One of the big reasons that Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints won 63% of their games with him as head coach is their offense. Sean Payton called the plays and his offenses could consistently score points. On average his teams ranked sixth in scoring and that would look better if you leave off his final year in the Big Easy when they ranked 19th. Taking out that year, they ranked fifth on average. The Denver Broncos have not ranked higher than 19th since the end of the 2014 season and finished dead last in scoring in 2022 for the first time in franchise history.
So how did the Saints score so many points? Obviously Drew Brees, a future Hall of Fame QB, was a huge part of it, but I would argue that Sean Payton shares as much if not more of the credit for the team’s offensive prowess. One reason for me writing this is that Drew Brees didn’t truly flourish until he was paired with Sean Payton in New Orleans.
This work will do a deep dive into one part of the Saints offensive success under Sean Payton - their running game. But first let’s talk about their sack rate. The Saints averaged a sixth ranking in adjusted sack rate under Sean Payton and they only had one season (his last) where they ranked worse than 13th. (see below)
|Season||Adjust Sack Rate Rank||Adjusted Sack Rate|
Whether it was a function of the quick passing game or the solid offensive lines, the Saints were also good at protecting the QB under Sean Payton. With Russell Wilson, who historically holds the ball a long time, it will be interesting to see where the adjusted sack rate goes in 2023. Back to the run game...
I know some are thinking “the Saints run game was an afterthought. The passing game is what made the Saints special.”
I say, pish posh to that! The running game was as much a part of their success as the passing game. Without the strategic deployment of the rushing attack the passing game would not have been anywhere near as successful. Even with an elite passing attack, you need a minimally competent rushing attack to score - usually - and the Saints rushing attack was effective when it needed to be, which was near the goal-line.
There is truth in what the naysayers are thinking though. The Saints under Payton rarely ran the ball that much. The had as many years in the bottom third of the league in rushing attempts than they had in the top third (4). An overview of the Saints’ rushing rankings is provided in the table below.
So it would appear that they had four seasons where they ran the ball a bunch (2009, 2018, 2020 and 2021), but in most years they were in the bottom half of the league in terms of carries and rushing yards. Despite that they were almost always in the top 10 in rushing TDs (12 of 16 seasons). The Saints could use the run to set up the pass, or they could use the pass to set up the run. Looking closely at those four anomalous years, 2021 was the only season without Brees, so it is going to be an anomaly simply for that reason.
It is informative to look closely at 2010, 2013 and 2019 - all years when the Saints failed to reach the top 10 in rushing TDs.
The 2010 Saints finished the Season 11-5 and then lost in the Wildcard round to the Seahawks, who had backed their way into the playoffs by winning the NFCW with a 7-9 record in their first year under Pete Carroll. The 2010 Saints had one runner who didn’t catch the ball at all. Chris Ivory was their leader rusher with 137 carries for 716 yards and 5 TDs, but he had he had one catch. The rest of the running backs combined for 212 carries for 762 yards and 4 TDs, while they also caught the ball 103 times for 609 yards (but only one TD). Those four were Pierre Thomas, Julius Jones, Ladell Betts and Reggie Bush. Having a back that was not used in the passing game at all made the Saints offense in 2010 quite predictable when Ivory was in the game.
FWIW the 2010 Saints had two Pro Bowlers on their OL, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Evans was also named first team All-Pro in 2010. The 2010 Saints OL was exactly the same of the 2009 Saints OL. In 2009, they had one starter miss two starts on the OL, but the other four guys started every game. The 2010 OL had all five guys start every regular season game for the them.
To go on a tangent here, the Saints offensive lines under Sean Payton where generally healthy and stayed that way. Between 2006 and 2010 (inclusive) the five OL starters for the Saints missed a total of 13 starts and more than half of those came in 2008.
|Year||Average GS for OL starters||Total GS from 5 OL||Total Possible OL GS||OL Missed Starts|
In general a healthy OL leads to a good offense. The Saints for the first ten years of Sean Payton’s tenure, had a fairly healthy OL, which is something that the Broncos have only dreamt about recently. Ok, back to the Saints run game.
The next season where the Saints run game was feckless was 2013. They didn’t run the ball often and they were terrible at it when they did. The 2013 Saints again finished 11-5 and again lost to the Seahawks (eventual SB champions), but this time in the divisional round when the Seahawks defense held the Saints to 15 points.
