The Film Room - Week 2
By Matt Waldman
September 16th, 2010

This weekly in-season feature is to provide observations from NFL or college games that will help fantasy owners learn about college prospects or team tendencies that will help you with future lineup decisions.

Turning An Opponent's Strengths Against Them

The outcome of the NFL's 2010 opener isn't much of a surprise. But if you ask the average person if the Saints would score less than 20 points and win the game on the ground, I bet most of them will guess that scenario is more fitting for a Vikings victory.

Pierre Thomas' 19 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown is a pedestrian night to the casual fan looking at the box score. A more observant fan will look beyond Thomas' 3.7-ypc average and note that the RB's tough running at the second level of the Vikings defense helped him pick up key first downs and fuel a strong second half. If that fan is a fantasy football owner, he's thinking Thomas got off to a good start as an RB2 for most leagues.

But forget about Thomas for a moment. Read this analysis and you'll understand why Carlton Nicks and Heath Evans won this game for the Saints on three variations of one play; a play designed to take the Vikings' strength and turn it against them. Afterwards, we'll consider how to apply this information to the fantasy prospects of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and the Vikings defense.

The Opponent's Strength

In 2009, the Minnesota Vikings were the No.2 defense in the NFL against the run. Only the Green Bay Packers allowed fewer yards, yards per carry and yards per game. The Vikings were tops in the league with the least first downs allowed. They have allowed only 74.9 rushing yards per game since 2006. It makes them the first team in NFL history to hold the opponents to fewer than 75 rushing yards per game over a four season span - this includes the Steel Curtain, the Bears 46, the Eagles 46, or the Ravens of recent years. They have 48 straight games without giving up 150 rushing yards, which is the second-longest streak in the NFL (the Steelers had a 55-game streak from 1994-97).

The strength of this run defense is the four-man front of Pat and Kevin Williams in the middle, Ray Edwards at one end and Pro Bowl performer Jared Allen on the other. The Vikings defense line is stout in the middle and quick on the perimeter. When opposing offenses throw the football, the Williams duo can collapse the pocket up the middle and this creates opportunities for the defensive ends to get one-on-ones with opposing tackles or capitalize with twists and stunts to the quarterback.

The marquee player is Allen, whose quickness, strength and high motor can make him a nightmare. Sports Illustrated guest-writer Kerry Byrne from Coldhardfacts.com wrote a column nearly three months ago that makes an argument why Allen is the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL.

Here are the Cliff Notes of the article:

1. Byrne and/or his co-workers have created the Defensive Hogs Index, a formula that incorporates these factors:

  • Stopping the run.
  • Negative pass plays.
  • Helping offenses off the field on third down.
  • 2. Allen's presence on the Chiefs and Vikings is a big reason for each team's high index rating.

    Granted this article really doesn't address Allen's strengths as a run defender, but his piece is a stats analysis not a film analysis.

    Which is where I come in.

    There is no arguing that Allen makes huge plays. His never-say-die approach also makes him effective as a defensive end crashing down the line of scrimmage in backside pursuit and it complements the Williams defensive tackles that have the size, quickness and strength to funnel opportunities to linebackers Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. But a team with keen offensive minds capable of mid-game adjustments and the right personnel can neutralize the strength of this Minnesota Wrecking Crew.

    What the Saints Knew About the Vikings Defense

    New Orleans knew that trying to run over the Vikings defense is a bad idea. There are very few offensive units that can line up and directly push this defense around. In fact, the Saints avoided running the football for much of the first half. New Orleans ran the ball only twice in the first 25 minutes of this game; one of them was an attempt to the outside and Thomas couldn't reach the corner.

    Thomas is a smart runner with good technique to finish runs after a collision or rap, and a quick first move to make defenders miss. He also has nice open field vision at the second level. But what he doesn't have is great speed or acceleration to get through small creases or consistently elude penetration into the offensive backfield.

    There are two plays that illustrate why the Saints needed to utilize more subtlety and finesse against the Vikings in the run game and not rely on Thomas to do it on his own.

    To open the second half, the Saints offense face nine Viking defenders in the box and run an off-tackle play that Minnesota middle linebacker stuffs for no gain. The diagram below is a lot like what you would have seen on TV. The offense has a two-receiver set with both wide outs tight to the formation. The tight end starts on the left wing, motions across the formation to the inside shoulder of the right guard, and then ends his motion behind the left shoulder of the quarterback as the play begins. The defense has this nailed with both defensive ends aligned to funnel the play inside and preferably to right guard (notice how even the left corner back is aligned to the inside before the play).


