The offense has been tricking us for years. Now it's our turn. It's the evolution of the game, how the defense is disguising everything. It's like the defense has gone on offense.
—DEMARCUS WARE, COWBOYS LINEBACKER
Football today's about one word," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "Let's see if you can guess it."
Payton, in his office at training camp this summer, got up from his chair to walk off some energy. "Here's what happens in the game today," he said, ticking off the play clock. "Quarterback breaks the huddle at 17. He goes to the line. Sixteen, 15, 14, 13. He's probing the defense. 'Purple 57! Purple 57! SetHUT!!' That's not a snap count. It's information gathering. [The offense] knows he's not snapping on a dark color. For some teams it's a color, for others it might be ice cream flavors—just as long as the offense knows and the defense doesn't. On defense they're thinking, 'Hold it, hold it, hold it. Don't show the quarterback anything.' The offense is saying, 'Who's who? Who are we blocking? How do we attack it?'
"Twelve, 11, 10, 9. Quarterback sees some movement on the defense; he knows it might be phony. Eight, 7, 6. 'CHECKCHECK! Yellow 36! Yellow 36!' Now it's the real thing, an audible. Quarterback's guessing what he sees. For the defense it's still 'Hold it, hold it, hold it.' Five, 4, 3. 'SetHUTHUT!!' Now he takes the snap—and he has to read the defense while he's figuring where to go with the ball against guys trying to make sure he has no idea what they're playing."
On the video screen, Payton cued up a play from the Saints' 2009 game with the Jets. New York had a left defensive end over New Orleans's right tackle, no one over the right guard, center or left guard, a defensive end over the left tackle and a standup linebacker on the end's right shoulder. Quarterback Drew Brees stood at the line figuring what to do. Linebackers and defensive backs moved around, showing nothing. "And here they come," said Payton. "They knock at the front door with one guy, then shove 10 through the back."
At the snap the Jets flooded the left side with four rushers. Traffic on the line stopped two of them. The others, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, steamed around left end. For the Saints, left tackle Zach Strief had to pick up one, and tight end Jeremy Shockey, behind Strief, should have gotten the other. At the moment of truth Leonhard ducked low, taking a wide rush outside, and Strief and Shockey both blocked him. Scott, left free, smashed into Brees, forcing an incompletion. "Win for the defense," Payton said.
The strange 2-3-6 alignment, with no defenders over the three interior linemen, caused the Saints to change their blocking scheme after this game from man to zone on blitzes around the corners. Their name for the new scheme: Jet Stream. Just one more move to try to keep ever-morphing defensive fronts—aren't the Jets supposed to play a straight 3--4?—from wrecking the offense's plans.
"That's a pretty big clue about the word," Payton said with a smile. "Got it yet?"
Not yet. Mayhem, maybe. Last year 12 teams in the NFL played primarily a 3--4 defense and 18 played a 4--3. Two, Buffalo and Denver, played some of both. But in reality they all played a lot of everything.