As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, we’re checking out the New Orleans Saints’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Saints Run Game
The rushing attack is better than the numbers probably indicate. It’s a two-headed attack led by Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara is averaging 4.6 yards per carry with 12 scores. Ingram has a higher YPC at 4.8 but partially due to his opening four game suspension, has found the end one just five times.
Overall though, the team is averaging only 4.2 YPC, tied 20th in the NFL, so like I said, the overall numbers don’t tell the whole story. That’s in part due to some of the runs by FB Zach Line and QB Drew Brees. Get this. Brees has four rushing touchdowns this season. That’s tied for 2nd in the NFL among quarterbacks, standing beside Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, and Cam Newton. 39 year Brees is the odd man out in that group.
Like I said, Line is the team’s FB. He’s played the fourth most snaps among FBs this year so definitely not a small part of their offense. Lot of two back sets.
The offense might be known for its high flying ways through the passing game but no team has more rushing touchdowns, 22, than New Orleans. 21 of those have come inside the red zone, again tops in the league. However, they aren’t generating a ton of big runs. 20th in runs of 10+ (41) and tied 26th in gains of 20+ (7).
Their offensive line is really banged up so it’s difficult to know who is even lining up this weekend. Here is how they started Monday night against Carolina.
LT – Jermon Bushrod
LG – Andrus Peat
C – Max Unger
RG – Larry Warford
RT – Ryan Ramczyk
Bushrod was injured last week and probably won’t suit up against the Steelers. The starter, Terron Armstead, one of the league’s best tackles, seems 50/50 after missing the last several weeks. Unger left last week’s game early. Peat has seemed to struggle at left tackle, he leans too much in pass pro, but could kick out to LT if Bushrod nor Armstead can go. The right side of the line is strong, though. Stephon Tuitt and T.J. Watt will have their hands full.
Schematically, they can run their zone scheme out of one and two back sets. Can also go power too with Line leading the way. I don’t know where it’s best to bring this up but we gotta talk about Taysom Hill. Technically, he’s the third string QB but so much more than that. His stats this year.
14 kick returns
6 pass attempts
1 punt block
Players to do that in NFL history? No one. And I didn’t even include the touchdown or the punt block. Show me a quarterback who throws a block on a split zone like this…
Never seen a 3rd string QB block like this before. Of course, Taysom Hill is so much more than a QB. Haven't used him as much lately but given Baltimore's success with Lamar Jackson vs PIT, think we'll see lots of Hill Sunday. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/9rWIuXK4Fo
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 20, 2018
With Hill under center, they run some Wildcat with Drew Brees split out, they’ll use the read option game, namely in short-yardage situations. And though I didn’t have the time to investigate it, there’s usually a big split between guard and tackle on run plays. Maybe you can get a tell of where the run is going off it.
Watch out for some pony sets with Ingram and Kamara on the field. Kamara functions like a receiver while Ingram stays in the backfield. Good way for them to get all their weapons on the field, especially without a true #2 receiver on this team.
Couple other stats. They’re second in the league in points per game, 7th in yards per game, and 7th in red zone offense. New Orleans has struggled inside the 20 the last three weeks and the offense has struggled as a whole because of it, but I think that’s in large part due to being on the road. At home, they have the 2nd best red zone percentage at 78%. Their 14 turnovers if tied for the fourth fewest in the league so it’ll be another tough week for the Steelers’ defense to force a couple of takeaways. The Saints are 8th in turnover ratio at +8.
While the offense has struggled the last three weeks, they’re averaging more than 37 points
Saints Pass Game
Drew Brees is obviously amazing. He’s completing nearly 75% of his passes this year, which will break his own NFL record. 31 touchdowns to only five picks and sacked just 15 times this season, though he has been taken down six times in the last four games as the line’s injuries have begun to mount.
His favorite receiver is one of the game’s best – Michael Thomas. He’s caught an absurd 85.8% of his targets this year. No other receiver comes close to that. He leads the league in receptions with 109 of them and is 7th in yards. Kamara acts as the #2 receiver on this team with 77 receptions with four scores.
You better watch out for those two in the red zone. Kamara leads the league with 19 red zone receptions. Thomas is second at 18.
