Sean Payton’s offensive system has been in place in New Orleans since 2006 when he arrived with Drew Brees. Since then, he has gone 73-39 in the regular season, 6-4 in the playoffs, and he has a Super Bowl under his belt. It’s well-established by now that Payton calls his own plays, rather than allowing Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to run the offense. He only has one season under .500 in his head coaching career, 2007 (2012 didn’t count since he didn’t coach that team), and he has done all of this with a franchise that was starving for success before his arrival.
But what makes Payton so good? It’s not all deep balls and dropbacks like so many people believe. The reason that Payton is such a special coach is because of his ability to exploit a defense through patience and timing. Having Brees doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t all come down to him as many people believe. The Saints run a ton of offensive formations and shifts with different personnel in order to create mismatches against smaller or slower defenders.
The Saints run a glorified West Coast offense at this point in time. It has a lot of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day it relies on underneath routes and the running game to draw defenses in before tearing them apart down the field. This is the reason that receivers like Robert Meachem can be effective. He’s an above-average run blocking receiver with the ability to blow the top off of a defense, which makes more sense of his re-signing on Friday.
The single best example of a Sean Payton offense creating a mismatch came in Week 2 last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
New Orleans is out in a basic three wide receiver set. They have Marques Colston lined up in the slot (red circle). This is with 0:24 left in the game down by one point with no timeouts. To this point, the Saints offense has struggled. Brees sees man-to-man in the slot between Colston and Leonard Johnson, a young corner with little experience against top-flight receivers, and quickly goes through a series of audibles and checks at the line.
As this play begins, there is absolutely no question where Brees is going with the football. He is staring down Colston. They teach you not to do this in quarterbacking 101, but this play is just mano-a-mano, Colston vs. Johnson. To this point, Colston has created very little separation, but he’s just running a straight fly. Another thing to note is the Buccaneer defense. They’re in man to man across the board with a single safety high, so they’re running the risk of giving up the big play in an attempt to make an even bigger one.
Sometimes, as a corner, you can do everything right and still not be able to make that one huge play. Such is the case with Johnson. A slot corner against a number one receiver with Colston’s size will rarely pan out for the defensive guy. Johnson does everything right on this play. He hangs with Colston, but Colston just gets that one extra step, and that’s all she wrote. Colston catches the pass for 31 yards, Brees spikes it with :06 left, Saints win on a last second field goal. Johnson played this play the best that a defensive coach could possibly ask him to, but Payton (and Brees’) simple decision to take the number one guy and move him to the slot was the reason New Orleans pulled out the early season win despite an overall shaky offensive performance.