The Key to the New Orleans Saints Offense: Third Down

As any long-time New Orleans Saints fans can recall, it wasn’t always this way. The Who Dat Nation didn’t always have a high-powered offense to enamor. In fact, Saints teams were primarily known more for their defensive units than its offense. Under the leadership of head coach Sean Payton, a combination of talent and scheme has lifted the Saints offense to uncharted territory among NFL league leaders perennially. And the key to that success lies in their third down mastery.

The Key to the New Orleans Saints Offense: Third Down

In the new book, The Complete Third Down Manual – The 2016 New Orleans Saints, authors Richard Kusisto and Robert J. Peters dive deep into why the Saints were so successful on third downs in 2016, a year in which they ranked number one in the NFL in offense (the Saints have ranked no worse than fourth in any of the past six seasons, including three first-place finishes). The research and findings are impressive.

Takeaways From the 2016 Saints Third Down Results

So, after analyzing every third down play that the Saints executed in 2016, what are some of the takeaways? Kusisto shared, “Defenses that played more aggressively on third downs (with man coverage and pressure packages) were more effective in slowing down the Saints. The Broncos and Giants specifically were able to do this. Strong secondaries give defensive coordinators the confidence to play man coverage and get after the quarterback. Play calling and game planning become a huge factor on third downs. Teams will often take chances on early downs, but become more aware of their game plans on third down. IF you have a strong game plan, you will tend to pick up more first downs.”

Why the New Orleans Saints Were So Effective on Third Down in 2016

If the blue print of aggressive play calling is more effective against the New Orleans Saints, surely, in a “copycat” league, every other team could adopt this philosophy. So why were the Saints the highest ranked offense on third down in 2016? Kusisto had plenty to offer on the subject.

* Sean Payton does a nice job creating open receivers with creative concepts.

* The Saints called a variation of the old “H Post” concept. Payton uses a few twists on the classic concept that fueled the St Louis Rams’ success in the early 2000’s. The Saints used this concept with a 83% efficiency throughout the season.

* In short yardage situations, Payton showed creativity with play action concepts that would give the quarterback three easy options, with one always open if a single defender bit on the play fake.

* Payton uses small adjustments to the Saints’ basic concepts. Cooks’ touchdown vs the Cardinals is a perfect example. The Saints call a drive concept out of the bunch formation. They called versions of this concept on 19 of their third downs throughout the season, but this version had an adjustment built in that took advantage of the specific coverage the Cardinals played. Unique plays like this are the result of a strong game plan.

* On third and shorts (1-2 yards), the Saints used the interior of their line to pick up these first downs. The Saints called “A” gap dive plays on 21 of their third downs, with a success rate of 67%. Payton would mix in unique toss plays, and a few creative play action concepts to keep the defense from loading the interior of the box.

The 2017 New Orleans Saints Offense

With all the changes to the Saints offense during the 2017 off-season, it seems almost certain that philosophy may also change, at least to a certain degree. The addition of Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara and Ted Ginn, as well as the loss of Brandin Cooks, all slightly change the way Sean Payton will attack opposing defenses. “Changes in personnel: I don’t foresee any major changes,” Kusisto stated. “The plays the Saints called gave the quarterback a sound progression, and didn’t force him to throw to a certain receiver. The only exception were three to four double moves that Cooks ran. Peterson might increase the run percentage on third and shorts (1-2 yards), depending on his health.”

It’ll be interesting to see the 2017 season play out. As long as New Orleans has Drew Brees behind center and an offensive line that can keep his jersey clean, the Saints will flirt with that top position in the league for team offense. The three-headed monster in the backfield in combination with a receiving corps anchored by an elite talent like Michael Thomas will allow Sean Payton to be as creative as ever with his play calling, especially on third down.

For your copy of the book, head over to and search “The Complete Third Down Manual”, or use this link.

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