Don't Expect Less From the New Orleans Saints' Offense in 2016
Take a second and picture a play from the New Orleans Saints’ 2015 season.
Chances are you’re either picturing a long touchdown pass from the offense or a long touchdown pass given up by the defense and nothing in between.
There’s good reason for that. No team had more plays of 20 yards or more through the air on offense and no team gave up more plays of 20 or more yards through the air on defense than the Saints did. In both cases, the Saints tied with another team -- the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts, respectively -- but there was no team more involved with big plays on either side of the ball than the Saints.
By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Saints' defense was the worst on a per-play basis since 2000. For those new to NEP, it measures the expected points each team adds to its total for the drive on each play relative to historical expectations. Going by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play, the 2015 Saints jumped the 2008 Detroit Lions -- the 0-16 team -- for the worst defense in the NEP era. Just a few places down as the fifth-worst defense since 2000 is the 2014 Saints.
But we aren't here to talk about the Saints’ defense. However, because the defense is constantly getting scored on, the offense gets a lot of chances with the ball. There will be some who write off the Saints’ offensive production because of the high volume, but the offense isn’t just racking up counting stats. It’s still one of the most efficient offenses in the league.
High Volume, High Efficiency
Last season the Saints ran 1,186 offensive plays, which was the fourth-most in the league. Of those 1,186 offensive plays, 699 of those were pass plays, the second-most in the league. Despite the high volume of plays, the Saints' offense was the third-most efficient by Adjusted NEP per play and the seventh-most efficient through the air by the same metric. At the core of that is quarterback Drew Brees. Brees just turned 37 years old in January, which could raise some concern about how much he has left in the tank.
Drew Brees has plenty left in the tank.
Among the 46 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times last season, Brees ranked sixth in Passing NEP per drop back. That’s impressive enough on its own, but even more so with the amount Brees was asked to do in the offense.
Brees had the third-most drop backs in the league behind Philip Rivers and Tom Brady, and he even missed a game. There were 10 quarterbacks in 2015 who dropped back at least 600 times, most of which was due to bad teams playing from behind.
Only one had a higher Passing NEP per drop back than Brees, and that was Brady, the one case of not having to play from behind.
One of the things that still makes Brees so dangerous is his pinpoint accuracy. He can still place the ball in the optimum spot for his receivers, which allows the supporting cast of talented players to go up and make plays.
Here’s a play from the Saints’ shootout against the New York Giants in Week 8. Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks are lined up on the left of the formation -- Snead outside and Cooks in the slot. Snead gets pressed off the line and he fights it off, but it inadvertently pushes his defender towards double coverage on Cooks.
However, Cooks is able to get past his defender in the slot, and Brees places the ball towards the pylon and just over the shoulder of the second defender, giving only Cooks the ability to adjust to the ball for a touchdown. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
While the Saints have a ton of flashy big plays, that’s not the entirety of the offense. Brees and the Saints routinely work the middle of the field with both short and intermediate routes. Receivers and tight ends can pick up chunks of six or seven yards at a time with in-breaking routes towards the middle of the field to advance the ball.
The Saints also utilize running backs in the passing game probably better than any other team in the league. Last season, the Saints targeted their stable of running backs 148 times. Combined, the running back position was targeted more than the team’s leading receiver, Cooks, who saw 129 targets.
New Orleans doesn’t just use these passes out of the backfield as checkdowns when there aren’t any other options available. And while passes to running backs aren’t quite as efficient as passes down field -- Tim Hightower led New Orleans backs with just a 0.44 Reception NEP per target, which is well below the 0.67 league average for wide receivers -- they’re still more efficient than running (-0.04 Rushing NEP per carry league average), and it helps sets up other parts of the offense in a way many think the running game does.
Take the following play against the Carolina Panthers in Week 13. The Saints start off in a spread five-wide look before C.J. Spiller runs in motion across the formation from outside left to the right side of the field. Spiller’s motion turns into a swing route behind the line of scrimmage -- a route the Saints used frequently during the season and multiple times earlier in the game.
The presence of Spiller freezes both the slot and outside corner, who pay more attention to the back than the receivers. Cooks, the slot receiver, runs a post route that carries the safety long enough to disallow him to get to the outside by the time Brees releases the ball.
Brandon Coleman is able to run uncovered on the outside for an easy touchdown. This is offensive mastery from both Brees and head coach Sean Payton on a third-down play off a timeout with the Saints down by three at the time, early in the fourth quarter.
This mix of play-calling and execution is one of the many reasons Brees and the New Orleans offense shouldn’t be expected to slow down any time soon.
Despite rumors on the future of Brees and Payton, all the major players are still involved. If the defense can improve to even below average instead of historically bad, there might not be as much volume for the offense, but that doesn’t mean the production is going anywhere.