By David Kang
In a quarterback’s 17th season in the league, it would not be a surprise to hear talks of decline and how the team needs to find a young replacement. However, in the case of Drew Brees, it is of a very peculiar circumstance. The team is off to its best start in the last 6 seasons, and they have already reached 7 wins on the season through 9 games, which matches their win total in 4 out of the past 5 seasons.
The rumblings of decline coming out of New Orleans is likely due to Brees having a “down” year in his counting stats, at least compared to what we expect from Drew Brees. His numbers protracted to 16 games would amount to 382 completions in 533 attempts for 4263 yards, 23 TDs, and 7 INTs. 23 TDs would be his lowest since 2003 when he was a second year starter for the San Diego Chargers. His yardage total would be his lowest thus far as the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints. These numbers are a far cry from the usual 5000 yards and 35+ TDs that we’ve come to expect from Drew Brees.
Although his volume stats might not be up to par with his career, Brees’ rate statistics have been outstanding. He is currently on pace to break the pass completion percentage record at 71.7% while also posting a very good yards per attempt of 8.0. For comparison, the current record holder, Sam Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes but only had a pedestrian 7.0 yards per attempt. His ANY/A of 7.86 this season would be his best by a fair margin since his ludicrous 2011 season and would rank 3rd in his career.
In terms of the film, Brees still looks sharp on the field. He remains one of the fastest processing QBs in the NFL, and his footwork, pocket mobility, and mechanics are unmatched by rest of the QBs.
You can see all of that in this play:
It’s early in the 2nd quarter with the Saints only up 4 on 3rd and 13. The Saints have a switch out/post combo on the left with a RB running to the flat and a backside deep dig. The Bills have the perfect coverage called in Cover 3 and generally play this very well. The CB and S do a good job of carrying and neutralizing the post, and with the nickleback dropping into the deep flat, he has the out route covered as well. The backside dig is covered well with the CB carrying him deep with outside leverage, and the safety playing robber and being in perfect position to drive on the in breaking route.
Despite the Bills playing essentially perfect coverage, Brees still manages to make something out of nothing. He scans quickly to the left side of the field and sees neither of his receivers open. With the Bills running an E-T stunt and compressing the pocket, Brees does a great job of resetting once he gets to the top of his drop (you can also see how clockwork Brees is in syncing his progression with his feet), stepping up to avoid the pressure, and creating a better throwing lane. He is all but ready to throw a strike once he stepped up and pivoted to the dig, but he sees that the receiver is covered and manages to pump and hold onto the ball. Now, instead of just taking a sack or panicking at the face of oncoming pressure. Brees subtly adjusts his plant leg toward the direction of where he wants the receiver to go to get his shoulders aligned to his target and resets his feet again. With the bit of hesitation, the receiver manages to shake free from the safety, and Brees throws his receiver open for a 30-yard gain and a first down.
Here, the Saints run a route concept similar to Dagger, where the slot WR run a seam route to clear the middle of the field while the outside WR runs a dig into the vacated space. The Bills show an exotic blitz that looks like Cover 3 but leaves the middle of the field completely uncovered. Brees does a great job of staring at the seam to hold the safety from making a play on the dig. Brees’ impeccable timing and footwork is on display once again as when Brees reaches the top of his drop and takes a hitch step, the receiver is making his break. Brees throws the ball with excellent anticipation and good (though slightly behind) accuracy to let the receiver make a play after the catch.
Going back to the talk of Brees’ decline, a difference in this New Orleans Saints offense from those of years past is the lack of vertical element in the passing game. With Brandin Cooks, who led the Saints in yards per catch in 2016, being traded to the New England Patriots, the Saints shifted gears in their offense. Sean Payton has always loved utilizing their RBs in the pass game, but they have not had the personnel to do so since Darren Sproles left New Orleans. They tried to replace him with CJ Spiller, but it was clear that Spiller was nowhere near the caliber of player. Mark Ingram then received a bulk of the targets, and although acceptable in the pass game, he did not provide a dynamic element to the offense like Sproles did.