The 2013 Saints had a similar running back utilization to the 2010 Saints but with Pierre Thomas now filling the lead back role that Ivory had done in 2010. Thomas had 147 carries for 549 yards and 2 TDs. Drew Brees led the team in rushing TDs with 3. The rest of the RB room (Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, Darren Sproles and Jed Collins) combined for 200 carries, 875 and five TDs while also catching 92 passes for 726 yards and two TDs. The majority of the pass catching came from Darren Sproles who had 71 catches for 602 yards and both of the RB receiving TDs.
The Saint OL that season still had Evans playing at a Pro Bowl level and they also had Ben Grubbs make the Pro Bowl at the other guard position. Current Bronco OLC, Zach Strief, was in his third season as their starting RT. Four of the five OL guys had started together the previous year with the only new starter being Charles Brown at LT.
If you permit me another aside about the Saint OL under Payton, they tended to get career years out of journeyman OL guys. From 2006 to 2021 the Saint OL produced 25 Pro Bowl selections. Unless otherwise noted all PB and AP selections were with the Saints:
- Jahri Evans - 6x PB, 4x AP
- Carl Nicks - 2x PB, 1x AP
- Ben Grubbs - 2x PB (once in BAL)
- Jammal Brown - 2x PB, 1x AP
- Jermon Bushrod - 2x PB
- Jon Stinchcomb - 1x PB
- Jonathan Goodwin - 1x PB
- Larry Warford - 3x PB
- Max Unger - 3x PB (only one with NO), 1x AP (with SEA)
- Ryan Ramczyk - 1x AP
- Terron Armstead - 4x PB (once with MIA)
For comparison, Bronco OL honors list is pretty sad over the same time span:
- Casey Weigman made the PB in 2008
- Ryan Clady made 4x PB and 2x AP
- Zane Beadles made the PB once
- Louis Vazquez made PB and AP once each with the Broncos
Sean Payton did a much better job of building an OL in New Orleans than Mike Shanahan, Josh McDestroyerOfFranchises, John Fox, Gary Kubiak, Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Can’t Hackit did in Denver. Of course, it’s sad to think that the Broncos had seven head coaches during Sean Payton’s tenure as the head coach in New Orleans. Before you say it, yes, Garett Bolles, did make SECOND team AP All-Pro one season. YAY for us! The Broncos haven’t had an offensive line player selected to the Pro Bowl since 2014 (Ryan Clady).
The Saints OL under SP was great at producing Pro Bowl and 1st team AP selections. The Bronco OL during this time span was not very good at this (Weigman, Clady, Beadles and Vazquez). NO OL had as many first tm All-Pro selections as the Broncos had Pro Bowl selections. pic.twitter.com/xUhG6sYJJL— Joe Mahoney (@ndjomo76) May 16, 2023
The table above shows how big of a difference there are between the Saints OL and the Broncos OL 2006-2021.
In 2019 the Saints finished 20th in rushing TDs. Unlike the previous two “poor” rushing seasons, this season they had two running backs who equally shared the majority of the carries: Alvin Kamara and former Bronco, Latavius Murray. Kamara has 171 carries for 797 yards and five TDs while Murray had 146 carries for 637 yards and five TDs. The only players with more than 20 carries were QBs - former Bronco, Teddy Bridgewater, and Taysom Hill (who really was a TE/RB and not a QB). Similar to 2013, both primary RBs were used heavily in the passing game with Kamara catching 81 passes for 533 yards and one TD and Murray catching 34 balls for 235 yards and one TD. Taysom Hill caught six TD passes that season, but only rushed for one.
Let’s talk now about the Saints red zone offense under Sean Payton. A big reason why they were generally near the top in rushing TDs despite being near the bottom in total carries is that Saints were very good at running the ball in the red zone. From 2006 to 2021 the Saints ran 1484 passing plays and 1249 running plays in the red zone. So 45.7% of their red zone plays were runs. The table below shows how that compares to the rest of the league. Note that “plays” also includes FG attempts.
|Rank||Tm||G||Plays||ToGo||Yds||1st%||TO%||TD||FG||1stD||Int||Fmb||Sk||Pass||Rush||FG||RZ run %|
So the Saints were 23rd in red zone run rate, but they were really effective when they did run the ball in the red zone. As you can see in the table below, only the Titans were more effective at scoring TDs on runs in the RZ during this timeframe.
The key takeaway is that while Sean Payton doesn’t call an inordinate amount of runs in the red zone, he is very good at choosing the right rushing play in the red zone.
