All season, New Orleans Saints defensive players have stressed the importance of eye discipline.
Entering Sunday's Wild Card playoff game against Chicago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it might take on an even higher degree of importance as the Saints (12-4) look to advance to the divisional round.
Chicago (8-8) has a different starting quarterback now (Mitchell Trubisky) than it did on Nov. 1 (Nick Foles), when the Saints pulled out a 26-23, overtime victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. And with Trubisky comes mobility, the kind that possibly can test the limits of a defense.
Hence, the eye discipline, for an opponent that likes the play action and will put Trubisky on the move.
"It becomes a little bit easier if the running game isn't having the desired success that your opponent wants," Saints Coach Sean Payton said this week. "But the conflicts that take place on the back side – on a wide zone, the backside end is closing, he might be the player that they're not blocking and so he's the free player that can close, and so if that ball cuts up he's there to make the tackle. Well then, there's a conflict when the quarterback comes off of that and now is in a boot, and we've got to redirect.
"And then our backside eyes at linebacker, relative to what looks like the wide zone but here comes the swap boot, where like a tight end or receiver comes back against the grain, comes from the running side and out to the weak side, and I'm (the linebacker) responsible for him. And so, there are these conflicts that take place – run or pass, run or pass, run or pass – and our eyes have to be real good."
And that's not all, Payton said.
"I think that's a starting point, relative to what you're seeing," he said. "And then there's a premium on any indicators that you might be able to pick up that might to tell you 'bird (or) rabbit,' like we used to say, 'bird' being pass, 'rabbit' being run. If you can get some of those indicators – maybe the depth of the back, maybe the play-fake was decent but the quarterback came out a little skinnier – all of those things factor into defending a good boot, or naked, or not.
"It's the essence of, we're going to run the ball, we're going to drop back and throw the ball, and then the last thing we're going to do is act like we're going to run it with a play-action fake, and throw it. There are some play-action protections that are easy to key and diagnose and I can still get to my zone, I can still get to my man. And then there are other play actions that look and feel and taste and smell a lot more like a run. Those ones are the ones that are a little bit more challenging."
Trubisky has been effective since returning to the lineup after being benched earlier this season.
In the first three games he completed 59 percent of his passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns, with three interceptions, and ran eight times for 85 yards. He was replaced in the third game, against Atlanta, after completing 13 of 22 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, with an interception; Foles led the Bears to a comeback, 30-26 road win.
But in the six games since returning to starting status, Trubisky has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards and 10 touchdowns, with four interceptions, and has 24 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Include an impact running back – David Montgomery has run for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns on 247 carries, and has 438 yards and two touchdowns on 54 catches – and Chicago can present a balanced offense.
"Well, I think they're just complimenting their offensive scheme really well," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who shared the Saints' team lead with three interceptions. "You already had the runs that are little bit difficult to deal with, because they got jet motions and tight end swaps, and all these things that distract you. And then it's hitting downhill, they got a really good running back who can run through contact, it's good balance, and can follow blocks.
"But I think the biggest part is they've been doing a lot more movement passes and play actions to stay, or to marry with that run game. And it makes it really hard, especially if you have undisciplined eyes, it keeps them ahead of the sticks, it makes it easy for the quarterback to just get the ball out of his hands or give him a run option.
"And so we're going to have to deal with a lot of that movement and be able to get them into situations where you have to go to drop back. So that means that we've got to stop the run. And that means we'll have to have disciplined eyes when they hit us with play actions and really make them get into a spread out, drop back game."