After more than a decade of tearing teams to shreds through the air, the New Orleans Saints made a stunning change this season to their offense: They grounded their arsenal. The 2017 Saints are the most dominant rushing team in football, comfortably leading the league in yards gained by running backs. So the obvious solution for the Carolina Panthers in Sunday’s wild-card game is to stack the box with too many defenders for the Saints offensive line to block.
But this won’t happen. And here’s what makes the New Orleans offense something that previously existed only in a defensive coordinator’s night terror: Drew Brees is still one of the NFL’s most effective passers, even when he’s leading the game’s best rushing attack. To put it another way, the Saints are winning because of their running game, and the Saints running game is winning because of Brees.
Despite racking up more than 2,000 rushing yards by mostly Mark Ingram (1,124) and Alvin Kamara (728), the running backs and the team’s offensive line rarely had to account for eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. Saints’ opponents have been unwilling to commit to stopping the run — which is what you generally do against great running teams. To measure this fairly across the league, we first need to get rid of all the obvious pass or run scenarios based on down and distance or game situation.1 Looking at what’s left, the Saints faced stacked fronts of eight or more defenders on just 37 of their 172 rushing plays, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — a rate of 21.5 percent that’s 25th in the league. The average for all NFL teams is 28 percent.
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The Saints weren’t the only team that seemed to be preventing defenses from loading the box, but they had by far the most running success. Like the Saints, the Chiefs and Falcons ranked in the top five in yards per pass, which was enough to keep defenses from committing to stopping the run. While the Rams appear to fit this profile too, they played so many three-plus WR sets that teams simply could not commit that many defenders to the line of scrimmage.
Playing against conventional fronts even when employing run-friendly personnel (no more than two WRs) is the key to the Saints’ success in generating yards before contact. Their running backs led the NFL in 2.85 yards on average before encountering a defender. Yes, a lot of this is good vision by the backs and effective offensive line blocking. But the fact that there weren’t often too many defenders at the line of scrimmage was Kamara and Ingram’s secret weapon.
On paper, Brees’s role in the offense seems more minimized than ever: 23 touchdown passes after nine straight years of 30 or more, just 536 pass attempts after averaging 656 the prior seven seasons, and a Saints career low of 4,334 yards. But this isn’t 2015 Peyton Manning clearly wheezing to the finish line and needing the team to dominate in other areas in order to win. Brees, 38, led the NFL this year in yards per pass attempt, and his 103.9 passer rating was his best since 2013.
Look no further than the Saints’ opponent on Sunday for an example of a team that has to deal with stacked fronts because defenses don’t fear the passing game. Carolina running backs had to face at least eight defenders in the box on 42 percent of the rushing plays in our sample, the second-highest rate in the league. And why not? Cam Newton ranks 21st in passing yards per attempt and 24th in passer rating, and he’s more a threat when he’s running himself.
But even Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers (37.2 percent) and Tom Brady’s Patriots (27.7 percent) were forced to send running backs into defenses with extra run-stoppers at the line of scrimmage far more often than the Saints. Maybe defenses have been slow to adjust to the Saints’ new offensive model, but Brees’s presence helping the running game find room is no recent phenomenon. Since 2010, the Saints’ average of 4.5 yards per rush by their running backs is the third-best rate in football.
The even worse news for Carolina on Sunday is that perhaps no team has been more flustered by the multidimensional Saints than these Panthers. In their two prior meetings, both Saints wins, Carolina allowed 149 and 148 rushing yards. Those are the two worst performances by the Panthers’ run defense all year. And it’s not like they’re stopping Brees either: The future Hall of Famer posted a 117.8 passer rating with four TD passes in those two contests. The Panthers seem to have been caught in between the new Saints and the old-model Saints — and able to stop neither.
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