Why The Saints Offense Is Perfect For Justin Herbert And The Chargers
After the Los Angeles Chargers fired Anthony Lynn everyone thought they should replace him with an offensive-minded head coach. That’s become conventional wisdom for teams with a young quarterback such as Justin Herbert. Specifically, it’s become conventional wisdom for teams to hire coaches to make things easier on the mental side of things for their young quarterbacks. Not the Chargers. Not for Justin Herbert.
Brandon Staley recently appeared on The Athletic Football Show with Robert Mays and he was asked about why he chose the Saints passing attack to be the one to pair with the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie Of The Year: “When you think about our defense and all the coverages you’ve got to play against, all the fronts and pressures you’ve got to play against, I wanted an offense that could mirror that. I wanted our offense to run through Justin Herbert.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, but the biggest thing is that Staley’s goal is ultimately for Herbert to become their system as Drew Brees did in New Orleans. At the core of his coaching philosophy is a belief to tailor his system and game plans to the strengths of your best players. He expanded on this when explaining how he was able to help scheme Aaron Donald into one on one situations and allow Jalen Ramsey to expand his game by taking more snaps in the slot.
The second thing is that the Chargers and Staley want to be multiple, both on offense and on defense. As he explains, the Chargers defense will be mixing up coverages, formations, fronts, and pressures. (That should be music to every Chargers fans’ ears after suffering through Gus Bradley’s vanilla scheme.) But what does this mean for Herbert and the offense?
Let’s dive in.
By no means am I an expert on football or the Saints offense but I wanted to understand the Saints offense as best as I could and in order to do that I had to do two things: read Payton And Brees: The Men Who Built The Greatest Offense In NFL History by Jeff Duncan of The Athletic, and watch as much Saints film on NFL Game Pass as I could. I will be sharing some of what I have learned here.
When it comes to being multiple, the Saints want to make defensive players and coaches think more than they normally do, and therefore play slower than they usually do. The Saints do this by quite literally throwing the kitchen sink at them in terms of formations and personnel packages. The first Saints game I watched was their most recent one, from the playoffs against the Buccaneers. The Saints did not run the same personnel package a second time until the second half. They ran every possible package possible: typical 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back), what they call the Pony Package with two running backs, heavy sets with two tight ends, and an extra offensive lineman. If you can think of a package, they ran it. They had close to 40 plays in the first half and there wasn’t a single repeat personnel package.
Obviously, the result was not what they wanted that day, which was really more about Brees’ declining ability than anything else, but the principle is the same. Turn on any Saints game and you will likely not see them use the same formation that many times. The multiplicity of their playbook is mindblowing once you actually sit down and (attempt to) study it.
This approach creates so many challenges for opposing defenses, and it makes sense that Staley – a defensive-minded head coach – would want to install a system that he himself would have a difficult time defending.
As it pertains to Herbert, one of the things he talked about with Robert Mays was all the various ways they could use Herbert as a passer through three-step drops, five-step drops, seven-step drops, rollouts, screens, run-pass-options, etc. The routes being run by the wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs won’t change all that much. Every team runs the same one through a nine route tree, but the Chargers and Saints offenses are able to window dress and mix up everything.
Although Herbert was able to put up huge individual statistics last season, one of the biggest reasons that the Chargers struggled to put teams away in 2020 was that their offense was not all that complex, which allowed defenses to adjust fairly easily. By bringing in the Saints offense, the Chargers will be pairing one of the most difficult schemes to defend with a quarterback who is one of the smartest players in the sport and ultimately projects to be one of the league’s most difficult players to defend.
One of the other things that stood out from watching the Saints on film was that every pass-catcher has to be able to run every route, even Josh Hill (their blocking tight end) would run go/seam routes. It’s all relative to playing to a players’ strengths. Someone like Hill won’t be running go routes on every play, but the Saints do this to keep defenses honest.
Traditionally, the Saints have had one go-to receiver. Most notably Michael Thomas and Marques Colston. Those players typically receive about 40-45% of their targets in the short (0-9 yards) range, 40-45% in the intermediate (10-19) range, and 15-20% of them in the deep (20+) range. Those are very well-rounded percentages for a traditional go-to wide receiver.
In theory, that player should be Keenan Allen for the Chargers. Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi has said that Mike Williams will be playing that role. Either way, both players should/have to become more well-rounded in the new system.
Under Lynn’s system, Allen received a whopping 57% of his targets in the short range and only 6.5% of his targets in the deep range in 2020. Williams’ numbers are basically split evenly at 30% or higher in the short, intermediate, and deep ranges.
The benefit for Allen is obvious because he is one of the league’s best wide receivers, and the old staff essentially limited him to exclusively short routes – which was a massive travesty. Under the new offense, he should be able to run more routes in the intermediate and deep range, which should increase his opportunities to create more explosive plays.
How this impacts Williams is going to be extremely interesting. He’s not a burner in the traditional sense, but he has been one of the league’s best deep threats over the last few years. While you could certainly argue that giving him a larger percentage of targets in the short or intermediate range will help his overall development, limiting his targets in the deep range could be a bit of a double-edged sword. The one thing that should come from expanding his route tree is longevity. Keeping up his old pace is not sustainable. This offense should allow him to evolve.
Ultimately, the two best wide receivers on the Chargers should experience greater levels of balance, which will improve their quality of life and help the Chargers’ offense as a whole.
At their core, the Saints do not really believe in having specialists. They’ll have pass-catching running backs on the roster, but they still have to be capable runners of the football in order to keep defenses honest. Like everyone else, they like to have speed at the receiver position, but those players have to do other things well besides simply running fast in a straight line. The Chargers have two other great deep threats on the roster in Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson. They are burners in the traditional sense. Both have legitimately 4.3 speed. Each of them ran more than 30% of their routes in the deep range. They will have to prove that they can become more well-rounded receivers in this new offense.
Overall, choosing the Saints passing attack fits the overall theme of the offseason for the Chargers – which is flexibility and versatility. The influx of option routes for the pass catchers, and responsibility at the line of scrimmage for Herbert should push all of the offensive players to reach new heights as players and ultimately maximize their respective potentials.