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Watching The Tape

Sean Payton's true secret: The Bountygate comeback run promises an even more innovative offense

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Sean Payton Saints Texans wide
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton spent plenty of time tinkering with his playbook during his NFL Bountygate suspension. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Drew Brees Saints Texans crowd
The Houston Texans had Drew Brees on the run early, but once the Saints offense settled into a groove it was a different story. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Mark Ingram Texans Saints
Sean Payton is using backs like Mark Ingram more in the Saints' quietly revamped passing game. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Drew Brees Saints Texans
Drew Brees is at his best when Sean Payton is calling the plays. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Sean Payton Saints Texans
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton always wants to look at the tape first. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Sean Payton Saints Texans wide
Drew Brees Saints Texans crowd
Mark Ingram Texans Saints
Drew Brees Saints Texans
Sean Payton Saints Texans

The more repeatedly New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton deflected questions seeking his analysis of the Saints’ 31-23 preseason victory over  the Houston Texans by expressing his need to “see the tape,” the easier it became to accept that the story of his return to the sideline should be tabled in deference to Payton talking football.

And, in truth, Payton probably prefers it that way. His obsession with minutiae is what elevated him to the elite class of NFL coaches, what set the foundation for his leading the Saints to victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

It’s fanciful to wax poetic about Payton reclaiming his role as the heartbeat of the organization following his one-year banishment resulting from the Bountygate scandal. But allowing Payton to focus solely on discussing the game itself, or at least his plans to review on film the Saints' third win in as many preseason games, just feels right.

 The portrait of New Orleans' dazzling offense appears complete with Payton commanding the strokes on the canvas. 

“I want to see the video, and it’s a lot easier for me to go through the game (during film study),” Payton said. “I thought we made some plays against man-to-man coverage.

"That’s a good defense we played, a good team we played, and we were able to come up with some big plays.”

While the Saints were historically bad defensively with Payton exiled, their national identity is derived from their offensive exploits. The dynamic between Payton, universally lauded as a schematic and play-calling mastermind, and quarterback Drew Brees is primarily responsible for observers viewing the Saints through this limited prism.

Thus, despite the multiple steps the organization took to mask the stench left by last season’s defensive debacle, the Saints’ performance on offense remains a focal point. When Brees departs after attempting a mere six passes despite the third preseason game typically serving as the dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener, that decision is noteworthy. When tailback Pierre Thomas lines up in the slot and subsequently scores on a 51-yard catch-and-run, people take notice.

Payton previously acknowledged rewriting the playbook during his time away from the team. When new wrinkles are revealed, eyebrows arch.

Darren Sproles, utility back deluxe, typically terrorizes linebackers from the slot. Thomas and tailback Mark Ingram getting reps doing the same at Reliant Stadium Sunday offers a peek into what Payton plans to do to keep his offense humming.

“We’ve always had stuff installed and it’s always been a part of our offense,” Ingram said. “It’s just switching up the personnel and letting different guys run those plays. I think that’s the difference.

“You just have to be able to show that you’re capable of running it in practice, and you have to have the coaches have confidence in you that you can go out there and execute when they call those plays so it’s not just one person. It can be multiple people lining up in different places running different things.

"It does nothing but help our offense and expand our offense and make it more difficult for defenses to scheme us and stop us.”

The Difference Maker

At first blush, the Saints suffered only a modest decline offensively last season when someone other than Payton called the plays. En route to claiming their third NFC South title and matching the franchise record of 13 victories in 2011, the Saints ranked either first or second in the NFL in Offensive SRS (10.6), points (547), total offense (7,474 yards), passing offense (5,347 yards) and scoring percentage (51.4 percent).

Excluding scoring percentage, in which New Orleans went from first to 10th in the league, the Saints ranked no worse than third in those aforementioned categories last season. Of course, they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

 Payton acknowledged rewriting the playbook during his time away. When new wrinkles are revealed, eyebrows arch. 

New Orleans' steep drop in rushing offense (from sixth in 2011 to 25th last season) likely played a vital role in the decline in scoring percentage, with the Saints slipping from first overall with Payton at the controls to 37.4 percent in 2012.

Committed to striking a superior balance offensively, Payton is seeking a greater emphasis on the running game. The Saints produced a 33-21 pass-run split against the Texans and rushed for only 78 yards, but Ingram and Thomas combined to average 5.4 yards on eight carries. Thomas’ touchdown catch sparked the offense; Ingram added a pair of receptions for 28 yards. The versatility Ingram described was evident.

“We just need to make plays in every phase of this offense: run game, passing game, picking up pass (protection),” Ingram said. “We just need to be effective and efficient in every way possible.”

That same standard applies to a receiving corps that will rely in some measure on youngsters Nick Toon and Kenny Stills, the latter of whom snagged a 14-yard, second quarter touchdown that put the Saints ahead to stay. Brees remains incomparable — he has a 128.4 passer rating this preseason — therefore the Saints remain formidable, but Payton at the helm makes everything click.

The portrait of New Orleans' dazzling offense appears complete with Payton commanding the strokes on the canvas.

With Payton back, that reality is undeniable. When the Saints got rolling in the second quarter and scored on five of six possessions, they looked as unstoppable as ever.

“I felt like we got off to somewhat of a slow start,” Brees said, “but once we found our rhythm, that second and third quarter, I felt like we were moving the ball very effectively and playing with a lot of confidence.” 

A review of the film will only confirm as much.  

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