The 4-9 Detroit Lions. The 5-8 New Orleans Saints. PRIMETIME. Cue the Hank Williams, Jr. and crack open the Busch Light. Are you ready for some football?! A Monday Night party?! I'm so happy the Lions have yet another nationally televised game during this lost season. There's nothing better than having your favorite team's failings laid bare for the world to see! There's very little left to be said about the 2015 Lions, so "Things of that nature" is pulling a Bill Belichick: We're on to New Orleans.
The Saints spent this past offseason unloading half of Drew Brees' receiving corps, with the most notable move being the trade that sent Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. Graham put up decent numbers, but never really seemed to be the transformative offensive piece Seattle hoped for. But, as we've seen with that team before, Graham's use was less as a primary receiving option than it was as a sacrifice to the Blood God meant to spur a massive second-half turnaround. More surprising than anything in Seattle, though, is that the Saints have continued to get consistent production out of the tight end spot in Graham's absence. Moreover, that they've done it with Benjamin Watson as a top option.
Quick poll: Where would you rank Ben Watson among 2015 pass-catching tight ends? Top 20, if you're being generous? Is he even a consideration when you're making the list? He's put up a couple solid seasons in the past decade, but going into 2015 he seemed destined to play out his career in New Orleans as a role player, a solid blocking tight end who was good for one or two play-action receptions a game. Instead, Watson has been a borderline top-five tight end this season by both conventional and advanced metrics. He's putting up the best numbers of his career at 34 years old! I'm a big fan of old dudes (by football standards) making oversized impacts, so I wanted to look at what Watson is doing for the Saints this year.
One of the staple plays in the Saints offense involves multiple WRs running vertical clear-out routes to one side of the formation as a tight end leaks across the field on a shallow drag into the vacated space. Watson has been doing this for essentially his entire tenure in New Orleans. I actually wrote about this many moons ago, back when we were excited about the unlimited potential of the Joe Lombardi offense and I hadn't learned how to create GIFs. Suffice to say this concept never really appeared as part of the Lions offense, but nothing's changed for Brees and Co.
One of Watson's best traits is his ability to find and sit down in gaps in coverage. Watch the routes of the two inside receivers in the trips at the top of the image. The innermost WR has an outside release to the numbers before turning upfield, pulling the nickel defender outside with him. Simultaneously, the middle WR runs a deeper drag than Watson, and the MLB rides him across before passing him off the next zone. As Watson hits the right hash, defenders on either side of him are being pulled in opposite directions. You can see the window opening as Brees delivers the ball. Everything is timed perfectly, and the first down is pretty much a foregone conclusion. The Saints love this play. Occasionally, they don't even have to worry about the timing.
With the Saints facing a third-and-10 here, they dial up a similar look. The middle linebacker turns his hips and bails deep to the trips side at the snap, and the deep post from the inside WR freezes the defender lined up over Watson. The result is an open pasture for the tight end, who sits down in the middle, makes the catch, and picks up an easy 15 yards to keep the chains moving.
Of course, like I mentioned, the Saints have been running these plays to Watson for the entirety of his three-season tenure. The difference this year is that Watson has picked up additional responsibilities in the passing game following Graham's departure.
In that March 2014 piece, I talked about the Saints' use of Graham in "triangle" concepts with the stick route. (I also spent a lot of that series needlessly wondering who the Lions would use to fill the roles of Jed Collins and Lance Moore.) Graham may be gone, but those concepts are still very much a part of the Saints' passing game. Only the receivers have changed.
The Saints run infinite variations of this concept, but the result is always one man in the flat, another going vertical, and the five- to six-yard stick from the last. The stick is the primary read on a three-step drop. By this point in his career, Brees is pretty much automatic at this.
Watson has parlayed that role into some semblance of Graham's success as a vertical threat, as well:
The Saints are going to show a similar look here, only with Watson in the slot. Watson and the middle receiver both fake a move to their destinations in the triangle (stick and flat, respectively) before joining the outside WR in getting vertical. Watch Watson whip his head around as though he's expecting the ball off the three-step drop. He gets up the seam before the defender can recover, and Brees puts a dart on him for the touchdown.
I'd love to say Watson has found some fountain of youth or improved his game in some dramatic way, but his enhanced production is more about workload and necessity than anything. Someone has to catch the ball for New Orleans. Watson's already been targeted more this season than in the previous two combined. But give the man credit, he's made the most of those opportunities. He won't ever reach the lofty heights of peak Jimmy Graham, but very few players could. Watson isn't going to outrun linebackers or outjump defensive backs, but he's sound enough in his route-running and body positioning that he creates windows for Brees' passes. When you have a remarkably accurate Hall of Fame quarterback, that's more than enough.