Jets, Saints have similar strategy
Both defenses will concoct different blitzes to confuse the quarterbacks
Prior to season, Saints coach Sean Payton predicted Jets would make playoffs
Jason Campbell under pressure, 2004 draft battle and more Week 4 storylines
With apologies to The Favre Bowl and Ravens-Patriots (I'm guessing they'll get over it), my favorite game this weekend is Jets-Saints in New Orleans. Two 3-0 teams. Drew Brees against Rex Ryan. And Broadway Sanchez with another chance to add to a growing legend.
All along, I've been thinking this was all about whether Brees, the hottest quarterback in the game, could figure out what defensive weirdness Ryan was throwing at him. And there's something to that, to be sure. The last time Brees faced a Ryan-led defense, in 2006, the Ravens bushwhacked New Orleans 35-22, and he threw two pick-sixes. But studying this game this week, I've come to the conclusion it's as much about what strange brews Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will concoct for the Jets and young Mark Sanchez.
Gregg Williams and Rex Ryan. Strange bedfellows. Williams was on Buddy Ryan's defensive staff with the Houston Oilers in 1993, and when Buddy Ryan got the Cardinals coaching job in 1994, he wanted Williams as his defensive coordinator. "Buddy was going to have his sons [Rex and Rob] on the coaching staff with the Cardinals, and he wanted me to come to sort of mentor them,'' Williams said Thursday from New Orleans. "But I had two years left on my contract in Houston, and they wouldn't let me out. It would have been a lot of fun, but my wife had a good job in Houston, and I think it probably worked out for the best.''
Williams and Rex Ryan, then, have lots in common, and it will be on display in the Superdome Sunday.
"This is the kind of game where doing a lot of studying can actually hurt you,'' Jets linebacker Bart Scott told me. "What you do one week is not what you do the next week. Everybody says about us, 'Study the Ravens,' because that's where Rex was. But even if you study the Ravens' tape, you won't know who matches up with who in our defense now. We don't let you learn that. I could be one thing one snap, then [linebacker] David Harris could be that guy the next snap.''
Same thing with Williams' defense. The Saints are a base 4-3 defense, but in 61 defensive snaps against Buffalo last week, they ran zero 4-3 plays. Williams used three defensive lineman, sometimes in a base 3-4, and sometimes not, for three reasons: to cause confusion for a Buffalo line playing three first-year starters, to be more multiple against the Bills' no-huddle offense, and to be prepared to max-cover the Bills' downfield passing game. On 25 snaps, he used three down linemen with only two linebackers and six defensive backs. "I think we could have played eight quarters and Buffalo wouldn't have scored [an offensive touchdown],'' Sean Payton said this morning. New Orleans won 27-7, the only Bills' points coming on a touchdown pass on a fake punt.
"Now don't go making Williams a rock star,'' Payton said, chuckling over the cell phone. "But he's been such a great addition. There're two things he's done a great job at. We've got [an NFL-best] nine takeaways. And we're top five in the league in fewest big plays allowed. Those two things have been our Achilles' heel on defense around here, and Gregg's come in and put a priority on them.''
The Saints have been terrific against two shaky offenses, Buffalo and Detroit, holding them to 243 and 231 yards, respectively. But the Eagles showed some chinks in the Saints defense, with four drives of at least 65 yards, mixing some big plays with eight security-blanket throws to Brent Celek. The Jets could do the same. Jerricho Cotchery is the deep threat Sanchez has found most often, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer designs a heavy presence of second-year tight end Dustin Keller in every gameplan.
"We've been able to do well,'' Jonathan Vilma said, "because we've all bought into the system Gregg's brought. The perfect example is third-and-long. Last year we sat back in quarters coverage [four defensive backs spread evenly across the back end, maybe 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage]. But this year, we're getting after it. If we blitzed the last play, we're not just going to sit back because the book says to just get off the field. We might blitz again.''
I asked Vilma who was coming the most. "It's everyone,'' he said. "Just watch our tape. He's blitzing everyone. We might call the same guy blitzing four plays in a row.''
I mentioned to Williams that he's calling defense the way Bill Belichick gameplans. No two games are ever the same, and no two gameplans are either. "Exactly,'' Williams said. "That's why I admire Bill so much. The one thing I don't think you can do as a coach is tailor what your players do to what you want to do. You have to look at your players, see what they do best, and go from there.''
In New Orleans, the Saints don't have a DeMarcus Ware -- a top rush end or outside linebacker. So Williams, like Ryan in New York, pressures from different places on the line. That kind of pressure, from both teams, is why this game is going to be such an interesting chess match. I like Brees to figure out the Jet fronts a little bit better than Sanchez figuring out what Williams is throwing at him. But I have a feeling Leon Washington and Reggie Bush, quick backs playing on the rug, could be bigger factors in this game than the quarterbacks. Whatever happens, this is the game of the week.
I can't leave this game without flashing back to July. Payton was one of the Monday Morning Quarterback subs in the four weeks I took off this summer, and I told him the same thing I told the others: Say something. Or don't be afraid to say something, at least. And the following is what he wrote in that column:
"History has told us there will be four to six new playoff teams this season. If I had to choose one non-playoff team from last season that has a chance to make it into the 2009 postseason it would be the New York Jets. Rex Ryan will do a great job of creating a culture that lends itself to winning. I also love Mark Sanchez as a young quarterback prospect.''
Coach, you've got a future in this business.
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