The Hydra: How the Saints Tight Ends Form a Three-Headed Monster

In Greek Mythology, the Lernaean Hydra, (known today just as the Hydra) is a fierce serpent monster with many heads.

The legendary hero Heracles/Hercules fought the Hydra in one of his adventures, but struggled with its unique ability to sprout new heads for each he cut away. The number of heads varies depending on who’s telling the story, but the idea is the same: dispatch one head, and another will take it’s place.

If you turn your head and squint, you can see the parallel in modern NFL offenses. When one free agent leaves, the scheme or the very “Nature of the beast” will compensate. It’s X’s and O’s over Jimmy’s and Joe’s.

It also applies to the most well-rounded offenses in the NFL:

“You can’t double cover receiver X, because receiver Y has a knack for finding the soft part of the coverage. And don’t even think about ignoring running back Z out of the backfield, because then the wheel route will be open all day, and that’s where these guys REALLY hurt you.”

And so on and so forth. It makes sense if you think about it. And even more if you don’t.

It’s adjustments formed from adaptation. From the coverage the defense gives you on a given play, to forming a game plan and a culture that fits your personnel. Most of all, it stresses execution as a team. There’s a reason football is the ultimate team sport.

There’s no better example of this philosophy in place than what the New Orleans Saints run under head coach Sean Payton. What the offense has lacked in stars aside from Drew Brees and a few years of Jimmy Graham, it has more than made up for in overall team execution.

Wideout Devery Henderson‘s entire career is a microcosm for this phenomenon. For a guy with only 20 career scores over 9 NFL seasons, he was one of the integral parts of the Saints offense. He had elite speed even at wide receiver. On top of that, NOBODY sold a go route better than he did.  Henderson scored a 75-yard touchdown on the New England Patriots back in 2009 and we still can’t figure out how he got so much separation.

Saints fans will remember Henderson’s burst off the line of scrimmage and relentless pace to get open even when the ball was never coming his way. Because of Henderson drawing coverage vertically, many other areas of the field drew softer coverage.  Guys like Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, and Lance Moore were there to benefit.

When one head is dispatched, another is there to pick up the slack.

Before the start of the 2015 season, the Saints added two running backs (C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower) in free agency, traded their elite pass catching tight end (Jimmy Graham) for an elite center (Max Unger), and drafted an offensive lineman (Andrus Peat) in the first round.

With the ever-increasing age of Drew Brees and the focus on bolstering the run game, it appeared the Saints were headed for a more ground-based attack on offense. Taking the pressure off Drew Brees and relying on the fresh legs of Mark Ingram felt like a good decision.  It would also keep the defense off the field.

The Saints were still third in pass attempts per game.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Time is a flat circle.  Etc.

Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the season, though, an interesting trend started to develop. Prior to their Week 5 trip to Philadelphia, the Saints traded struggling and recently-benched defensive tackle Akeim Hicks to the New England Patriots for Michael Hoomanawanui, New England’s third-string tight end.

Both players went on to find success. Hicks had a resurgence playing in a reserve role for the Patriots while Hoomanawanui (Or Hooman, as fans have dubbed him) gave the Saints fresh depth and a new dimension to their offensive game plan. Hicks received a modest contract with the Bears to anchor their defensive line while Hooman re-signed with the Saints on a three-year deal.

The Saints offense has always derived success from their versatility and creativity. Players with trump cards like Darren Sproles‘ elite acceleration or Jimmy Graham’s tremendous size and agility were used in tandem by Payton, one of the best playcallers in football.

The past few years, the Saints lost many players that were staples of the offense; namely Graham, Sproles, and Pierre Thomas. With the loss of players with elite niche skills, the offense has had to lean on their creativity more than ever to varying degrees of success. The addition of Brandin Cooks added a deep threat that had been sorely missing for years but lacked the players to separate in the intermediate game.

And so, while the Saints ranked near the top in total offense the past few years, it’s been close to fool’s gold considering how prone the offense is to just disappearing at times.  Payton’s team has averaged 27.4 points-per-game from 2006 to the present, but they scored 27 points or more in only seven games last year.

Brees has historically loved his tight ends. Graham had one of the most meteoric rises in NFL history for a young tight end as he reaped the benefits of Brees. Ben Watson, who was entering the twilight of his career when he signed with the Saints in 2013 had a solid role as a second tight end and then exploded when he stepped in as the starter.  These big, fast pass catchers are perfect mismatches with smaller NFL defenders.

So in 2015, we started to see the Saints use three tight ends more than ever before. For a team that has dominated without elite skill position players, it felt like such a ‘Saints’ move. For example: the Saints third-string tight end was Hooman. He played 28% of the offensive snaps. For comparison, the Arizona Cardinals third-string was Troy Niklas, who played roughly 16% of the snaps.

The Saints trio of tight ends wasn’t the most-talented group in 2015. Watson could have went to the Pro Bowl off his numbers but was overlooked, and Josh Hill has been mostly potential rather than production in his young career. And Hoomanawanui, though a nice player is very limited in what he can do. John Sigler of Who Dat Dish wrote about Hoomananawanui here.

And yet, when they all worked together, they were efficient and could disguise a lot on offense.

