The Road to Lombardi: How the Saints use motion and formations

You could write a 1,000-page book on all the ways the New Orleans Saints use formation diversity, pre-snap motion, and scripted plays together to establish offensive dominance. From a playbook perspective, there isn't a more effectively complex offense in the NFL. That all starts with head coach Sean Payton, and quarterback Drew Brees(notes) takes it on the field with a freakish mastery of the system. Here's just one example of how the Saints switch things up to make it happen.

Against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game, the Saints used tackle Zach Strief(notes) as the sixth offensive lineman (or reserve tight end) in the six-man fronts that are becoming more and more popular. The Ravens and Dolphins probably use six-man fronts more than any other teams, and their offenses are run-heavy. They like the power aspects of the formation. Payton took it to another level against the Vikings, establishing the run with that front and then leading the defense into an advantageous situation for a big play. On the play before the one we're going to diagram, the Saints had first-and-10 at the Vikings' 21-yard line, Strief motioned from left to right out of an offset-I formation and Pierre Thomas(notes) ran the ball for 12 yards on a cutback left after the Vikings' defense went to the right with all the motion.

Now, from the Minnesota 9, the Saints lined up with Strief outside right tackle Jon Stinchcomb(notes). Brees faked the handoff to Thomas and rolled right as receiver Devery Henderson(notes) ran a post-corner route on the right side and Marques Colston(notes) cut inside to the middle on the left side. The Vikings read run, playing aggressively as Brees rolled out, and dropping their linebackers a bit late. At first, all three linebackers bit to the run fake to the left, and that gave the Saints the advantage in short stuff over the middle. More importantly, deep safety Jamarca Sanford(notes) bit on the run, then followed Brees' rollout, which left cornerback Benny Sapp(notes) one-on-one on Henderson. Anyone who's seen Benny Sapp cover this year knows that the word "mismatch" could be used in that case. When Henderson broke off the post pattern and headed to the corner, Sapp couldn't keep up and Brees threw to Henderson for the touchdown. It was a good play action rollout by Brees and a nice route adjustment by Henderson, but the play was made by the run setup.

"There are certain plays that are more motion-friendly," Payton told the media on Wednesday. "Sometimes, it allows the receiver a better release than if he was stationary. In other words, the guy in charge of re-routing him, when he has to move as well, may not be able to get his hands on him as cleanly. Other times, it may be just simply to get leverage on the defense, to get to a landmark maybe a little more effectively than a tight split. Sometimes when you are playing with a lot of crowd noise, you line up in some nasty or tight splits without motion because you are worried about the silent counts. There are a lot of reasons for it. Hopefully when we do something like that, there is a reason we are doing it other than just to do it. The timing of it, the motion landmarks and the snap count - all of those things factor in."

Safety Antoine Bethea(notes) had this to say about New Orleans' offensive game plans: "They put the players in positions where they can succeed the best. They might come in with three receivers, four receivers, two receivers and put Reggie Bush(notes) out there as a receiver. I was just watching film trying to pick up on little tips and little points here and there to see if maybe you can dictate a player here or there. But like I keep saying and keep saying and I'm going to say it until the game, their offense is a real good offense, but as a competitor you're going to go out there and try to make plays."

We've talked about how the Saints use the run very effectively -- the next level of that concept is how they will use the run to set up the pass. The Vikings found out the hard way just how well the Saints do it. Thanks to the good folks at the NFL, here's the play in question:

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