The Saints knew how to take advantage of the Carolina Panthers.
It’s possible there were holes all over the field during New Orleans’ 41-38 win on Sunday, and perhaps the evidence is circumstantial, but it looked like it knew exactly how it wanted to attack Carolina’s defense. And then did so ruthlessly.
It was clear that that New Orleans could put its wide receivers in positions where linebackers would cover them, and find other weak spots in the Panthers’ zone coverage.
This started on the very first snap when Brandin Cooks lined up in the slot and was covered by Shaq Thompson on an out route, which he pulled in for a gain of 10 yards. And the vulnerability remained throughout the game, as Cooks later ran up the seam for a gain of 49 yards with Thompson in coverage on Drew Brees’ 39th attempt of the game.
Overall, Cooks lined up in the slot 24 times. While it isn’t atypical to see him there -- 12 of his 32 targets through the first four games came from the slot -- his usage in that area was high. And in a game where the defense was often playing deep zones with its defensive backs and allowing the linebackers to cover things underneath, it created a lot of good and easy looks for the offense.
“I think we just game-planned pretty well with that, and just knowing who I was going to get,” Cooks said. “You have to be patient and pick the right time to call stuff. I think coach did a great job with that. The scheme just worked well, and everything just seemed to fit together.”
Of Brees’ 49 attempts, The Advocate marked down a linebacker as being in coverage on 20 targets. Some of that was likely the result of the Panthers being down two cornerbacks, which limited their personnel packages. Thompson was in coverage on nine receptions, five of which were to receivers. Rookie cornerback Zack Sanchez was also a frequent target, as he gave up five receptions on seven targets for 129 yards.
Taking out the four dropped passes, four thrown away passes, and one spike, Brees connected on 35 of his 44 attempts for 467 yards with four touchdowns and interception. It was easily his best performance of the season, and a nice bounce back after the offense appeared out of sync against the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago.
“I have to give credit to our coaching staff, who do an incredible job coming up with the game plan that we come into every game with,” Brees said. “Obviously, our guys have the ability to understand that opportunities are coming, and that helps a lot.”
And on a day where many of the New Orleans receivers were getting open and being targeted by Brees, it was Cooks who had the best performance. He caught seven passes on targets for 173 yards, with the two big plays coming on deep routes.
The first one, which came out of 12 personnel, was created by a good route by Cooks, in which he faked like he was going to run an underneath route, and then turned up the field and ran by Sanchez for an 87-yard touchdown. On his 49-yard gain, he ran out about 15 yards, paused in front of Thompson, and then continued to run up the field.
“You just play the game and play what you see,” Brees said. “You don’t want to get overly aggressive, and in some cases, you have young guys in the secondary who will want to play conservative and want to keep everything in front of him, so you just have to play what you see and react accordingly.”
Cooks’ other receptions came on out routes (three catches, 25 yards) and screens (two catches, 12 yards). Overall, Cooks’ most effective routes this season have been out routes (eight catches, 10 targets, 76 yards), go routes (4 catches, eight targets, 249 yards) and screens (five catches, five targets, 38 yards).
Michael Thomas’ performance rivaled that of Cooks, and it was a good step forward as he got open more often down the field that he had during the first four weeks of the season. He had two standout moments during the game.
The first was his 9-yard touchdown, which was aided by a good play design. Thomas got open over the middle and ran the ball in for the score, but the play was made possible after running back Mark Ingram motioned to the outside, which pulled the middle linebacker out of the middle of the field and opened things up for Thomas on a crossing route.
The other play was a 28-yard reception by Thomas, which came after he beat a jam at the line of scrimmage and then got open between Carolina’s zone coverage. The play showed off his strength and ability to beat press coverage.
Thomas also had a 23-yard reception on a post route, and two receptions for 18 yards on curl routes.
It’s difficult to know how much to take from the performance since Carolina was undermanned and out-schemed. It’s doubtful the Saints will see the same type of coverage from an undermanned defense in the immediate future. But it was a strong performance from this offense and a reminder of explosive it can be.
But, even though the San Diego was an off day for the offense, being explosive usually isn’t an issue for the Saints. The key is maintaining consistency moving forward.