The problem is there’s not much behind them. Of all the active receivers combined behind Thomas, they have a total of 37 catches. That’s it. Even the Steelers, who have their own problems with WR depth, have 53 of them behind Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. So if you can focus on Thomas and Kamara, similar to the way Keith Butler did Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, they can be successful again.
Because of that, the offense has a high volume of 20+ yards receptions, 5th most in the league, but their big plays are capped because of all the attention Thomas gets (and he’s a big, 4.57 guy) and because Kamara’s route tree doesn’t allow for that. New Orleans has completed only six passes of 40+ yards, tied 20th in football.
Schematically, they love to use playaction with the backside guard pulling to get your linebackers thinking run. Then throw it behind you. Alert for it on 1st and 10 between their 30 and 40 yard line.
Definitely a “concept” offense to get guys open and give Brees triangle reads to work with. Watch out for smash on 3rd and medium (3-6) inside the red zone.
And mesh on 3rd and 4 or shorter, especially with a reduced split by the WRs. Lets the mesh hit quicker than normal.
Finally, they’ll use their running back wheel to challenge linebackers in space too. Often get a post by #1 to carry the corner and safety with the back tearing down the sideline. Can convert routes to the flat vertical too if it isn’t initially open.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Saints week, Steelers fans!
A trip to the Big Easy looms large in Week 16 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where they’ll travel into the Mercedes-Benz Dome to take on the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints Sunday afternoon.
Early in the 2018 season this matchup on paper looked like it was going to be incredibly hard for the Steelers, especially defensively against a high-powered Saints attack. However, the last three weeks have seen the Saints’ offense have the wheels come off a bit, scoring 10, 28, and 12 points against the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Carolina Panthers.
The run game hasn’t consistently been there for the Saints as of late, and the explosive passing game with Drew Brees hasn’t clicked like it was early in the season. That being said, this is still a very dangerous offense; one that will be a monumental test for a Steelers defense riding high after shutting down the New England Patriots at Heinz Field in Week 15.
Coming into the Week 16 matchup, the Saints offense sits seventh in total offense (385.9 yards per game), second in points per game (32.8), seventh in third-down percentage (44), sixth in yards per play (6.0), and owns the 11th-best passing offense in the league (258.5 yards per game), and the eighth-best rushing attack (127.4 yards per game). They’re very balanced and own the second-best time of possession mark in the league at 32 minutes, 30 seconds, just seven seconds behind first-place Baltimore. There’s a clear formula with the Saints, and it’s work very well so far this season.
It all starts with the future first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees. At 39 years old, Brees is having one of his best seasons ever and appears to be the front-runner for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Brees is completing a ridiculous 74.89 percent of his passes this season, good for 3,666 yards, 31 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He’s not just dumping the ball off though; Brees is averaging 8.15 yards per attempt. New Orleans does like to control the football as much as possible, and Brees is money on the 8-10 yard throws, so it does work. But he will drop dimes on you down the field.
Against the Cowboys on Thursday Night Football in Week 13, the Saints really struggled throughout the night offensively, failing to run the ball with any consistency, and Brees didn’t have much time all night long. However, on this 30-yard touchdown to rookie Keith Kirkwood, Brees floats a perfect ball in traffic to the only place that Kirkwood can catch it.
Now, I’m not sure what safety Xavier Woods is doing here for Dallas, but I really like the release concept New Orleans deploys here to get Kirkwood free off the line and at full speed quickly.
It’s a perfect throw by Brees.
What helps Brees out is the weaponry around him, led by superstar wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas, the third-year receiver out of Ohio State (whom I had as WR1 in his draft class), is a perfect mix of possession receiver and deep threat for the Saints. He’s a lot like DeAndre Hopkins in Houston. He can play with physicality, is an elite route runner, and routinely wins 50/50 balls.
Here against Tampa Bay in Week 14 on the road, Thomas runs a deep stop route, settling in nicely between three Tampa Bay defenders in the zone.
That’s a heck of a throw by Brees, fitting that ball in between three defenders to Thomas on time, allowing him to secure the catch to move the chains.
