Hey, who knew putting a little elbow grease into some actual semi-serious football "analysis" would go over so much better than our usual frivolous Saints-themed jackassery? Didn't see that coming. Preciate all the traffic and linkbacks and whatnot. The internets tell me that kind of stuff is important for some reason, so high five! Now let's see if we can't follow that up with a second consecutive post featuring legitimate football content that could reasonably be considered relevant and/or useful. By golly, it's so crazy it just might work! I'll do my best to keep this from becoming a rambling mess, but beyond that, I promise NOTHING!

 

Going balls-deep
For all the talk of the relative lack of offensive explosiveness these days, you might be surprised to learn that the Saints had 67 plays of 20+ yards (3rd in the league) and 15 plays of 40+ (tied for 2nd) in 2013.

That's actually slightly better than any year since 2009. (Which is as far as I went back, because I just didn't feel like putting in the work to go back farther than that, plus I'm not sure how relevant what happened back in 2006 really is anymore.) It was only very slightly better, so we can call it "in line with" if you prefer. The high for 20+ plays was 69 in 2011, and the 15 plays of 40+ in 2013 is the highest in the last 5 years.

Not all of those 20+ yard plays were passes, but most of them were. And all the 40+ yard plays were. So let's forget the occasional long rushing play, screens, and YAC plays, and focus on the deep "shot plays" through the air here, because that seems to be what people had an issue with all season.

It's not that they weren't taking their shots, because they were. Drew threw 77 passes of 20+ yards in the air, his second-highest total over the last 5 years (80 in 2012.) But the numbers seem to confirm our in-season observations. Drew simply wasn't nearly as accurate on deep balls as he's been in the past. In fact, over the last 5 years, his deep ball accuracy has been steadily dropping, from 58.7% in 2009 to 40.3% in 2013.

Which isn't to say that Drew individually is completely "at fault" here, because increased pressure and less time in the pocket were surely factors. And although I haven't been able to locate any numbers with which to support or debunk the perception, I certainly won't argue with the notion that the receivers weren't getting as open (and/or weren't getting open quickly enough) deep downfield.

Still, of 76 balls that went 20+ yards in the air (I can't locate any details on the 77th) only 31 of them (40.79%) were considered by PFF to have been "catchable" balls. And there were only two drops, one each by Lance Moore and Nick Toon.

I'm not sure we outside observers will ever really be able to "know" with any degree of certainty how much of it was on the o-line, how much was on the receivers and how much was on Drew. We'll all just have to make our own personal subjective judgments on that. What we do know for sure is that they took their shots, they just missed a whole lot more than they hit. And it wasn't because those balls weren't getting in the air, and it wasn't because they were being dropped.

We saw the passes with our own eyes, and you don't have to be some kind of football expert to know when a pass simply isn't on target. 

The good news? Of the 29 that were caught, 15 of 'em went for touchdowns. Just short of two successful "shot plays" per regular season game, and just short of one per game resulting in a touchdown is pretty strong. So we've (still, kinda) got that going for us.

More good news: Of the 6 "catchable" deep balls to Kenny Stills, he caught all 6 for 340 yards (56.7 yards per) and 5 of 'em went for touchdowns. Holy shit.

Also of note, Jimmy Graham was the Saints' second most productive "deep threat." 14 targets, 8 catchable, all 8 caught, for 321 yards and 5 touchdowns.

I'm not really sure what it says about the current state of the Saints' passing game though that the two guys stretching the field were a 5th round rookie and a tight end.

And that was about the extent of the good news in the deep passing game for the 2013 Saints. 5 of 10 for 141 to Lance Moore, 4 of 13 for 162 to Robert Meachem, and 4 of 12 for 97 to Marques Colston. Guh.

It probably didn't help that play action was all-but-completely-irrelevant. They ran play action 25.2% of the time, which was 8th most in the league. But Drew's completion percentage actually dropped by 3.4% when they did (17th in the league) and his yards per pass attempt increased a whopping 0.1 yards (7.9 to 8.0) on play action passes (24th in the league.) His passer rating increased marginally on play action (103.7 to 107.4) but overall, they might as well have not even bothered to run play action at all. It just didn't matter. Because defenses don't have to give even a tiny fraction of a shit about it. At all. Ever.

Say, how's that 25th-ranked rushing game workin' out for ya, Coach? Think you might wanna put a little more elbow grease into that going forward? Even if only for the sake of those sweet, sweet play action passing stats?

 

Smooth Up In Your Jimmy Zone™
Remember when they used to say about the Saints passing game that "it's so dangerous because they spread you out and make you defend the whole field" and stuff like that? Good times.

