It’s been a tumultuous off-season for the New Orleans Saints to say the least. A bounty scandal rocked the franchise leading to multiple suspensions – most notably middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – and costly fines. However, in the midst of all the negativity, there was one significant positive: hiring former St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo as the new defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo is a very aggressive defensive mastermind whose defensive concepts, such as “sugaring” the interior gaps, can be traced back to his mentor, the late Jim Johnson.
Under the guidance of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last season, the Saints defense had many issues including lack of discipline and blown coverages. Perhaps the defensive problems can be traced back to the bounties, regardless, the defense will likely be more disciplined and just as aggressive under Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo does not hesitate to send pressure packages, which are often successful. The reason for this success is because of his great understanding of the opponent’s blocking schemes. Spagnuolo understands that if he moves one chess piece, the offense will react. If he moves multiple ones, there will more reaction, which means a likelier chance of it breaking down.
An example of one of Spanguolo’s pressure packages is the Fire Zone blitz, which is a common 5 man blitz with 6 defenders dropping in what is often 3 underneath and 3 deep or 4 underneath and 2 deep coverage, that came against division rival San Francisco 49ers last season.
Before the snap, defensive back Darian Stewart and linebacker James Laurinaitis were aligned in a two-point stance in the A (area between center and left guard) and B (area between right guard and tackle) gaps showing pressure. These two alignments are crucial in this pressure package because it tightens the interior pass protection of the offensive line due to them having to account for the two potential blitzing defenders.
Another key aspect of this defensive front was the alignment of the defensive linemen. The two ends were aligned in loose 5 techniques while the defensive tackle (left) aligned in a shaded 4 technique, which puts the 49ers left tackle in conflict. His assignments come in question now because although he’s taught to block inside-out, the defensive end would have a clean path to the quarterback for a sack if left unblocked.
Furthermore, the Rams nose tackle is in a 1 technique across the center and is threatening the near gap while a defensive back that’s to the right edge of the image is another blitzing defender that is unaccounted for at the moment.
At the snap of the ball, the 49ers 6-man protection is in for a surprise, particularly on the left side of the line. The defensive end (left) drops into coverage while the defensive tackle (shaded 4 technique) and nose tackle (1 technique) “long-sticking” to the left of the image, leaving left guard Mike Iupati with no one to block, and defensive back Brian Stewart, who was in the A gap, aggressively pursues after 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
Because of the confusion created on the left side of the offensive line, the Rams are able to get matchup advantages with two defensive linemen long-sticking and a defensive back blitzing downhill. Because Iupati is confused by his assignment, he doesn’t block anyone, thus creating essentially a 3-on-2 matchup for the Rams that leads to a sack of Smith.
Another sack that worked out just the way Spagnuolo drew it up came against Drew Brees and the Saints. The focus is once again on the left side of the opponent’s offensive line, which is outnumbered by the defenders of the creative blitz scheme after the snap despite it looking like the contrary prior to the snap.
The left of the Saints pass protection appears to have a numbers advantage with 3 blockers (left tackle, left guard and tailback; the tight end motions out) against 2 Rams defenders, a 5 technique defensive end and a 2-gap linebacker. However, the defensive back at the top of the image is unaccounted for and creates a free path for the middle linebacker (bold yellow line) to get the sack on Brees.
At the snap, the defensive end to the left of the offensive tackle drives upfield as a C-gap speed rusher to widen out the blocker and create a gap between the tackle and guard. When this gap is created, the defensive back that was at the top of the image comes into the gap and occupies the running back, who is assigned pass protection duties.
Moreover, the nose tackle (1 technique) once again long-sticks to the opposite gap like he did in the blitz against the 49ers and in the process, occupies the left guard. When this is done, it creates a massive gap between the tackle and guard that is filled quickly by the blitzing linebacker, who picks up the sack.
The pressure package is a brilliantly designed one by Spagnuolo, who took advantage of the man blocking scheme of the Saints protection and turned it against them. He widened the blockers to create a free path for the last blitzing defender, the middle linebacker. This is one of multiple pressure packages that Spagnuolo has, many of which include defensive backs coming downhill in nickel and dime packages as witnessed in these two examples.
One thing’s for sure, the Saints will be getting after quarterbacks this season and it will be for the right reasons.