In his last three games, Thomas has 23 receptions, but he’s been held under 100 yards in each, and hasn’t found the end zone since Week 11 at Philadelphia. With so much attention paid to Thomas at receiver, that’s forced guys like Kirkwood, Tre’Quan Smith, Alvin Kamara, Benjamin Watson, and Josh Hill to step up for Brees.
Kamara is the main weapon after Thomas. He’s the best dual-threat back in football, having rushed for 860 yards on the season, adding 77 catches for 627 yards. The second-year star has found the end zone 16 times so far on the season too, giving the Saints a real matchup problem.
Lately, New Orleans has made a major effort to get him the ball on the perimeter, whether it’s jet sweeps, tosses, or swing routes. He hasn’t run between the tackles much, but that’s where Mark Ingram comes in.
Simply put, Ingram is going to get PAID this winter.
Ingram is the thunder to Kamara’s lightning. The Heisman Trophy winner out of Alabama is a battering ram that seems to be getting stronger as the season progresses. After returning from a 4-game suspension for PEDs, Ingram has proceeded to rush for 582 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry.
Check out that first run against Tampa Bay. Poor Andrew Adams. I hope he paid for that bus ride.
Ingram isn’t as smooth as Kamara is in space, but I love the way Ingram is able to move laterally for his build without losing any power or speed. He’s an absolute wrecking ball.
Defensive backs have come to fear him. Look at that run from Monday night against Carolina. Eric Reid and Donte Jackson wanted none of Ingram in the open field with a full head of steam.
At tight end, Watson and Hill won’t blow anyone away on paper, but Brees trusts them to make plays for him. Watson doesn’t seem to age at this point, even after tearing his Achilles a few years ago as a member of the Ravens.
Along the offensive line, it’s a very strong unit when healthy, but it looks like this group will be banged up come Sunday. Here’s how they could line up left to right against the Steelers (keep in mind, a lot of guessing here due to the number of players banged up):
LT — Terron Armstead
LT — Andrus Peat
C — Max Unger
RG — Larry Warford
RT — Ryan Ramczyk
Starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod likely misses Sunday’s game after not practicing Wednesday and Thursday due to a hamstring injury suffered on Monday night against the Panthers. Armstead is banged up himself with a pectoral and knee issue, but he’s been limited the last few days and could return to the lineup at left tackle.
Peat and Ramczyk are banged up as well, while Unger returned to practice in a limited fashion Thursday while being in concussion protocol. It looks like he’ll play on Sunday.
If Bushrod and Armstead can’t go, and Unger misses, it’s anyone’s guess what the lineup looks like. Peat could slide to left tackle, or Derek Newton plays left tackle, keeping Peat at left guard. Cameron Tom could slide into the Unger’s spot at center if the former All-Pro can’t go. It’s a mess up front right now for New Orleans, but they’ve managed to get by so far.
On special teams, the Saints are super steady, led by kicker Wil Lutz, who hasn’t missed a field goal in 26 attempts, and punter Thomas Morstead, who is rarely called upon these days due to the Saints’ ability to move the football down the field.
Lutz is vying for the title of best kicker in football right now, while Morstead has really mastered the ability to directionally punt the football sideline to sideline, helping his coverage team shut down any form of return. Teams are averaging just 5 yards per return on 12 attempts against Morstead and the Saints.
At kick returner, Kamara is incredibly dangerous with the football in his hands in the open field. Against the Panthers on Monday night, Kamara ripped off a 50-yarder, setting the Saints up in great field position early in the game.
Taysom Hill also has some return experience this season, with a 47-yarder to his name coming all the way back in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns in the Mercedes-Benz Dome. Speaking of Hill, what a special teams weapon he is.
Look at the twist here with Hill on this punt by the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay doesn’t even know what hits them as Hill blocks the punt, leading to a Saints touchdown and the lead in Week 15.
This isn’t your typical “gritty” summary on Hill either. He’s the definition of a football player. He’s listed as a quarterback on the Saints’ roster, but he’s used as a gadget player offensively in the wildcat role, and plays in all three phases of special teams. He’s a special piece to have on your 46-man gameday roster.