The Allen Dilemma: How do you solve a problem like losing Marcus Williams?
Dennis Allen built one of the finest units in the NFL last season. But after some offseason remodelling he has a tricky question to answer
This is the latest in a loose series titled ‘the (almost) most interesting schematic questions for the 2022 season.’
If you’ve missed any of the others so far, you can check them out here:
The McDaniel-Tua Conundrum: Can you fuse two conflicting styles?
There is still more to come from Kyler Murray: How he can squeeze an extra five percent out of his game
Next up: Dennis Allen and the remodeled Saints secondary.
After failing to pull off the audacious, unusual, bat-bleep crazy plan that would see Sean Payton traded to Miami (with a newly-minted $100 million contract), working under and besides quarterback-owner-director-of-football-ops Tom Brady (that’s a real thing that happened! We should discuss it more!), a plan that was torpedoed once Brian Flores sued the Dolphins for racial discrimination, Payton opted to step down as Saints head coach.
The Saints elevated Dennis Allen from defensive coordinator to the top job to replace Payton. It makes sense. From the tail-end of the Drew Brees era to the final season with Payton, Allen’s defense put the team on its back. The Saints had drifted from a bomb’s away, pass-always, defend-rarely side into one built around the confuse-and-clobber principles on offense with a stingy defense pushing the team over the top.
Last year’s group was likely Allen’s best yet. They were deep. They were talented. They played all the Greatest Hits of modern defensive football, running with two-deep safeties at a league-high rate and embracing the zone-pressure/simulated-pressure/creeper world as and when it was needed.
The Saints finished second in defensive EPA per play in 2021. They finished first in success rate. They generated a turnover on 12.8 percent (!!!) of opponent’s drives. By every conceivable metric, they were the most efficient and explosive defense in the NFL, a perfect cocktail.
They dominated vs. the run, outpacing the league in overall rush EPA and early down success rate. On first and second down alone, the Saints fielded the only defense in the league with a sub-40 percent overall success rate – and they wound up dipping below the 30 percent threshold against the run.
In layman’s terms: They hammered people. And in doing so on early downs, with an active four-down front and a pair of zooming, roaming, malleable linebackers, they were able to hit on the ideal structure: defending the run from lighter fronts (with extra depth) while deploying an extra piece in coverage (while compressing space). Hit on that formula and, hey presto, you have the top defense in the NFL.
Here’s a fun measure of the Saints’ success: If you remove turnovers from the equation, they were, by some distance, the best third-down defense in the league in EPA per play. And remember: They generated a turnover on 12.8 percent of opponent’s drives! Either they turned you over, or they stone walled you.
Marcus Williams was a big factor. He was a space stealer. The league’s finest free safety, Williams allowed the Saints to play a bunch of man-coverage from two-deep looks – be it sticking in a two-man shell or sliding into a one-robber (or similar) look that allowed Allen to stick extra layers in the coverage while allowing him to maintain bump-and-run coverage up at the line of scrimmage. Delay the release of receivers, disrupt the timing of the offense, all while adding extra layers to the coverage shell, and – say it with me – you have yourself the top defense in the NFL.
Two-man is the toughest coverage to throw against in football – there are two deep safeties taking away anything vertical and plaster coverage underneath running man-to-man with receivers. Even Davante Adams, the league’s best receiver, was limited to just three receptions vs. two-man last year. Josh Allen and Tom Brady – TOM BRADY – struggled against such looks in 2021; the Saints womped a Brady-led Bucs’ offense in Week 15, shutting out the Bucs thanks to a steady dose of two-man, some match coverages, and a smattering of cover-7 looks that fed off the base two-man plan.
The Saints ran two-man twice as much as any defense in the NFL last season – the Packers finishing a distant second. In single-high safety sets, the Saints were a good defense – the excellence of Williams covering up holes. In two-deep sets, they were the top unit in the league.
Sports Info Solutions tracks a metric called ‘points saved’, which, according to the super nerds, means:
“The total of a player’s EPA responsibility while in coverage using the Total Points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play (with positive numbers being good). Totals are scaled up to map to the average points scored or allowed on a team level, with the player's snap count determining how much to adjust. For pass defenders, this includes accounting for pass rush, broken tackles, dropped interceptions, turnovers, and turnover returns.”
According to that metric, the Saints ‘saved’ 42 points over the span of 2021 while in two-man. Forty-Two! Essentially, two-man is every bit as valuable as you might expect. No other team cracked the 24-point mark. And when you factor in the knock-on impacts of how such looks constrict what an offense can run – or what running it to such a degree imparts in a quarterback’s head – the value balloons beyond the obvious they didn’t score against this specific coverage factor.
The Saints were dominant from those looks. They ran it more than anyone and were more effective at it on a per-snap basis than any of the other 31 franchises. Three New Orleans defenders finished in the top-seven of yards conceded per snap while showing two-man pre-snap (Demario Davis, Kwon Alexander, Marshon Lattimore), with four in the top-ten (add on Bradley Roby) and six in the top-13 (tack on Paulson Adebo and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson).
Williams’ role was essential. Having a great free safety is the true force-multiplier for a defense. Quarterbacks are constantly tracking their movements: Where is he pre-snap? Where is he post-snap? Can I beat him to that spot? Bleep it, I’ll take the easier underneath stuff.
Bleep it. I trust my guy. Their guy can’t turn, peel and find in time.
Watch that again a time or two. It’s outrageous -- one of the plays of 2021. Williams is sat on the near hash, shading over to double-team Davante Adams. At the snap, he starts to shuffle across to get enough depth to properly ‘top’ Adams before he commits to his route. Aaron Rodgers on the other side gets what he wants: Adams, on the backside of a 3x1 formation, is clearing out the coverage, demanding a double-team. On the frontside, Rodgers gets what he wants, too: the #1 receiver (in the slot) is running the dig, sucking up the second safety, Malcolm Jenkins. And what’s that behind? Oh, it’s a deep post, designed to puncture in-behind the safety as he commits to the dig.
As soon as Jenkins converges on the dig, Rodgers is ready to throw the homerun ball. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, running the post, has a step on Marshon Lattimore, the corner. It should be a big play – perhaps six points.
Nope. Here comes Williams. His body position rules Adams out of the play. But he’s not done there: He turns and fires on the post route, beating Valdes-Scantling to the spot. By design – concept over coverage – it should have been a huge play for Green Bay. Instead, it was a takeaway going the other way.
Williams is as good as it gets. As a true, single-high free safety, he’s the best in the business. When he’s able to slide into a two-deep set, it’s borderline unfair. You’re giving that player, who can cover all the ground – be it with his legs or faking a quarterback out with his eyes – a smaller chunk of grass to play with? Good luck.
Williams was targeted just 16 times last season. From those targets, he came away with a pair of interceptions and five pass break-ups. Meaning: QBs rarely target him and when they do there's half a chance he’s getting his hands on the ball.
Having a great, rangy center-fielder is a discrete skill in the entire jigsaw of a defense. But it’s also a super-skill that amplifies and unlocks a ton for the rest of a defense. It allows them to get more depth into single-high looks, which allows them to limit explosive plays even from looks that would typically be more vulnerable.
It also organically ups the impact of two-deep-then-rotate sets. Quarterbacks are already unsure about challenging the great middle-of-the-field closer – when the space gets compressed with two guys back there, launching the ball deep comes with added reservations. But the strongest impact Williams’ game had on last year’s Saints group was that it allowed the rotating safety -- for the Saints last season that was Malcolm Jenkins -- to play top-down, to drive hard, to drive fast on routes, not having to worry about a receiver – no matter their quality or star-power – zooming in-behind.
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