If we look at red zone runs on third or fourth down, only the Titans, Colts and Texans were better at converting (1D or TD) on third or fourth down by the run in the red zone. The Saints had the sixth most total games in which they chose to run the ball at least once on 3rd or 4th down in the red zone with 132, but the third most total runs with 213.
This, of course, raises the question of why not throw on crucial downs in the red zone when you have a future Hall of Fame QB? But the answer to that lies in the question. With a QB like that, the defense can’t just key on the run without getting burned. This makes RZ runs that much more effective. So let’s shift this discussion to trends in the Saint running game in terms of directionality. Football Outsiders has this data.
Like most teams, the running plays he calls are focused on the G-C-G, or the middle of the OL. This peaked in 2012, when 61% of all Saints’ runs were middle runs. See the table below
|Season||Left End Rate||Left End Rate||Middle Guard Rate||Right Tackle Rate||Right End Rate|
While 61% might seem like a have value, the Broncos have had four recent seasons with values higher than that
- 2011 - 67%
- 2014 - 63%
- 2017 - 63%
- 2018 - 64%
The key difference between the Broncos and the Saints is that the Saints have been good at interior runs while the Broncos generally have not been. Note that this is league rank in average YPC on middle runs.
|Season||Saints Middle Run Rank||Bronco Middle Run Rank|
During SP’s tenure in NO, there were only four seasons where the Broncos were better than the Saints in terms of average yards gained on interior runs (2006. 2008, 2012 and 2021). The biggest contrast came in 2020 when New Orleans had the best interior run game in the league and the Broncos had the worst. You should also note that in 10 of 16 seasons the Saints were in the top 5 in average gain on interior runs, and this is where I will point out that having two great offensive guards like Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans makes it much easier to gain yards on interior runs. Even with a “weak” center like Brian De La Puente, the Saints were still able to run the ball effectively on center runs.
Looking at the Saints starting OL in 2011, it’s easy to see the connection. Both of their guards were names first team All Pro in 2011 and they led the league in yards on middle runs. During SP’s time there, the Saints had four seasons where they averaged more than five yards on middle runs.
- 2007 - 5.06
- 2011 - 5.24
- 2018 - 5.01
- 2019 - 5.25
So while the Saints didn’t run the ball up the middle that often, they tended to be devastatingly effective when they did. This brings us back to the 2023 Bronco OL which I wrote about earlier this week. The history of the Saints shows us that two elite guards, which the Broncos may have in 2023 in Quinn Meinerz and Ben Powers, can elevate the play of the center between them.
Does this mean that whoever starts at center will immediately be better in 2023 than the center play that the Broncos have had recently? Maybe. It remains to be seen how much of the Bronco IOL suckitude was on Dalton Risner on how much was on Lloyd Cushenberry. It could be that both equally sucked, or it could be that one dragged the other down.
The evidence pointing toward Risner as the weak link is two-fold. The Broncos have not invested much in the center spot (late 7th round pick and a vet min FA) and Risner is still an unsigned free agent so no NLF team is keen on adding him to their OL at this moment.
The evidence pointing toward Cushenberry being the weak link was mainly presented in my article on Monday (see this link above) so I won’t rehash it here.
Based on the results from SP’s tenure in NO, his running game is predicated on being able to effectively run on the middle. While he has a history of getting above average or good play from other JAG centers (Goodwin and De La Puente), I would not be surprised if LC3 is not the starting center should his level of play resemble his first three seasons in the NFL. Of course the flipside to this, is whether or not the Broncos have runners in 2023 who are effective on interior runs.
Javonte Williams and Samaje Perrine are RB 1A and 1B at this point. Pookie has averaged 3.46 YPC on middle runs so far in his career - 112 carries for 387 yards and 3 TDs. Perrine has averaged 3.50 UPC on middle runs in his career - 216 carries for 777 and 4 TDs. Neither runner has been all that effective at gaining yards on middle runs, but what about gaining first downs? Perrine has converted on 40 of his 216 (18.5%) interior runs while Pookie has converted on 26 of 112 (23.2%). So neither runner has been all that great at converting on middle runs either.
If we shift the focus to middle runs on 3rd or 4th down, we find it’s a little different story with Pookie converting on 8 of 11 (with 1 TD and 1 lost fumble) but Perrine only converting on 5 of 19. That’s a big difference, so let’s hope Pookie is fully ready to play and that Perrine’s last of success in those situations had more to do with poor blocking than his ability as an interior runner.