Blame Doctor Heat: The Saints’ Un-Prevent Undid Their Season

Greg Smith, Inside the Game, New Orleans Saints, Ramblings and Rants, San Francisco 49ers

Everyone likes to rip the Prevent Defense. John Madden, the everyman’s everyman, once described it the way many fans would, “All the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.”

Wikipedia’s entry defines it in its truest form, as a Hail Mary defense, with many defenders dropping very deep.

But the way I define it, and the way it is often thought of, is as a conservative, non-blitz approach that utilizes seven or more defenders in coverage.

It’s the strategy to use when allowing a first down is ok, a field goal is forgivable, but a 40+ yard play is unforgivable. Force the quarterback to throw short, tackle the receiver inbounds, and bleed the clock.

Saints Defensive Coordinator, Gregg Williams (AP)

The end-game scenario in the Saints-49ers Divisional Playoff was tailor-made for it. But Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams didn’t think so.

The 49ers were on their own 15 with 1:32 remaining and one timeout. They trailed New Orleans by three points, 32-29.

On the first two downs, the Saints played Prevent. They rushed 4, dropped 7, and played slightly deeper in coverage than they normally would. With his downfield options taken away, Alex Smith completed two consecutive checkdown passes to Frank Gore, first for 7, then for 11 yards. Gore was tackled inbounds on both plays.

The ball now rested at the SF 33. It had taken 48 seconds for the 49ers to net 18 yards. Good job, Prevent.

Despite the Saints success on those first two plays, Williams – who calls himself, “Dr. Heat” — then reverted to his modus operandi and got aggressive.

On 1st and 10, the Saints brought a blitz and played man-to-man coverage. Smith recognized the pressure and threw a deep ball to Brett Swain that fell incomplete. New Orleans dodged a bullet, as a better throw may have been a big play to Swain. On the play, tight end Vernon Davis was covered 1-on-1 by safety Malcolm Jenkins.

Vernon Davis (AP)

Note that on the 49ers’ previous drive, on 2nd and 10 from the SF 33, the Saints blitzed and Davis burned Jenkins’ man coverage for a 37-yard gain, setting up Smith’s touchdown run. Now, with 40 seconds left in the game, Williams and the Saints faced the identical situation that they had minutes earlier: 2nd and 10 from the SF 33.

Williams would have been wise to go back to the Prevent after the incomplete pass to Swain, as another 10-15 yard pass inbounds would have spent 15-20 seconds or the 49ers final timeout. But he didn’t. He called another man-coverage blitz, with Jenkins matched on Davis.

What followed was the end of the Saints season.

The 49ers knew Williams would blitz. They were ready to pick it up and called a blitz-beating crossing route for Davis.

With the blitz secured, Smith comfortably sat in the pocket and played pitch and catch for the biggest play of the game – an enormous chunk of 47 yards to Davis, who torched Jenkins, broke a tackle, AND got out of bounds. The play took all of nine seconds.

The quick math:

Prevent: 18 yards in 48 seconds (the two completions to Gore)

Williams Blitzes: 47 yards in 13 seconds (4 secs on the incomplete pass to Swain and 9 on the completion to Davis)

Netting those 47 yards in such a short amount of time allowed San Francisco to beat New Orleans in regulation. If the 49ers had continued to check the ball down, they may have had time for a game-tying field goal, but a touchdown would have been highly unlikely. And isn’t that what play-calling is all about? Likelihoods and odds? Giving your players the best percentage chance of success in a given situation?

If that’s what it’s all about, then Williams gets an “F” for his play-calling.

The end of the Saints season (AP)

Williams’ decision seems incredibly and fundamentally unsound given the way Davis had beaten Jenkins on the previous drive. It’s even worse given the game situation. With only 40 seconds left, make them work for yards. Tackle them inbounds. Prevent was the call to make. Discretion, the better part of valor.

The Prevent strategy is viewed by many as having lost games for teams. “They got soft.” “They let them march right down the field.” “This prevent defense can’t stop a nosebleed.”

But in many of those cases, it wasn’t the Prevent strategy that should be blamed, but the execution of it that failed – missed tackles, blown assignments, a pass interference penalty, for example.

Blitzing when the offense knows you will blitz and is ready to pick it up? Having Jenkins cover the best athlete on the field 1-on-1 time after time, in spite of him getting routinely roasted? That’s not bad execution. That’s bad play-calling.

Contrary to popular opinion, taking the safe approach and playing Prevent has won many more football games than it has lost.

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