Unfortunately, that's not nearly as true as it used to be. Not only are the Saints not as good as they once were at stretching the field vertically, they're also not stretching the field horizontally as effectively as they used to. The result? Behold, The Jimmy Zone™.

This is where the Saints passing game does most of its work these days. Vertically within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, and horizontally within the 25 yards inside the numbers. The "and" is key.

It's not that there's necessarily anything "wrong" with that in and of itself. I mean, it's pretty much your standard dink-and-dunk West Coast™ passing game. Working the middle of the field has been Drew's bread & butter since college, and the Saints passing game as currently constructed does its best work there.

So don't get me wrong, I'm not framing it as a huge "problem" per se. After all, Drew's still throwing for 5K per year and the overall passing game is still at a top 5 level. It's an issue that's more along the lines of the Saints' typical 60/40 pass/rush ratio. Some people think it's not that big a deal and people should quit bitching about it because it works, while others think it's a legit problem that's holding the offense back.

But when you combine the vertical and horizontal "boundaries" (such as they are) you end up with a relatively small section of the field. And the walls have been slowly but surely closing in over the last few years. It's just another aspect of that perceived "predictability" we were bemoaning all season.

And it's not just a result of the (perceived or real) "over-reliance" on Jimmy. In 2013, Marques Colston lined up in the slot 56.1% of the time. 54.2% of his targets, 58.7% of his receptions and 62.56% of his receiving yards came from the slot. 51.8% of Lance Moore's snaps, 57.69% of his targets, 51.35% of his receptions and 51.86% of his yards came when he lined up in the slot. Lining up in the slot of course doesn't necessarily mean that a guy is gonna be inside the numbers when he catches the ball, but it makes it a lot more likely.

And those are just slot numbers. Even when lined up outside at the snap, Colston and Moore end up between the numbers at the catch more often than not.

In other words, suddenly the Saints have precisely one guy who consistently works outside the Jimmy Zone™. And as good as that one guy was for a 5th round rookie, one guy simply isn't enough.

Over the last 5 years, 56% of Drew's passing attempts have been between the numbers horizontally, and 71% of them have been between 0-20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So perhaps I should take back that "suddenly" because it's been steadily becoming more and more of a thing each year over the last several.

That's a "problem" in that it of course makes the passing game easier to defend against. Safeties can cheat up, corners can shade inside, linebackers don't have to play sideline to sideline. Defend the Jimmy Zone™ and for the most part, you're golden. Is it any wonder the Saints' passing game has such trouble these days against defenses with fast linebackers and physical safeties?

Is it any wonder that Marques Colston averaged a meager 3.2 yards after the catch in 2013, and Lance Moore only averaged 1.7? It's usually pretty crowded in the Jimmy Zone™. Most of the time there are about 7 defenders in there. It's the passing equivalent of rushing against eight men in the box.

Still, some people will look at the overall passing stats and say "So what? What's the problem?" I get that. If you prefer, rather than calling it a "problem" we can look at it as yet another opportunity to shift focus, to break increasingly well-known tendencies, to further diversify and be "multiple." To get back to that whole "spread you out and make you defend the whole field" thing that used to work so incredibly well once upon a time.

 

Putting the "wide" back in "wideout"
Let's talk about Kenny Stills for a few minutes. Here's the thing about Kenny Stills… he's pretty fucking awesome. In all kinds of ways. This guy… this is my kind of guy.

A couple weeks ago, our friend Andrew over at THE Saints Nation gave Stills an overall grade of 2.46 for the season, which was good for 31st out of the 48 "qualifying" Saints players he graded, behind such notables as Isa Abdul-Quddus, Keyunta Dawson and Kevin Reddick. Tee Word over at CSC (no relation to Barry) gave Stills a season grade of D+.

We here at moosedenied have nothing but the utmost respect for both of those guys, but I'm afraid that's just absurd. Sorry, fellas.

You know how far you have to go back to find a Saints wideout who put up more than 641 receiving yards as a rookie?

Of course you do. It was Marques Colston in 2006.

But let's set aside the single most accomplished wideout in franchise history for a second. Next?

It wasn't Robert Meachem. It wasn't Devery Henderson. It wasn't Donte Stallworth. It wasn't Eric Martin or Wes Chandler. It wasn't Quinn Early or Torrance Small or Floyd Turner or Mo Hill. It wasn't Eugene Goodlow, Brett Perriman or Lindsay Scott. And it damn sure wasn't Adrian Arrington, Onome Ojo, Mike Hass, Chase Lyman, Keith Poole, Brett Bech, Jubilee Dunbar or Toussaint L'Overture Tyler.