Starting in Week 5 when the Saints acquired a third tight end, I charted every snap the trio took together The numbers are fudged a little, but the team used the set to close out games and getting a lot of runs for small yardage, but it was overall an effective package to roll out, and I posit that it should be rolled out more on a consistent basis.

Nov 8, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Josh Hill (89) celebrates his first quarter touchdown with teammates Benjamin Watson (82) and Brandin Cooks (10) against the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Saints used three tight ends, also known as 13 personnel, on 95 total snaps throughout the course of the year. On those 95 snaps, the Saints put up 530 yards of offense and 9 touchdowns. That averages out to about 5 yards per play. Not dominant by any stretch but the fact that it was so reliable once Hoomanawanui was picked up was notable.

It was especially effective in the red zone between the 20-yard line and the end zone, where the Saints used their unique athletes to keep defenses honest and pound the rock on the goal line while mixing in some play actions where Hoomanawanui or Watson would be able to find the hole in coverage.

A closer look at the numbers suggest the Saints have a viable package to roll out regularly.

Of the Saints’ 95 snaps run with three tight ends, 32 went for first downs. Which is not bad considering three tight end sets are typically designated for early in the down and only designed to pick up a few quick yards. It provided a reliable package to gain a few yards with very few negative plays; altogether, Watson, Hill, and Hoomanwanui completed 101-of-156 targets (64.7-percent). The Saints committed only one turnover in this three tight end set; an early-season Hoomanawanui fumble against the Eagles.

Speaking of reliable, the Saints were 10/15 on third down when using three tight ends. This goes back to the Saints being able to keep teams honest. Watson as a savvy veteran and skilled pass catcher would find opportunities if the defense gave him chances on passing plays. Hill, while still trying to prove he is anything more than a height-weight-speed nightmare than an actual threat in the passing game can still be a factor, as can Hoomanawanui.

The scary part is, there is a really good chance the Saints offense will be much better next year, and I think the 13 personnel look should get more screen time.

Let’s take a look at the additions the Saints have made this offseason.

The biggest factor has to be the departure of Ben Watson and addition of Coby Fleener. Fleener has been unable to shake himself from the doldrums of mediocrity despite being selected in the second round in 2011 with his college QB Andrew Luck reuniting with him in the NFL. However, he was also succumbed to the plain and sometimes lacking playcalling of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. The Colts offense did not consistently feature the tight end as a viable option in the passing game, and at the very least it is a shadow compared to the usage the Saints have.

I believe Fleener, with a higher volume of targets and working with a Hall of Fame QB will make his production skyrocket. At 6-foot-6 and legitimate top shelf speed for the position, he will likely be one of Payton’s favorites to draw up plays to give him a good look.  In the Saints offense he will stretch the field more often than he did in Indy. If there is any offense in the league that maximizes the strengths of the skill position players, it’s the Saints, especially at the tight end position.

If Ben Watson can come in well into his 30’s and dominate, that bodes very, VERY well for Fleener. With his speed and size, he has a more complete offensive game than Watson, and the numbers should reflect that by the midpoint of his contract, if not in year one.

John Sigler also wrote about the Saints new weapon earlier here.

The running game is also sure to be supplemented by better guard play. Whether it’s UDFA Landon Turner or Andrus Peat, the Saints will get a big boost inside from last year. Lelito has proven untrustworthy, and Jahri Evans was running on fumes by the seasons end. Ingram has separated himself from the pack as a legitimate talent at running back, and tight ends with plus-athleticism like Hill, Fleener and Hoomanawanui all on the field should lead to a much more efficient running game.

The Tight ends are responsible for sealing off linebackers on runs that break outside, but the guards have to finish their block for the play to work right. If the Saints can get two guards to emerge in the offseason and the Saints give Peat a shot at right tackle, the Saints offensive line could block out the sun in theory.

Another reason the Saints can further advance their offensive potential with these 13 personnel sets is the addition of rookie receiver Michael Thomas.

With Thomas on board, the Saints finally have a wide receiver for their jumbo package. Thomas is the most well rounded of all the Saints receivers. He has the best size outside of Brandon Coleman and better speed. Not only that, but his game is well rounded and he can chip in with a block to fend off defensive backs.

With Thomas on the field, it’s a similar role Pierre Thomas had. Whenever the Saints had a big play, it usually had Pierre on the field. His skill set meant more of the playbook was open, and the same goes for Michael Thomas. Deep shots, screens, intermediate routs, they are all options whereas with a receiver like Cooks, you’re always playing down a man when it comes to blocking and Cooks’ effectiveness is hindered in the redzone, where Thomas thrives. It’s also where Hoomanawanui, Hill, and Fleener succeed most, making it very hard for the offense to zero in on anyone.

I am not suggesting that the Saints make a 13 personnel set their base offense or anything like that. I do however, think that an offense that has been historically unorthodox over the last decade should continue to do things in their own way. It should be noted that some of the Saints biggest offensive days of the season (Giants/Colts) also featured the most 3TE sets. Similarly, the worst offensive days had next to none.

In the Texans game, for example, the Saints ran two plays with three tight ends, but that is understandable when playing from behind. Which is a reminder that the Saints cannot live in this set. But given thee personnel and the playcaller, it takes a lot of stress off Brees by giving him some easy throws and makes running the football that much more effective.

For an offense  that has always relied on role players working on tandem, the Saints 3TE sets are the epitome of offensive football in New Orleans.