Three-man line make Saints D vulnerable

Doug Farrar
Yahoo! SportsJuly 22, 2010

Also in this article:

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports has examined the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explained how the franchise could address the issue. The series concludes with the New Orleans Saints, who finished first in the NFC South (13-3), and won Super Bowl XLIV.

Biggest problem in 2009: The 3-man front leaves the line a defender short

View photos

The Saints' defense attempts to stop Joseph Addai(notes) during Super Bowl XLIV.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Saints barreled through the 2009 season and won Super Bowl XLIV for a host of reasons, but play design was probably the team's biggest asset. Head coach Sean Payton is an undisputed offensive mastermind – few if any play callers in the NFL better understand how to set up and exploit mismatches and formation advantages. His offense's route complexity is unparalleled. Still, the Saints had Payton calling plays in 2007 and 2008, but the team couldn't make the playoffs because the defense was a giant sinkhole. To fix that problem, New Orleans brought in three free agents of great import – cornerback Jabari Greer(notes), safety Darren Sharper(notes), and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.


Williams was a hot commodity on the open market – his blitz-happy schemes didn't work well in Jacksonville in 2008, but given the Jags' consistent misfires by their front seven personnel, it may have been a mismatch. Payton took $250,000 out of his personal bank account (though he was repaid later) to ensure the Saints would not lose the bidding war for Williams. At the time, it was the best quarter-million he ever spent. Williams' aggressive tactics pushed the Saints' defense from 26th to 14th in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA (per-play efficiency) statistics. With Drew Brees(notes) ripping every enemy defense to shreds, 14th was good enough for a championship.

It would be an understatement to say the Saints improved under Williams. Sharper matched his career high with nine interceptions, Greer was the league's most underrated cornerback and other potential standouts, like linebacker Jonathan Vilma(notes) and cornerback Tracy Porter(notes), finally had the game plans best suited to their talents. Williams loves to blitz, and he runs as much man coverage as anyone in the league. He has become extremely adept at moving between three- and four-man fronts.

However, Williams' use of three-man fronts early on in the Super Bowl brought the defense's primary liability into sharp focus – they didn't have an elite run-stopping defensive tackle. Sedrick Ellis(notes), the main man in the middle in those three-man fronts, put up the NFL's worst stop rate, 47 percent. Stop rate is an FO stat that tracks the percentage of successful plays, defined as allowing 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.

In their first two defensive drives in the big game, the Saints lined up with four down linemen just once, and they allowed 10 of the 17 points given up in the game. In their third defensive drive, they utilized more four-lineman fronts. That may be why the Lombardi Trophy lives in the Big Easy.

The 2010 solution: Strengthen the nickel 3-4 against the run

Williams knew he couldn't use straight 3-4 or 5-2 fronts against Peyton Manning(notes) all the time. He also ran a lot of nickel coverage, moving into 3-3-5 defenses that occasionally stacked the linebackers over the linemen, with the defensive backs fanning out. In other cases, he'd place the linebackers at the line, hoping to get extra run support. It was against one of those wide sets that Colts halfback Joseph Addai ripped off a 16-yard gain with 4:29 left in the first quarter.

Play diagram
View photos
Play diagram

Already up 3-0, the Colts had third and 1 at their own 15-yard line. The Saints had been running a lot of 3-3-5 and 3-4-4 through the first quarter, and Manning started to adjust with slide protection. The zone slide is a staple of the Colts' run game, and Williams' defense was an easy mark in this case. Left guard Ryan Lilja(notes) chipped Ellis (98) before hitting the second level, while center Jeff Saturday(notes) (63), took the tackle to the right. Left tackle Charlie Johnson(notes) (74) and tight end Dallas Clark(notes) (44) doubled end Will Smith(notes) (91), right guard Kyle DeVan(notes) (66) took out weakside linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) (55), and right tackle Ryan Lilja (71) blocked end Bobby McCray(notes) (93). The slide smash to the right allowed Addai to cut back from right to left and hit the gap hard. Vilma missed a tackle while getting back into position, and it was up to the safeties (Sharper and Roman Harper(notes)) to prevent a very long touchdown. Five plays later, Addai gained 26 more yards up the middle as the Colts' line was able to dominate the Saints at the point of attack.

Four-man fronts and more disciplined linebacker placement kept the Colts from gashing the Saints' run defense even further. You can bet that other offenses will look to call out of pass plays when Williams dials up wide three-man fronts, or five-man fronts with lighter interior defenders. New Orleans selected LSU tackle Al Woods(notes) in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft, and the team hopes that the 6-foot-4, 323-pound Louisiana native can help it keep those big runs in moderation.