15 May 2013

Urgency and Mark Ingram --or-- Mending an Obstruction

Since Beelzebub Roger Goodell reinstated Sean Payton in January, Payton has repeatedly stated his intent to improve the Saints' running game in 2013.

In a Monday afternoon interview on 870 AM with Bobby and Deke, Payton used the word "balance" four or five times and said this specifically:
We have looked closely at what’s been our formula. Each year is a little bit different, but certainly we had balance and our most success when we have had a good run-pass ratio. When it gets tilted heavy to one end, it’s hurting more than just your offensive production; it begins to weigh on the defense and other elements of your team ... 
I know all the other elements of the game that that can help. It helps the quarterback’s production by helping him become more efficient and you become a better defense. It also helps you control games when you want to. There are times in games when you want to have control, and when you are able to rush the football you have a little bit better sense of that than if you are not able to. That is certainly one area that we have to be better at.
We've had the "balance" discussion innumerable times, and I'm not going to rehash it here. Suffice it say, if Payton feels that committing to the running game is important, even in the face of the primacy of his passing attack, then we should trust him. Surely, it's derived from the Payton-era correlation of championship-caliber teams and efficient rushing attacks.

Here's the breakdown of the run/pass ratio during Payton's tenure:

Because last year represented the widest disparity in run/pass attempts since Payton arrived in New Orleans, it makes sense that optimizing the running game is one of the first tweaks Payton will make. 

Last week, Pierre Thomas reiterated this in an interview with Larry Holder:
Sean talked about that when he came back. When we had our first team meeting, he talked about that. He said we definitely need to get back to that ground game. There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year.
One of the more interesting, and encouraging, interpretations of Payton's renewed commitment comes from the Who Dat Social Club blog, who opined that Payton is taking the long view with the running game. More specifically, WDSC reasoned that, in order for the Saints to win the Super Bowl in the likely inclement conditions in New Jersey in early February, it's essential they possess a functional running game.  

Here's the money quote
Payton is perfectly aware of the location of the next Super Bowl: in northern New Jersey. In February. To get to the Super Bowl, you can capture a conference championship in the comfort of your own Dome. To win the Super Bowl, you’re going to have to play hard-nosed smash-mouth grind-it-out throwback football under appalling conditions. Probably ...
[Y]ou don’t remake yourself into a running team in two weeks. You need an entire season’s worth of practice and momentum to make that work. Payton’s not a fool ... 
[T]he real reason the Saints are going to concentrate on rushing this season is that Payton is concentrating on February. It’s not because he has no faith in his personnel; it’s because he understands the entire point of this exercise.
Sounds great to me. 

... And this brings us to Mark Ingram. 

I can't think of a player on the Saints' offense facing a more critical year than Ingram, and with the departure of Chris Ivory, it's exponentially more important that Ingram finally integrate himself into the Saints' offense. 

With his third pro season upcoming, Ingram has generated a few notable parallels to Reggie Bush during Bush's tenure with the Saints. 

For a stretch of Bush's career in New Orleans, most notably in the largely post-Deuce seasons of 2007 and 2008, Bush's presence on the field seemed to often obstruct the Saints' offense more than it facilitated it. This was anecdotally evidenced in the fact that the Saints, when Bush didn't play due to injury, had a higher winning percentage (65% vs. 61%) and scored more points per game (29.8 vs. 26.3). 

In much the same way, especially during 2012, it appeared that when Ingram was on the field, his presence detracted from the offense's effectiveness. Maybe this is just a result of my misinterpretation, or maybe it's because Ingram was miscast in 2012 solely as a power back, or more likely it was because of Sean Payton's absence. 

Any way you interpret it, though, Ingram hasn't effectively facilitated the Saints' offense in the manner Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and a few others have over the years. Mostly, it feels like Ingram has been forced into the offense unnaturally. This was maybe less so the case in 2011, as Ingram seemed to be acclimating himself before injury derailed him for the season after ten games. Last year provided regression, or at least stagnation, and now the questions surrounding Ingram linger.   

It's difficult to judge any Saints' player by the clusterfuckish, sans-Payton standards of 2012, and with Ingram, that comprises 16 of his 26 professional games. This season, then, is of paramount importance. 

From my perspective, Ingram is equipped to handle a role similar to that of Pierre Thomas, and less like that of Chris Ivory or Mike Bell. Thomas, the quintessential runningback in the Payton offense, can do a little bit of everything, and can do it all in an above-average capacity. For the most part, Pierre Thomas is Sean Payton's answer to Bill Belichick's Kevin Faulk: versatile, reliable, capable, and tough. 

