The Advocate/Eliot Kamenitz
NFC South Staff Writer
The New Orleans Saints run a very complex offense featuring different packages, personnel sets and player formations that are designed to confuse opposing defenses. Even in all their complexities, Sean Payton’s playbook still holds to the basics of offensive football that has become the standard for the past half century. Wide Receivers and Tight Ends have become staples of all offenses, and in today’s era of premiere passers these positions have become even more important. Today, we’re going to delve into some of the intricacies of football. We’re going to dissect the Receiver positions and how the New Orleans Saints implement them. Obviously, we cannot go over every play and call that Sean Payton and Drew Brees implement, but we can begin to grasp a better understanding.
First and foremost there is a terminology for receivers that can sometimes be confusing. Some of the more familiar descriptions are, “WR 1, WR 2 and WR 3”, “Split-End, Tight-End, Flanker and Slot” and “X, Y, Z”. These three different sets of names all mean and describe the same thing, just in different ways. How about we take a look at an example of these positions as we saw last year. Below, the Saints are in a shotgun formation. After studying the photo, we will then break down the individual pieces. There are four different types of receivers and they can be split into two distinct groups. One group we will call “the ends” are always on the line of scrimmage. The other group we shall call “the flankers” and they are always off the line of scrimmage in space.
The “X” wide receiver is also called the Split-End and is typically your number one receiver. He is “split” off from the main group of offensive players while still lining up on the line of scrimmage. In the above photo, Jimmy Graham is in the place of the X receiver. For most teams, the players that fill this role are larger receivers who aren’t known necessarily for speed, but they rely on good route running and an ability to body out defenders. With both the Tight End and Split End lining up on the line of scrimmage, this makes them more susceptible to press man coverage from the defense. A WR in this position must have the strength and smarts to break way from defenders at the point of attack to make the play. The Split-End will have several routes that take them 10-15 yards or more downfield.
The “Y” receiver tag actually belongs to two positions. Both the slot receiver and the Tight-End are labeled as the Y as they both are your “happy medium” type receivers. We’ll focus on the tight end aspect here. Marques Colston is taking up the Tight-End’s position in the above play even though he is playing outside the Right Tackle. Like the Split-End, the Flex receiver is on the line of scrimmage and relies more on his size than other intangibles. This position is also expected to block on run plays (though this isn’t true with some players, such as Jimmy Graham). The reason both a Split-End and Flex receiver line up on the line of scrimmage is because, per NFL rules, seven players must always be on the line.
Flanker/Z/Wide Receiver 2:
This receiver lines up wide from the center, like the Split-End, but since the line of scrimmage requirement of seven men has already been filled this position allows a receiver to line up behind the line. In general, this is your second best receiver, but this is not always the case with a team like New Orleans. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves and we’ll discuss more about individual receivers later. In the West Coast offensive system the Flanker receiver is used in motion quite a bit and featured in screen plays and short passes that rely on the receiver being able to maneuver in open space.
Slot/Y/Wide Receiver 3:
This is the position that made Lance Moore famous. Like the Flanker position, the Slot receiver lines up behind the line of scrimmage but typically has the benefit of drawing soft coverage. Your slot receiver is going to be receiver closest to the inside that is not lined up on the line of scrimmage. The defenses’ top two cornerbacks typically cover the Split-End and Flanker wide receivers leaving the slot receiver with more space and positioning to run.While most teams prefer to use smaller, shiftier receivers in the slot position (see Wes Welker), the New Orleans Saints under Sean Payton have shown they are not afraid to put any receiver in any position if they have the skillset.
Now that we have gotten the basics down of the different Receiver positions we can begin to take a look at the different routes receivers run. If you’ve never seen one of the infamous “route trees”, here is a basic one. Different positions and players succeed with different routes from the route tree. Any team’s top Wide Receiver, typically the X, is typically required to understand and be able to implement the entire route tree. Some players and positions are better suited to shorter routes. Instead of peering at more pictures that can make it hard to understand, why don’t we look at actual plays the Saints have run as we go through a couple of routes. Below, Marques Colston is going to run a 15 yard in route. What that means is he is going to run 15 yards up the field and then cut in running parallel to the line of scrimmage.
