are head coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees, and running back Reggie Bush. The fourth reason, by no coincidence, is that the Saints play indoors on turf — the same surface that the Rams played on in 2000.

Payton was hired as head coach of the Saints in 2006 following a stint with Bill Parcells’ Dallas Cowboys as the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. He was also the Giants’ offensive coordinator in 2002. He’s certainly not a conventional coach in that he believes the passing game is not secondary to the running game. He’s always scheming up new play calls to try to get the big play downfield.

Brees signed with the Saints in the summer of 2006 after the Chargers — the team he was drafted by in 2001 — neglected to offer him the money he was seeking and chose to go with backup quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers, like a lot of other teams including the Miami Dolphins, were wary of giving Brees a big contract because he suffered a serious shoulder injury in 2005. Brees possesses a big arm with an extremely accurate downfield throw.

And as for Bush, he somehow landed in the lap of the Saints with the second pick in the 2006 Draft after the Houston Texans declined to take him and instead opted for Mario Williams with the first overall pick. While not nearly a good enough between-the-tackles running back — in fact, he’s flat out bad at it — his true value comes as a receiver out of the backfield where he can make people miss in open space. Before he got hurt midseason, he was leading the NFL in receptions — not just for a running back, but all players.

It’s because of these three guys that the Saints are able to open their playbook and force defenses to pick their poison. Because of the home run threat that Bush poses, it doesn’t matter who is catching passes. It’s why the early-season injury to Marques Colston — last year’s leading receiver for the Saints with 98 receptions for 1202 yards and 11 touchdowns — didn’t stunt their progress. Instead, little-known Lance Moore stepped up and is now the team’s go-to threat.

As a diminutive back with no tackle-breaking ability — at least, from a physical standpoint that other backs like Marion Barber, Brandon Jacobs and Thomas Jones possess — Bush does little to strike fear in opposing run defenses. But what he does do so well is create mismatches and cause defenses to play honest and stay close to the line of scrimmage.

That leaves defensive backs isolated against speedsters like Moore and Devery Henderson, and the middle of the field becomes open to Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Basically, there’s just not enough defenders to cover all these weapons.

The teams who have had the most success stopping this prolific offense — Tampa Bay, Washington, and, surprisingly, Kansas City — have done a good job at stopping the run game, playing lock-down coverage, and putting pressure on Brees. Brees threw 6 interceptions in those three games, and the Saints averaged just 67 net rushing yards per game. Impressively, the Chiefs — who have the league’s second-worst run defense — gave up just 103 net yards on the ground, much better than they allow on average.

In order to beat the Saints this Thursday, the Bears will have to do a much better job putting pressure on the quarterback than they have done for most of the season. The Bears lead the league with 27 takeaways as well as hold the active record for most consecutive games with a takeaway — which I believe is around 23 in a row. The Bears need those numbers to continue because the Saints have punted the 7th-fewest amount of times in the NFL and have scored the second-most amount of points.  Brees is also third in the league with 14 interceptions and second in the league with 5 fumbles.

In other words, when they have the ball, they either score or turn the ball over.  Much more of the former than the latter.

They’re not going to outscore the Saints if they get into a shootout with no defense. But they can outscore them — and win the game — if they get after Brees and force him to turn over the ball, as well as swarm Bush and Deuce McAllister and limit what the Saints can do in the run game.

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