By Nick Shook
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At 5-6 overall, the Saints‘ season has seen its highs and lows. The one consistency that has emerged during most of New Orleans’ season is the same that has followed the Saints for much of coach Sean Payton’s tenure: New Orleans doesn’t have much of an issue putting points on the board.
That was as true as ever in Week 12 against the Rams, in a game billed as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ return to the Superdome for the first time since he was ousted as a result of the Bountygate scandal. Surely, the Rams, with their ninth-best defense in terms of yards per game allowed, would find a way to bottle up the Saints, especially with their former defensive commander calling a game against New Orleans.
That wasn’t the case Sunday. Williams entered with a pressure-packed defensive game plan, but Drew Brees and Co. were ready for the heat.
The Saints found their groove early by maintaining a healthy balance of run and pass, a theme that sustained itself for the rest of the game. New Orleans matched Los Angeles blow for blow early, responding to Jared Goff touchdowns with methodical drives with dashes of big gains. Mark Ingram capped New Orleans’ third drive and tied the game a second time on a gutsy decision on fourth-and-1 from the Rams‘ 10. Payton called a misdirection toss left to Ingram, pulling tight end Josh Hill and left tackle Terron Armstead outside, which sealed off an outer wall for Ingram to cut up inside, causing Maurice Alexander to slip while over pursuing. Ingram broke a tackle attempt by Alec Ogletree and strolled into the end zone for six.
On first-and-10 later in the quarter, Brees dropped to pass out of a singleback formation and faced a five-man rush. It was here when the key to the Saints‘ victory became clear. Hill blocked and then slipped out to catch a screen pass from Brees, and with two blockers already five-plus yards downfield, the tight end rumbled for a gain of 35. It set up the Saints deep in the Rams‘ red zone, where New Orleans capitalized on a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas on a well-run route against Cover 2, and also served as an example of the benefit of a balanced offense. Suddenly, traditional run-first personnel groupings weren’t as predictable. With one simple screen, Payton had Williams on his heels.
New Orleans went back to the screen pass again later, but only after Ingram created the opportunity for himself. The Saints kick-started the second half with a power play that was blocked as well as one will ever see, with tight end John Kuhn leading through the hole to create a lane through which Ingram sprinted for a 61-yard gain. The key to the play will likely go unheralded, except for in this space, as guard Andrus Peat doubled down on Aaron Donald before spotting Ogletree, rushing toward the A gap to cut down Ingram in the backfield. Peat peeled back and drove Ogletree inside, walling off the inside and keeping Ingram untouched as he blazed through the hole and down the field, hitting a top speed of 20.5 mph.
Ingram made the most of the possession three plays later when New Orleans called the perfectly timed screen. Looking for a stop that would make a field goal attempt difficult for Will Lutz, Los Angeles sent a seven-man blitz on third-and-17 from the Rams‘ 21. New Orleans ran the play out of a shotgun formation that begged to be blitzed, and the Rams acquiesced while Ingram slipped out right, caught the pass and hit his stride toward the open field, where Coby Fleener was blocking at the goal line to ensure a Saints score.
New Orleans entered a comfortable distance from Los Angeles on the scoreboard after turning a Kenny Vaccaro interception into a lengthy drive that featured Thomas, who caught a pass on a fade route in the soft spot in Cover 2 zone coverage, breaking an Alexander tackle attempt and dragging Gaines into the end zone to go ahead 42-21. By then, there was just one more score left to ice the cake that was the Saints‘ 49-21 win.
Seemingly one step ahead of Williams and the Rams for much of the game, Payton pulled no punches, even when ahead by three scores. Facing third-and-3 from the 50, Brees lined up under center in the singleback with twin receivers to the left, taking the snap, dropping one step and swiveling his shoulders to the left to fire a pass to Willie Snead on what appeared to be a wide receiver screen. But oh, weren’t we all fooled. Snead caught the pass, thrown backward and behind the line of scrimmage, dropped to throw and launched a dime to running back Tim Hightower, streaking down the opposite side of the field with nary a defender in sight. Running Cover 1 man, Ogletree quickly lost his assignment Hightower upon watching the initial pass to Snead. By the time he realized what was about to unfold, it was far too late. Hightower was 17.14 yards away from Ogletree as Snead released the pass and could only hope the single deep safety, Alexander, could save him from film session embarrassment.
Hightower broke the tackle attempt of Alexander and waltzed into the end zone, and all that was left was the shouting. New Orleans coasted to a 49-21 win over Los Angeles and inched closer to .500.
The resulting conclusion gained from New Orleans’ win was fairly surprising when considering the team. While the Saints excel through the air, and Brees has consistently found himself in the record books at the end of multiple seasons, New Orleans is at its best when mixing run and pass, especially with well-timed play calls when anticipating pressure.
The Saints knew Williams would dial up pressure on multiple downs and took advantage of it, showing run formations but instead running screens and even the double pass to catch the Rams out of position while New Orleans ripped off big gains. Brees finished 28 of 36 for 310 yards. Thomas had nine grabs for 108 yards and two scores. And Ingram ran for 146 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. This might not be a season to remember, but with five games to play, the Saints have uncovered their best approach to win games on the offensive side of the ball.
Other notes from Next Gen Stats in Week 12:
1. Although they each lost on Sunday, Arizona’s Carson Palmer and Denver’s Trevor Siemian were fantastic against the blitz. Siemian posted a passer rating of 151.4 against 13 blitzes, while Palmer finished with a passer rating of 143.9 against 14 blitzes. Brees faced the most blitzes of any quarterback.
2. Jameis Winston has the Buccaneers surging late in the season, with much of that due to his ability to extend the play. Winston attempted 35.7 percent of his passes outside of the pocket and completed an excellent 80 percent of them in Tampa Bay’s 14-5 win over Seattle.
3. Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart averaged 5.9 yards per carry on attempts against which he faced eight or more defenders in the box. Stewart totaled 71 yards on 12 totes in these scenarios.
4. Dez Bryant has room to talk after his team’s win over Washington on Thanksgiving, but surprisingly, he had the least amount of separation when targeted of any receiver (minimum five targets) in Week 12. Don’t let him know, though; he might bring that up next time he wants to talk a little more trash.
5. Los Angeles led all teams in highest frequency of blitzes, sending the pressure on 51.3 percent of defensive downs and coming away with two sacks. Oakland was just a tad behind at 50 percent and with one sack of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
6. Tyreek Hill was all over the field on Sunday night, leading all scoring ball-carriers in Week 12 with a top speed of 22.77 mph on his return touchdown, good for second fastest return man of the season behind, well, Tyreek Hill, who hit 23.24 mph in Week 2 on a play that was negated by a penalty. Hill also finished with the fourth-greatest separation at target among receivers with 4.1 yards per target (10). Hill also traveled the greatest distance of all wide receivers at 429.8 yards, a cool 70.4 yards ahead of second-place Odell Beckham Jr. (359.4).