    At the snap, the Vikings two defensive tackles slant to the offense's right. Defense end Jared Allen takes outside position on the left tackle and stays disciplined to the backside in case there is a cut back. Defensive end Ray Edwards takes an inside path across the right tackle's face. The strong side linebacker Ben Leber, who is between right guard and right tackle, follows the path of fullback Heath Evans, who runs to the outside shoulder of the right tackle. As all this is going on, the left defensive tackle beats the left guard and knifes into the backfield and he is coming down the line in pursuit of Pierre Thomas

    What this action after the snap does is create only two options for Thomas: try to run outside and beat middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is unblocked, to the right flat or run through the crease off right guard, which is what the defense wants because this means he'll have to beat the defensive tackle coming down the line and get past both Henderson and weak side linebacker Chad Greenway in the hole. Thomas cuts between right tackle and right guard and immediately meets Henderson, who hits, wraps, and throws Thomas backwards for no gain.

    If you have this game taped, this play occurs at 13:00 in the 3rd quarter.

    This was the type of run that was headed directly into the Vikings wheelhouse. In fact, when the Saints tried this play a second time with 1:32 in the 3rd QTR - using the same formation but switching the side that the TE and FB began and ran it to the left - they had a similar result.

    How the Saints Used the Vikings' Strength Against Them

    The play after this diagramed no-gainer on the Saints' opening play of the second half illustrates how they out-thought Minnesota. The Saints lined up in a three-receiver, one-tight end set. As I'm about to diagram this play, I hear Drew Brees say to his teammates as they reach the line of scrimmage "watch this," and he smiles as he gets under center.

    The Vikings defense is clearly playing pass with what appears to be a nickel look. I can't see the location of the defensive back playing deep on the left side, but in this play call it doesn't matter. What you need to see are the two linebackers in the box drop before the snap.


    Vikings defensive back on the right side of the offense turns and runs deep. The linebacker on the left also drops. But the linebacker on the right side reads the quarterback and doesn't fall for Drew Bree's immediate pass fake to the left side of the formation as he takes the exchange from center. He stays his ground, but before he can react he's greeted by the tight end that curled inside to block for Pierre Thomas, who gets the ball on this draw play and gains four yards untouched between center and guard. Then Thomas he curls around his tight end's block and lowers his pads to run through two hits for another six yards and a first down.

    The player that bites hard on this pass fake is defensive end Jared Allen, who curls around the left tackle towards the backfield, but as soon as he sees the pass fake, he stops and leaps with his hand in the air. By the time his feet are back on the ground, Thomas has the ball and the left tackle has position to eliminate Allen from reaching the backside of this play.

    It doesn't seem like the left defensive end should have much of an impact on this play to the right side of the formation and you're probably right, but I think the Saints realize that what makes Jared Allen so dangerous is that he reacts quickly and when they can make him react the wrong way, they have something to build on.

    Two plays later, the Saints decide to see how much they can take advantage of Jared Allen and the rest of this defensive line's aggressiveness. The New Orleans offense lines up with two receivers tight to the formation on the right with the second receiver stacked behind the first. The Vikings have its middle linebacker Henderson and weak side linebacker Greenway shaded to the wide receiver's side, anticipating a run to the right.


    Fullback Heath Evans, who plays a huge role in this game within a game, is the lead back in the I-formation and he's one of the keys to this play. At the snap, Evans turns his shoulders towards the right side as if he is going to run off right guard to block the middle linebacker in the hole. This motion helps confirm to the defense that it's a run to the right side and left defensive tackle Kevin Williams slants to the right side of the offense with the hope he can knife behind the left guard's outside shoulder and charge down the line in backside pursuit to reach Thomas before the back hits the hole. Strong side linebacker Ben Leber also reads the full back and slants to the offense's right side. And for a split-second Jared Allen sees a glimmer of hope that he's going to get a free run down the line in backside pursuit and calf-rope Thomas in the backfield.

    But this is actually a misdirection play and the Vikings were completely duped. As the Minnesota defense shifts right Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod uses Kevin Williams' knifing momentum against him and ambushes the defensive tackle's back shoulder, pushing the behemoth further inside, off balance, and to the ground.

    As Allen comes free off the line, fullback Heath Evans reveals the final part of the con. Once he passes QB Drew Brees, Evans pivots to the left side with a perfect angle to block Allen as the tight end as veered outside to block the left cornerback. Here's how this 2nd and 4 play with 10:57 in the 3rd quarter looks once Evans clears his QB and pivots to the left.


    What you see is basically a three-on-two play to the left side with the left corner back, left defensive end (Jared Allen) against the tight end, fullback, and running back. This initial misdirection from the fullback does a lot to pull this play off and once Thomas gets the ball, he runs inside of his FB for a six-yard gain and the first down. If Thomas doesn't trip, he probably gains another 7-8 yards.

    The Saints use this play several times in the second half and each time, Allen or his sub Brian Robinson were caught in this three-on-two situation and allowed nice gains for Thomas.

    Variation on the Theme

    Two plays after the diagramed play above, the Saints decide to use the potential for an end-around to play mind games with Jared Allen. This time the New Orleans offense comes to the line of scrimmage in a three-receiver set on a 2nd and 1 with 9:52 in the 3rd quarter, just after Brees completes a nine-yard pass to Lance Moore in the left flat.


