Film Study: Protection Paved Way for Jameis Winston’s Heroics

When the NFL schedule was released in May, I smiled when I saw Atlanta vs. New Orleans in Week 1. The likelihood of Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota – seven years after Tampa Bay took Winston with the first overall pick in the draft and Tennessee took Mariota with the second – reminded me of a super cool two-day run I had in the leadup to that draft.

Winston, the Florida State product, had his pro day workout scheduled for March 31 in Tallahassee. I reached out to an NFL assistant I knew well. He was within driving distance of FSU, so I asked if I could spend the day before Winston’s workout with him in his office while he watched tape of both quarterbacks. He obliged, and I considered myself lucky as hell. One day in an NFL facility dissecting the draft’s top two QB prospects, the next on campus watching the eventual top pick work out.

Thankfully Sunday’s game that reunited the two quarterbacks provided a storyline way more significant than my anecdotal history evaluating them: Winston and the Saints scored the game’s final 17 points, and New Orleans escaped with an unlikely one-point win. Offensively, everything up to the fourth quarter was a nightmare for New Orleans. How did the Saints turn the corner from failure to success so abruptly? I rewatched all of their pass plays on Monday with that question in mind.

The Saints Struggled in Protection

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Saints had scored one touchdown, and Winston had 56 total passing yards. Their passing offense included the laundry list of the errors you would imagine with that kind of production. Protection issues up front, inaccuracy and indecision from Winston and dropped passes from his playmakers. Wash, rinse, repeat.

New Orleans’ ineptitude was mostly caused by Atlanta’s pass rush, specifically the Saints’ inability to protect against it. It’s important to note this wasn’t a case of a defense being rewarded for an aggressive scheme, where it brings more rushers than the offense has protectors. No, it was the pass rush winning with deception more than disruption.  

Atlanta would often line up with five or six defenders at the line of scrimmage, each of them showing alignment and body language that would indicate a pass rush. But at the snap, only four of them would rush, and each time a different four. It created confusion on the Saints’ offensive line, one instance in which a lineman or two were unsure. That’s how four pass rushers beat five linemen, and how Atlanta recorded three of its four sacks.

So, while looking for the main reason Winston’s sack total was higher than his yards per attempt after three quarters, that’s what I found.

How the Saints Bounced Back

So, what changed in the fourth?

The Saints’ protection started winning against the Falcons’ pass rush, beating the same looks they previously couldn’t solve, and paving the way for Winston’s late success.

When the Falcons got conservative early in the fourth quarter, protecting a 16-point lead, and lined up with only four linemen on the line of scrimmage and brought no blitzers behind them, they got nowhere near Winston. Unabated, he picked them apart.

Soon, the Falcons got back to what worked so well in the previous three quarters but found zero success. 

When Atlanta showed five rushers and came with only four, as they did on Winston’s 30-yard connection with Jarvis Landry to set up their first touchdown in the fourth quarter, none of them got home. 

When the Falcons upped the ante and showed six but still brought only four, as Winston exposed on a third-down sideline touch pass to Michael Thomas that preceded their next touchdown, they found no lanes to Winston.

On the rare occasion they actually did bring extra rushers – see New Orleans’ final offensive play when the Falcons blitzed both linebackers and Winston hit Juwan Johnson in the vacated area behind them to set up the game-winning field goal – New Orleans was up to the task upfront.

Becoming assignment-sharp and error-free out of nowhere afforded Winston the chance to do what he has always done best and when he has been at his best: Stand tall in the pocket, take one big stride and deliver the ball downfield. That distinct rhythm to his passing success was evident throughout the final three scoring drives.

Winston’s Intermediate Prowess

And while we hear so much about how teams like to push the ball vertically down the field, it was Winston stretching the field horizontally that mattered most.

In completing 13 of 16 passes for 213 yards and 2 touchdowns during the final quarter, Winston found a certain way to repeatedly beat the Falcons’ coverage and continued to ride that theme. 

There’s a portion of the field that can’t be called deep but is in no way short. From 10 yards past the line of scrimmage to about 30 yards downfield, this area is called intermediate. Winston continually beat the Falcons in that area, from sideline to sideline:

>> 18-yard out-breaking routes to the sideline

>> 15-yard in-breaking routes between the hashes

>> 20-yard touch passes to the sideline

>> 25-yard seam routes up the hash

He dialed up each one of those with varying brands of touch, velocity and precision, leveraging his newfound protection, exposing a wide part of the field that wasn’t well covered. In the end, the Saints more than doubled their points in the fourth quarter, nearly quadrupled their passing yards and rallied for a win that appeared, for most of the game, unreachable. 

This tape study of Winston reminded me of the old NFL adages that well-coached teams make adjustments throughout a game, and veteran quarterbacks play their best in the fourth quarter. The Saints’ offensive line and Winston brought those two thoughts to life and lifted New Orleans to an unlikely 1-0 start.

WATCH MORE: Breaking Down Top Storylines of Week 1

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