It was Danny Abramowicz in goddamn 1967, for crying out loud.

Among rookies, Stills was 4th in the league in receiving yards, 1st in the league in yards per reception, 4th in the league in receiving touchdowns, and 1st in the league in receptions of 40+ yards.

Overall (rookie or otherwise) he was 11th in the league in catch percentage, 11th in YAC per reception. and 1st in the whole fuckin' league in PFF's "Passer rating for the QB when he throws the ball in the general direction of this guy."

Granted, it's only been one season, but I'm just gonna go ahead and throw this out there… as a rookie, you know who this guy most closely compares to? Andre Reed. 2014 Hall of Fame enshrinee Andre Fuckin' Reed.

That not working for ya? How about Torry Holt? Reggie Wayne?

Still not working for ya? I can see you rolling your eyes at my comparing a guy coming off his first season to various current and future Hall of Famers. Want something a little less homeriffic? Something that hits a little closer to home? Fine, try this fellow fifth rounder on for size: Joe Horn.

Specifically, 1999 Joe Horn in his last year in Kansas City before he got his big break. 35 for 586, 16.7 per, 6 touchdowns. Virtually identical measurables, virtually identical game. Hollywood stretched the field both vertically and horizontally. YAC out the ass. He caught everything in his general vicinity. Sound familiar? Because it ought to.

Fortunately for Randy Mueller and Jim Haslett, it took Kansas City 4 years to realize that Hollywood could do a whole lot of everything, but by then it was too late.

Fortunately for Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, Kenny Stills did all those same things in 2013, but as a 21 year old rookie.

The thing about Hollywood was that you never knew where he was gonna end up on the field on a given play. One down, he'd catch a 10-yard out at the sideline for a first down. A couple plays later he'd run a little slant across the middle and take it for a huge chunk of YAC. Couple plays later he'd be running a post, getting behind the defense and catching a ball that went 40 yards in the air.

That's precisely what Stills did in 2013. A little bit of everything, all over the field. Here are just a few selections from his list of individual plays at PFR: Short left for 20. Short middle for 18. Short right for 14. Deep middle for 76, touchdown. Deep left for 69, touchdown. Deep right for 52, touchdown.

  • Of the 6 catchable deep balls thrown at Stills, he caught all 6 for 340 yards and 5 touchdowns
     
  • Stills was 11th in the league in YAC per reception, and was the #1 YAC guy on the team by a mile, with 6.1 yards per
     
  • Stills was 2nd in the league in PFF's "WR rating" – Drew's passer rating was 139.3(!!!) when throwing to Stills
     
  • Stills was "credited" with only 1 drop for a PFF "drop rate" of 3.03, by far the lowest of all Saints wideouts
     
  • 29 of his 32 receptions produced either a first down or a touchdown(!!!)

…as a rookie. Are you fuckin' kidding me?

Ever daydream about what kind of hell they could have raised if Drew Brees had the opportunity to throw to Joe Horn in his prime? (We'll pause here for a second while you grab yourself a change of pants.) I suspect that 2013 gave us our first little taste of that.

The Saints don't need to sign or draft a "true #1 receiver" because they already have him. All he needs is that same opportunity Hollywood got when he signed with the Saints in 2000. And I've got a hunch that he's about to get it this fall. And it's gonna be awesome.

What they do need is another one just like him. Another true wideout who doesn't line up in the slot over half the time, and who works the whole field rather than just the Jimmy Zone™. Another guy who gets additional yards with the ball in his hands. Another guy who does multiple things well. Not "The Big Guy" or "The Fast Guy" or whatever single trait is currently giving you a boner. This offense is already too specialized as it is, and that over-specialization is what's holding it back.

But who's that guy? Odell Beckham? Jarvis Landry? Kelvin Benjamin? Allen Robinson? Marquise Lee? Jordan Matthews? Paul Richardson? Hell if I know. Who's got the goofiest, most fucked up hairdo? Because that's the guy I want. Hopefully it's Donte Moncrief, because I think that might be the guy I really want… in oh let's say the 4th. Give or take.

 

 

Alright, I think it's time to go ahead and click Publish again. I'm already way past my own self-imposed deadline (sorry about that) and way past TL;DR once again, though this one is far shorter than the last one. High five! I've still got a bunch of shit to say about Malcolm Jenkins, the nauseating prospect of drafting yet another crappy corner in the first round, why the Saints have totally boned themselves with the Jimmy Graham situation, and various other offseason topics of note. I'll get to all that when I can. Is it May yet?

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