    Reggie Bush is at receiver and just prior to the snap he motions towards the backfield to sell the end-around. The Vikings defensive tackles slant to the right side as Jared Allen stays at home unblocked, anticipating that Bush is going to get the ball. This action freezes Allen, who is caught flat-footed as Thomas gets the ball and enters the gap off left tackle created when the left side of the line, particularly left guard Carlton Nicks, collapses the defensive tackle to the inside while the linebacker slanting to the right at the beginning of the play runs himself out of position.

    The beginning offensive formation screams run to the right, but "watch out for the end-around" to a smart albeit aggressive player like Jared Allen. What the Vikings don't realize is that this is window dressing to set up a two-on-one situation with Allen versus Bush and Thomas. Allen has to guess Bush or the runner has the potential for a touchdown on the end-around. This allows Thomas to get a step into the hole and drag Allen for a first down and another five yards.

    The Saints run this exact same play a few plays later on a 1st and goal from the Vikings' six yard line with 6:53 in the 3rd QTR. and despite the fact Allen is savvy enough to know Thomas is about to get the ball and he angles himself towards the hole of the RB's destination, he's still forced to hesitate a half-beat to account for Bush coming around the end. This brief hesitation prevents Allen from getting a strong wrap on Thomas and the runner gains five yards to the one-yard line. On the next play, Thomas punches it in for what is the game-winning score.

    A close look at each of these plays reveals that guard Carlton Nicks and tackle Jermon Bushrod were dominant on this drive, getting defensive tackle Kevin Williams out of the way to help create a crease for the back. This drive essentially cut the quarter in half, tired out the defense a bit, and gave the Saints the lead.

    And the Saints didn't veer away from a good thing once they saw it working - they simply added another variation on the theme. On 1st and 10 with 5:00 in the 3rd quarter they focused on duping Jared Allen yet again. This time the Saints did it on a passing play out of the shotgun with two receivers stacked to the right of the formation and the TE and RB flanking Brees.


    This play is once again a con job to the right to set up something to the left. Brees takes the snap, and looks right to his receivers releasing into the right flat. Meanwhile Pierre Thomas drifts outside of the left tackle to act as if he's going to chip Jared Allen. The defensive end sees the chip and outsmarts the RB, by twisting inside of the LT to get the rush inside, or does he?

    This time Thomas conned Allen with the appearance of a chip. Once Allen twists to the inside, Thomas turns back to the QB and catches the screen pass. Although he only gains a few yards, this is just another confirmation that the Saints offense is using misdirection to expose the left side of the Vikings defense.

    The Saints then return to the base I-formation set with fullback Heath Evans initially selling the run right before pivoting to the left. However, they combine this set with that end-around variation that they used with Bush at wide receiver earlier in the quarter. This time Devery Henderson was used as the decoy on the end-around and it again forces Allen to pause before he crashed down the line. This puts the defensive end in position to get blocked by the fullback, giving Thomas a free pass. Left guard Carlton Nicks once again threw defensive tackle Kevin Williams to the ground to create the crease.

    Even with eight defenders in the box, the Saints ran the original I-formation version of this play successful, gaining eight yards behind the fullback, who this time took out Allen's substitute Brian Robison while Jermon Bushrod mauled Williams to the inside. With the exception of a 1st and 10 strong side run from the I formation that came right at the defense for no gain, the Saints used this fullback misdirection to effectively run out the clock, gaining eight yards just before the two-minute warning, then another 10 yards afterwards - sealing the game.

    Fantasy Implications

    • Pierre Thomas: If the Saints can execute this against statistically the best, run defense in the past five years, they should have success against other 4-3 defenses. Although Thomas only gained 71 yards, below that 75-yard mark the Vikings have allowed for quite a while, he earned most of it in the second half and one of those gains was a one-yard touchdown run. If you own Thomas and the Saints face a 4-3 defense, he's a decent RB2 with upside. Where I think Thomas might have a tougher time is against 3-4 units where this particular strategy won't be as effective. It doesn't mean that Sean Payton won't draw up something equally effective, but I'll want to see it first. What we know right away is that Thomas will be a solid producer against the 4-3 look.
    • Reggie Bush: It will be interesting to see if Bush earns any opportunities to be the tailback in this play. If he has regained his discipline to follow a play as designed, he could be even more effective getting to the second level and breaking big plays. The question is whether he will get an opportunity to show that kind of maturity. If he does - watch out. If not, one should still expect to see Bush used on the end-around with defenses prepared for it to be a fake.
    • Jared Allen: I doubt he's going to face too many offenses that set him up to the point that he's getting conned into thinking that he spotted the trick when in fact that was the ploy all along. But the Packers do have the kind of personnel to use this type of misdirection if they choose and it would help their young offensive line find a way to neutralize this advantage the Vikings have held for the past two games.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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