As Thomas collects wear on the tread, it's important for Ingram to capably mirror Thomas' role. Can he do it? Ingram has shown a nose for the endzone (10 touchdowns in 278 rushing attempts), and though he hasn't been involved in the passing game (17 receptions in 26 games), when given the rare opportunity, he appears perfectly capable of being an effective pass catcher out of the backfield. 

The reality, to date, is that Ingram, as a first round draft pick and Heisman trophy winner, has underperformed while battling injuries. 2013 feels like a make-or-break season for Ingram's long-term prospects with the Saints and the urgency is palpable. 

The hope, of course, is that Sean Payton will scheme to optimally deploy Ingram this year, reminiscent of Payton's decision to alter his utilization of Reggie Bush in 2009. Then, after two seasons of struggling with inconsistency and being less-than-effective, Bush embraced a new (more-limited) role from Payton and improved his yards per carry from a three-year average of ~3.7 to 5.6.

Moreover, Bush stayed healthy all season. In the playoffs, he notched the longest rushing and punt return touchdowns in Saints' postseason history (to go along with his franchise record 88-yard touchdown reception against the Bears in the '06 NFCCG, notching an impressive hat trick of postseason records). Bush, while not necessarily living up to his perceived billing or the mountainous expectations heaped upon him, played a central role in the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl run. 

Now, perhaps, it's Mark Ingram's turn to do the same.  

01 May 2013

Safety in Numbers

Now that Kenny Vaccaro is in the fold for 2013, how does that affect the Saints' secondary as it's presently constituted?

Sean Payton lauded Vaccaro for his versatility, and indicated that Vaccaro has the potential to play both safety positions as well as the nickel cornerback. This is what Payton said about Vaccaro's role in his post-draft press conference:
One of the things that is attractive about this player is that ... he’s got that versatility to play not only safety, but to play down over the slot. ... I think he’s versatile enough to play either one of the safety positions and certainly a guy that can handle some of the nickel.
Though Vaccaro is technically listed as a free safety--Malcolm Jenkins' position--it appears that Vaccaro's role in New Orleans won't necessarily be limited to one positional assignment. Conventional wisdom seems to have been that, once the Saints drafted Vaccaro, Roman Harper would be on his way out of town.

But the fact that Vaccaro hasn't strictly been a strong safety, combined with the Saints guaranteeing $2.6 million of Harper's $5.25 million contract this season, indicates that Vaccaro wasn't specifically drafted to replace Roman Harper. In fact, Harper may stick around for another season.

In his post-draft press conference, Sean Payton mentioned that the Saints would have "competition at both safety spots." This, to me, signals that Jenkins is equally likely to be replaced by Kenny Vaccaro. Further bolstering this interpretation, Larry Holder reported that, prior to the draft,"Payton told Jenkins that Vaccaro could be an option for the Saints."

If Payton didn't feel that Vaccaro was a threat to Jenkins' job security--at least at the free safety spot--why would he proactively seek out Jenkins and discuss with him the possibility of drafting Vaccaro? Moreover, in none of his post-draft comments has Payton indicated that Jenkins will be the team's free safety this season.

Yesterday, during an interview on Sirius XM's "Moving the Chains," Mickey Loomis mentioned that, on passing downs, the Saints will likely move Malcolm Jenkins to the nickel cornerback position.

What this all means to me is that the Malcolm Jenkins-at-free-safety experiment is over.

If the Saints intend on playing Jenkins in the nickel on "passing downs," then the likelihood is that he won't be playing free safety all that much. The nickel cornerback slot is essentially a full-time role in today's pass-heavy NFL, and a role that Jenkins manned well during his rookie campaign in 2009. It seems to me that, as long as Vaccaro develops and performs in a manner that the Saints expect him to, he's here to replace Jenkins.

Further consider that in Jenkins' last 30 games as a free safety, he has just one interception and one forced fumble. Playing in 400 fewer defensive snaps than Jenkins did last season, the Saints' backup free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus intercepted two passes and, to me, showed more promise than Jenkins has over the course of three full seasons at the position.

This all leads me to believe that we're likely to see IAQ and Vaccaro handle the safety positions in passing situations, with Jenkins playing the nickel. In rush defense situations, we might be more likely to see Jenkins at the traditional free safety spot with Harper and/or Vaccaro near the line of scrimmage or in the box.

Mostly, I'd guess that the days of Roman Harper logging significant snaps and Malcolm Jenkins manning the free safety position are essentially over. With the development of IAQ and the drafting of Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints are set to remake a safety position that Pro Football Focus graded as the worst in football--by a wide margin--last season.

If Vaccaro is who the Saints think he is, then the Saints' defense is already on the mend.