Falcons can't let Sproles run free
Each week, John Lynch breaks down a dynamic NFL offensive playmaker, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Lynch examines how the Atlanta Falcons must account for Saints running back Darren Sproles.There’s such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL.
How else do you explain the New Orleans Saints' performances the past two weeks?
Two weeks ago, the Saints got beaten by the winless Rams in perhaps their worst performance of the season. Then, last Sunday, they delivered what might have been their best performance of the season in a 27-16 win over the Buccaneers. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s vision of parity is ever-present in today’s NFL.
Just as there are no easy games in the NFL, there are no easy assignments for me. This week I get to game plan for the Atlanta defense in an important NFC South matchup against Drew Brees and the Saints.
I could speak all day about what makes Brees so special. I competed against him a lot when he was in San Diego. He has great ability, matched with a tremendous desire, work ethic and intelligence. He’s the ultimate competitor. And ever since he has gotten together with coach Sean Payton, he's gone from being really good to great.
I think he’s a future Hall of Famer. That marriage between coach and player has brought out the best in both of them. When you talk to Brees or Payton, you feel like you’re talking to the same person. It’s funny, they complete each other’s sentences. That makes Brees very difficult to deal with for opposing teams.
What worked for the Saints against the Bucs simply comes down to one word: balance. I called the game for FOX and was impressed by the tremendous adjustments the Saints made between the Rams game and the Bucs game. I talked to Coach Payton about what happened in the game against the Rams, and he told me that I could put that one on him. He said the Saints put too much pressure on the offensive line, and they weren’t giving their linemen enough help.
So the Saints expanded their formations and gave their tackles more help by going more with two tight ends, backs chipping and making quicker throws. And they ran the football. Nothing makes an offensive line happier than running the football.
Normally, the Saints run about 37 percent of the time. By switching up their formations against Tampa Bay, they rushed for 195 yards on 28 carries (a 7-yard average). Brees was 27 for 36 for 258 yards and two touchdowns. When Brees throws fewer than 40 times, they have won. In their three losses, he has averaged 46 passing attempts.
Now for the hard part. What’s the game plan for the Falcons?
Although you might think you could focus on taking away Brees’ top target, the problem with that is you still have too many other weapons on that team. If you take away Jimmy Graham, you’ve got Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles. Speaking of Sproles, Payton has done a great job of designing ways to get him in space. In talking with the coach last week, he was most surprised the way Sproles runs in between the tackles. Yes, he’s small, but he’s not afraid to take the ball up the gut. I’ve played against him a lot, and I think he’s playing better than he ever has.
So my plan would be to pressure Brees. Move him off his spot. Make him move around in the pocket. Stop Brees, as opposed to one of his weapons because they have too many other ways they can beat you. For the Falcons to give themselves a chance, they have to stand up to the running game of the Saints. That said, Brees has thrown a touchdown pass for 36 consecutive games, which tied Brett Favre for second on the all-time list. He’s a defensive coordinator’s nightmare.
To make matters worse, Brees is on pace to set an NFL record for third-down passing efficiency. He’s got an incredible 126.8 passer rating on third downs, and that’s another thing the Falcons need to contend with.
See what I mean? There are no easy answers dealing with the Saints and Mr. Brees. Don’t get third-down stops, he’ll kill you. Give him a balanced running game, he’ll kill you.
As far as the explosive Sproles is concerned, the Falcons have a dynamic player in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. I’d have him hold up one on one when Sproles is in the game. You have to put your best player on him. Sproles has caught more screen passes than anybody in the NFL this season. You have to get to him on screens. You have to hug him. You can’t let him get the ball in space, because if he does, he’s out the door. As soon as the Saints show screen, the Falcons have to take the fight to him.
Lastly, I mentioned that important divisional matchup. Coach Mike Smith has done a very impressive job since he has taken over the Falcons. Smith is 38-18 and has 5-2 mark against both Tampa Bay and Carolina. The only team in the division he has a losing record against is, you guessed it, the Saints. In fact, of teams the Falcons have played more than once under Smith, the Saints are one of only two teams in the entire NFL they have a losing record against. (Philadelphia is the other.)
The Saints and Falcons have close games. Last year’s two contests were both decided by three points. The point differential for the past six games is one, in New Orleans' favor.
Like I said, a very fine line.