The theory here is that the respective secondaries of the Patriots and Saints actually had very little to do with the outcome of Monday's game. The theory here is that the game came down to two factors:
* The Saints' ability to get pressure on Tom Brady with just three rushers, freeing up others to double-team Randy Moss and Wes Welker;
* The Patriots' inability to get pressure on Drew Brees even with five rushers, leaving the secondary shorthanded while still allowing Brees to step confidently into every throw.
Let's compare a pretty similar play-action pass play run by both the Saints and the Patriots in the first half -- and their dissimilar results:
The first-and-10 call was a play-action pass out of the I-formation with two receivers running down the middle of the field. Tight end Jeremy Shockey (88) ran the shallow route, and wide receiver Robert Meachem (17) ran the deep route.
The Patriots read run all the way -- safety Brandon Meriweather (31) crept toward the line of scrimmage even before the ball was snapped -- but that wasn't the only issue. Linebackers Rob Ninkovich (50) and Adalius Thomas (96) both blitzed from the outside and were picked up by the left and right tackles, respectively, with help from the Saints' two backs. Each of the Patriots' three defensive linemen were handled one-on-one by the New Orleans guards and center -- as detailed here, the strongest part of the Saints' offensive line -- and got nowhere near Brees.
With Shockey and Meachem converging in the same neighborhood, safety Brandon McGowan (30) couldn't just read the eyes of Brees to figure out where the pass would go. McGowan guessed Shockey -- and that left Jonathan Wilhite (24) in one-on-one coverage with Meachem. Wilhite never had a chance.
Had the Patriots gotten some pressure on Brees with their five pass-rushers, though, things might have turned out very differently. The coverage of Wilhite actually was pretty good, and a little pressure on Brees might have meant a pass that wasn't quite so precise.
The Patriots ran a similar play in the first half, a play-action pass with two targets down the field, but didn't get even close to the same results. Here's the diagram:
The Patriots lined up with Laurence Maroney and ran a play-action fake on second-and-8, a similar fake to the one Brees ran with his running back. Like the Saints, the Patriots sent just two receivers out wide -- Welker (83) and Moss (81) -- and kept two other skill-position players in the backfield to block.
The Saints, however, sent only four pass-rushers at Brady and dropped their other seven defenders into coverage. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known as a blitz-happy coach, but he there actually were plenty of snaps on Monday that Williams sent only three pass-rushers at Brady and dropped eight into coverage.
Welker, the wide receiver who torched the Jets a week ago, lined up against Baltimore castoff Chris McAlister (29) -- but while McAlister ran with him underneath, safety Roman Harper (41) jumped into the play to cut off any pass underneath. Double coverage.
On the other side of the field, the recently signed Mike McKenzie (34) lined up deep against Randy Moss and stayed deep. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) dropped back to cover the underneath route to Moss, and free safety Darren Sharper (42) stayed deep in case Moss suddenly took off for the end zone. Triple coverage.
Given time, Brady almost certainly would have found one of his two receivers -- or one of his tight ends (in blue on the line of scrimmage) eventually would have drifted into the flat to catch a dump-off pass. That's why so many teams blitz Brady: Given time, as talented as his receivers are, someone always is going to get open for him.
But Brady didn't have time.
Tight end Chris Baker (86) actually went in motion before the snap, moving from the right shoulder of Nick Kaczur (77) to the left shoulder of Ben Watson (84). Immediately after the ball was snapped, center Dan Koppen pulled to get to the same place, the outside shoulder of Watson, and was in position for a blitz that never came. Outside linebacker Scott Fujita (55) showed blitz, but he hung back to guard against the dump-off pass Brady loves so much.
Because Baker motioned, though, he left Kaczur one-on-one against Bobby McCray -- and McCray steamrolled him. (The Saints attacked the edges of the Patriots' line, often ignoring guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal -- a perfect example of exploiting a weakness.) At the same time, while Mankins (70) handled defensive tackle Remi Ayodele (92), Watson couldn't quite handle defensive end Will Smith (91). Neither Baker nor Koppen was in a position to help because they were at the end of the line waiting for a blitz that never came.
The end result: The Saints sent four pass-rushers against seven blockers -- and two of those four pass-rushers still got free. Smith busted through the hole between Watson and Mankins, and McCray ran around Kaczur like he was a slalom pole. Brady never had time to look for either Welker or for Moss -- let alone for Maroney (39), who was leaking out of the backfield to be a last-ditch outlet.
The Patriots ran almost the same play the Saints had run when they scored their third touchdown. Because the Saints won the battle at the line of scrimmage, though, they turned a potential touchdown into a sack for a loss of four yards -- and the Patriots eventually would have to settle for a field goal.