— Did you ever think the Saints would miss Reggie Bush?
You know all about Bush — he’s the overrated, overpaid first-round bust, the embarrassment who had to give back his Heisman Trophy, the second-rate third-down specialist masquerading as a superstar. He was a bit player in the Saints All-Star cast, and when he broke his leg in Week Two, no one expected the Saints offense to miss a beat.
One month later, the Saints are 4-3, and while you can’t blame all of their problems on Bush’s absence, it’s obvious that they missed their versatile all-purpose back in both the passing and running game. Bush is expected to return this week, and not a moment too soon; the Saints need someone to make the Steelers think twice before sending their kitchen sink blitzes.
Bush may not be your idea of a smart percentage player, but a close look at the numbers shows that he does a lot of the little things that make the Saints offense go.
All Betts are off
At first glance, LaDell Betts has done an adequate job replacing Bush as the Saints’ third-down back. Betts averages 4.5 catches per game, more than Bush averaged last year (3.6), and his yards-per-reception average (5.7) is only slightly lower than Bush’s in 2009 (7.0).
But dig deeper. Three short passes to Betts were intercepted, including one that was returned for a touchdown by the Browns. Drew Brees threw 68 passes to Bush last year without an interception, in part because passes don’t bounce off Bush’s hands and into a defender’s (see the Cardinals game). When Betts isn’t batting passes in the air or getting hung up on screens, he’s catching six-yard passes on 3rd-and-15 or minus-1 yard passes on 2nd-and-21. Betts has been targeted five times on third down without picking up a first down. Bush recorded four first downs and three touchdowns on 15 third-down passes last year. That's not All-Pro production, but evidence of his ability to turn a dump-off into something special.
When you think “goal line back,” you usually don’t think of Reggie Bush. But Bush is surprisingly effective in the red zone, both as a runner and a receiver. Bush earned 15 red zone carries last year, and he responded with five touchdowns, two first downs, and only three stuffs for no gain or a loss. Pierre Thomas (the Saints’ starting running back, also out with injuries) was also a serviceable goal-line runner, so the Saints didn’t have to get pass-happy near the end zone unless they wanted to.
Without Bush and Thomas, Saints running backs have 21 red-zone carries and exactly one touchdown. Granted, many of those “goal line carries” are really from the 19-yard line. If you focus only on goal-to-go situations, and the Saints have one touchdown on eight carries.
We’ve already seen what Bush provides in the passing game, but his short receptions are even more important to the Saints once they are inside the 20-yard line. One of the team’s signature plays from about 15-yards out is the shallow drag to Bush: he runs in front of the linebackers, catches a short toss, and tries to outrun everyone to the corner of the end zone. Last year, Bush caught eight passes in the red zone, scoring twice and recording a bunch of 6-to-8 yard gains that set up future touchdowns. In Week 2 of this year, Bush caught a six-yard touchdown pass against the Niners. Betts has been thrown four passes in the red zone resulting in an incompletion, a gain of one, a loss of two, and an interception.
The role player
I must sound like the president of the Bush Fan Club by now. I don’t want to overstate his value. Bush’s tap dances in the backfield and backward runs on punt returns cause a lot of headaches. He’s too brittle and inconsistent to be an every down back. There are other backs in the NFL who can do what he does as a receiver, either much better (Ray Rice) or for far less money (Dexter McCluster). And Thomas’ injury was also a blow to the Saints offense.
Thomas’ loss, however, was offset by the emergence of rookie Chris Ivory, who has rushed for 325 yards but caught only one pass. It’s easier to replace the guy who runs the ball on first down than the guy who shifts all over the formation and has a major role in the passing game. And we get so caught up talking about Bush’s weaknesses that we sometimes ignore his strengths. We’ve complained about the hype for so long that no one noticed that there’s no more hype. He has become so overrated that he’s underrated.
The Saints' offense relies on Bush’s short catches in traffic, his ability to outsprint linebackers to the sticks, and the mismatches he can create in coverage. His ability to work the middle of the field makes him an important weapon against the Steelers, who like to crowd defenders in the line to disguise their blitzes. Steelers defenders are often a step late to arrive in their zones when dropping back at the snap; they get away with it because the quarterback is usually too busy getting clobbered to find the out-of-position defender.
Bush can turn a short reception in an unoccupied zone into a big play. He can run and catch effectively in the red zone. Betts and the other Saints backs cannot. The added dimension he brings to the offense could turn the Saints season around, just when they need it most.
Not bad for an overpaid underachiever.