Every team in the NFL does some things better than others. Some teams are particularly good at one thing, maybe even the best in the league. Think the New England Patriots and their play-action seam pass to the tight end. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers with the counter run. Or the Carolina Panthers' goal-line QB keeper.
None of these signature strengths are a secret. Opponents prepare for them in the film room and on the practice field, and yet these teams continue to succeed with the same concepts. That is, of course, often due to the presence of some especially skilled players, like Rob Gronkowski in New England, Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh and Cam Newton in Carolina. Still, these well-known plays generally require precise execution by many of the 11 players on the field. And when they work, they are often a thing of beauty, at least to football fans.
Each game week during Tampa Bay's 2018 regular season, we are going to look at a "Signature Play" that the Buccaneers upcoming opponent utilizes often and particularly well. With the help of images of a sample play at various points during its execution, we're going to try to understand why this play commonly works so well. This week, the opponent is the New Orleans Saints, who saw their already potent offense transform in 2017 after the arrival of one extremely talented skill-position play.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS' SIGNATURE PLAY: THE SCREEN PASS TO RB ALVIN KAMARA
In 2017, the New Orleans Saints' offense ranked 30th in the NFL in average yards at the point of the catch and second in the NFL in average yards after the catch. What does that tell us? That the Saints threw a lot of short passes that turned into big gains. That's the very definition of a successful screen pass.
The results are also clear in the stat lines for the team's elite duo of running backs. Both veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara cleared 1,500 yards from scrimmage and a dozen touchdowns. Kamara ranked third in the NFL among running backs in targets (100) and receptions (81) in his debut campaign, and yet there were still enough opportunities for Ingram to tie for 10th in the former category and tie for eighth in the latter.
Of course, screen passes to running backs can come in a lot of varieties, and the Saints did all of them well. They were so confident in their ability to get Kamara and Ingram into space, and in what those two could do once they got there, that they used the screen even in critical situations. For instance:
This is Saints' Week 13 game at home against the Panthers, a contest that pitted two 8-3 teams fighting for first place in the NFC South. The home team used three touchdowns from the Ingram-Kamara duo to build a 31-21 lead, which they took into the fourth quarter. With three minutes left, the game was likely going to end in the Saints' favor, but they didn't want to give the ball back to Newton and the Panthers with a chance for a comeback.
On third-and-10 from the midfield stripe, the Saints went to their signature play and their electric rookie. Alvin Kamara lined up wide to the right and Drew Brees threw him a quick pass that turned into a 22-yard gain. Game over.
Above you see the Saints in formation right before the snap. Note that the Panthers responded to Kamara being split wide by moving their Hall of Fame-caliber middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly out there as well in coverage. Just the basic lineup of the play has caused Carolina to remove their top playmaker from the middle of the field, where he makes so many plays.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas is in the slot and lined up right on the line. Three other potential targets are lined up on the left, with tight end Josh Hill split a few yards out from the left tackle and wide receivers Ted Ginn and Willie Snead flanking him. This is the very common "11" personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) but lined up in a five-wide, empty-backfield formation. Kamara's versatility makes that possible.
At the snap, Brees quickly looks right and tosses it to Kamara on the line. Meanwhile, Thomas has darted out of his spot in the slot and blocked Kuechly out of the play. Most of the Saints' offensive line has also taken off in that direction after chipping their respective pass-rushing opponents. Since Brees is going to get rid of the ball fast, there is no need to sustain pass protection for very long.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele, in particular, has tried to fool his opponent out of being involved in the play. At the snap, Osemele turns his body to the right in order to let nose tackle Star Lotulelei get by him on the inside, which is intended to make Lotulelei believe the play is going to the left. And, in fact, if Brees had not liked what he had seen to the right, Hill has curled into the flat on the top of the screen, with Ginn and Snead blocking cornerbacks and the safety 18 yards away.
Brees didn't need that option because the play unfolded as planned. Lotulelei actually reacted well to the fake and hustled back into the play from behind. At this point, right guard Larry Warford has located his target, cornerback James Bradberry, who had been lined up across from Thomas. Warford's job isn't to pancake Bradberry into the turf, something that is difficult for a big linemen to accomplish against a more agile player in open space. Warford simply needs to impeded Bradberry's progress, make him take a less direct route to the ballcarrier, which buys Kamara time and more open space. Center Max Unger initially takes a path in the direction of Kuechly and Bradberry, the two biggest dangers to the play working, but seeing that his teammates have taken care of those two Panthers, he veers upfield to try to block safety Kurt Coleman. Again, this is a difficult assignment in open space for a lineman, and in fact he ends up on the ground.
Given the way that Thomas and the Saints' linemen have tried to block the play, this screen may well have been designed to open up a seam for Kamara to head straight up the numbers. However, Kamara's instincts immediately take him in another direction and he veers behind his wall of mobile blockers and moves diagonally towards the middle of the field. This essentially shoots him through a tunnel of hustling defensive linemen trying to get back into the play from behind and members of the Carolina back seven who have fought through or around blocks.
Kamara makes this work with his speed and quickness. Even if the play didn't go in the exact direction as planned, it did succeed in its underlying principle: Get the ball into the hands of the team's best playmaker in the open field and let his talents take over. As Kamara emerges from that tunnel of Panthers he has some more help in the person of Ginn blocking slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on that side of the field. Kamara has used his excellent vision, his agility and his burst to dart through the first wave of defense and now he can turn on the jets.
None of the Panthers' defenders have given up on the play, but at this point it looks as if it is possible that Kamara will take this one all the way to the end zone. Kuechly got caught up in traffic and is still far away from Kamara and the pursuing linemen are unlikely to catch up, so it's possible that Kamara will just need to split safety Mike Adams (#29) and cornerback Darryl Worley. Hill is also in position to possibly block Adams out of the play. Linebacker Thomas Davis (#58), on the other hand, was able to reverse direction very quickly after Kamara dashed past him and could still have an impact on how the play finishes.
The play does not end up in a touchdown, which may have been the result of a blocking decision made by Snead at the top of the screen. Snead had been engaged with Worley, but at this point he seems to believe he can help best by peeling off and blocking Adams. As it turned out, both Hill and Snead got to Adams about the same time, so that proved to be double-kill, while Worley was left unblocked.
Kamara's path takes him right to Worley, who goes low as Kamara tried to hurdle him and continue going. It almost works, but Worley gets enough contact on Kamara to flip him forward and Davis arrives just as Kamara is landing to finish off the job.
Kamara's cross-field dash takes the ball down to the Carolina 28 and proves to be the last full-speed play of the game. The two-minute warning arrives before the next snap, and three kneel-downs by Brees finishes off the rest of the clock. Kamara would finish with 156 yards from scrimmage and two rushing touchdowns, helping Brees pull off a typically-efficient 25-of-34 passing day for 269 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Brees has actually averaged more than 300 passing yards per game during his 12 glorious seasons in New Orleans, but with Kamara and Ingram in the backfield last year, he didn't always have to move the ball through the air. And even when he technically did add to his passing stats on this particular Sunday, the actual yards were more the product of excellent design and execution, and the wondrous talents of Alvin Kamara.