What makes this an in-route is the receiver is going into the field itself, that is, he is running into the middle of the field. In this formation, Jimmy Graham is lined up as a tight end on the left side of the ball. Graham, given his elite ability in the passing game, is going to gain a lot of focus even in this zone defense. Thus, you will see defensive players eyeing his direction. Colston, as stated in the picture, is still the X or Flex Y receiver, depending on how you want to define it, and is going to run a 15 yard in route. Lets take a look at the Colston’s break.
This play resulted in a 35 yard completion and a first down. Routes that run through the middle of the field, like the one above, are successful against zone coverage. While we don’t have the time (I’m keeping you guys and gals reading for too long as it is!) to cover the differences in defensive coverages, zone defenses have “holes” in them. There are certain areas of the field that have lighter coverage than others. Colston is able to run a route between the coverages of the linebackers and the safeties.
How about we look at one of the Saints more well known and flashier plays. Does anyone remember earlier last year when Jon Gruden was gushing of the Saints use of the Sluggo Seam? Did you ever wonder exactly what that was? Well the Sluggo Seam is actually a combination of routes run by different receivers. The way the play is designed, it forces the defenses’ Free Safety to attack one of two routes. In the below graphic, Marques Colston on the left is running the “Sluggo” part of the play. Sluggo is a shortage for slant-and-go. In that route, Colston is going to make a move to a slant route before changing direction and going down field.
Jimmy Graham, on the other side of the field, is going to run a seam, or go, route. For a seam route a receiver need only to do as the name implies, run along the seams of the field. The combination of routes and proper movement by the QB will cause the Free Safety to jump on whichever route the QB decides. In this case, the Free Safety leans towards Colston and the slant and go route and leaves Jimmy Graham alone over the top.
The Saints are lined up with Colston as the X receiver and Graham as the Y with both of them on the line. *Click* Next slide.
These are two routes that see a lot of action under the direction of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. There are several other routes that also find a bit of production, but these are two of my favorites. Each route is also dependent on the Receiver running it. Players like Colston and Graham both frequent these type of longer and deeper routes because of their size and quickness. Players like Brandon Cooks and Kenny Stills are smaller and more elusive receivers who excel at shorter routes, but they both also have the athletic ability to get down the field when asked. In the Sean Payton era it has been hard to pin down specific roles for each Receiver as he asks all of his players to be versatile. However, there are some players who are better suited for one style more so than another.
As I said above, you can really separate receivers into two groups. Even the Saints follow the same pattern when it comes to a player’s individual skillsets. These two position sets are Ends and Flankers. In these pairings I’ve made, Split-Ends and Tight-Ends follow similar molds, while Flankers and Slot Receivers make up the other side of the offensive coin. When considering what Receivers a team will keep on it’s roster, one must consider not what player is the best, but what player fits the best. The Saints have a number of players who fit both of these molds.
Here is where you will find the larger receivers who also have a balance of agility, pass catching ability, speed and strength. Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson, Josh Hill and Robert Meachem are the players from last year who saw significant playing time in these positions. During the UDFA process and the NFL Draft, the Saints have also brought in players like Brandon Coleman, Je’Ron Hamm and Jerome Cunningham who fit this same type of mold. Typically, the Saints keep 4-5 receivers of this type on their roster every game.
Though this position splits it’s ownership between Wide Receivers and Tight Ends, the end result is the same. When in the passing game these are the players whose physical ability and measureables allow them to dominate the Split and Tight end positions.
These are the smaller, faster and more elusive receivers in the Saints repertoire. Lance Moore is one of the more famous Saints who have been the leaders at this position. Similar players are Kenny Stills, Joe Morgan, newcomer Brandon Cooks and fan camp favorite Andy Tanner. These receivers excel at screen plays, slants, quick in and/or out routes and even stretching the field when asked. Having the ability to play off the line of scrimmage and avoid contact from opposing DBs also gives them a distinct advantage over their larger counterparts.
Their proficiency for operating in space can lead to some impressive statistical figures as Kenny Stills proved last season with his 20.0 yards per catch average. These players also tend to have very sure hands and run strong routes, but lack the necessary size to become a true number one receiver. There have been exceptions to this rule with players like Steve Smith (formerly of Carolina).
There are different names and call signs for these positions, but hopefully we’ve cleared up some of the confusions that can arise. There is more to the Receiver position in today’s complex NFL, but this should help paint the picture. Thanks for reading everyone. I hope the information above has helped you learn a little more about the game and made you anticipate the explosive Saints offenses’ return this upcoming fall. As always, I welcome your comments, critiques and all around banter. God Bless!