Enter Alvin Kamara. The Saints drafted Kamara in the 3rd round and gave up a 2018 2nd round pick to do so. They drafted him with a very clear and defined role, and Kamara has done nothing but excel. Kamara has excellent receiving abilities with great hands and ability to make plays in the open field with his toughness and balance through contact.
In 2016, the Saints targeted their RBs roughly 24.5% of the time in their passing attack. Mark Ingram, the RB who received the most targets, was 5th on the team in targets behind Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and Coby Fleener. So far in 2017, RBs have been accountable for 32.9% of passing targets. Alvin Kamara is second in the team behind Michael Thomas with 53 targets to Thomas’s 83. Ingram is 3rd on the team with 39 targets. With no capable receivers replacing the departed Brandin Cooks, the Saints have decided to resort to their RBs instead.
Against the Bills in Week 10, the Saints used a particular screen pass to get Kamara the ball in space:
The Saints in their preparation probably have noticed that the Bills like to play a certain coverage against trips to the field in 3rd and medium situations. The first play is 3rd and 7 and the second is 3rd and 5. Notice the numbers advantage they have to the trips side of the formation. There are only 2 CBs playing 3 WRs with the safety being 15 yards deep in the field. To exploit this, the Saints called a RB swing screen to Kamara, where he should have more blockers than defenders in the open field. Being on the field side also gives Kamara a lot more room to operate in the open field.
In the first play, Brees audibled into the screen after confirming the look that he got from the defense. There appears to be some miscommunication as Ted Ginn picks one of his own blockers as he cuts aimlessly into the middle of the field. The CB is then unblocked and is in position to make a play on Kamara. However, Kamara jukes him out, and gets taken down short of the 1st down after Michael Thomas’s lackluster attempt at blocking.
On the second play, the same thing occurs as Brees audibles into the screen play after seeing the same look on the defense. There is no miscommunication issues, and the receivers do a much better job blocking on this play. Kamara makes a defensive lineman miss, and the play goes for a solid 12 yards and a 1st down.
Aside from the pass game, another key reason for Brees’ decline in counting stats is the decline in pass attempts. As stated before, Brees is on pace to throw for 533 attempts this season, which is a whopping 123 attempts lower than the average of 656 attempts in his previous 7 seasons. Oddly enough, 533 would be his lowest since 2009 when he only threw 519 passes and later went on to win the Super Bowl. The drop in attempts could largely be attributed to how productive the Saints have been in running the football. The Saints have the best rushing offense in football per Football Outsiders and rank 2nd in the league in overall offensive DVOA%. A lot of this dominance in the rushing attack can be attributed to their offensive line. The Saints already had a very strong group with Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, and Max Unger, but they have further bolstered their offensive line in the offseason with Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk at RG and RT respectively. Combined with the aforementioned Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, the Saints have developed into a great rushing offense.
Even though they boast a great offensive line and stable of running backs, Sean Payton has also done a great job in developing the run game. With the plethora of fakes and misdirection, Payton has made his players jobs a lot easier to execute.
One run play in particular the Saints ran often was the fake jet motion toss. They ran a variant of this play four times against the Bills, and they resulted in 9, 19, 5 (TD), and 9 yard gains. The mechanics of this play is quite simple. The jet motion flows hard in one direction while the toss goes in the other.
This is the first fake jet motion toss they ran. The Saints line up in a tight trips formation on the left. The #1 receiver Ted Ginn motions hard across the field as Brees snaps it and fakes the hand off to him. What this does to the defense is it makes them flow left to defend the jet sweep (Watch from the endzone angle of the play from the defense’s perspective). The defenders all step toward their left, which makes the offensive line’s jobs much easier. The offensive linemen (except the LT) in this situation all zone step to their left, and their job is to reach block their defenders and trap them to the offense’s right, essentially creating a wall between the defenders and the play. #83 has the hardest block on this play on #55 the DE. On a jet sweep, the DE obviously does not have the responsibility of chasing the sweep from the backside against a much faster player. In this scenario, the DE plays the RB as a contain player if he will, and thus, he is the most likely to stop this play from being successful. The WR who is crack blocking him needs to get just enough of him to let the RB skirt around him. It is often a very difficult play for a WR to make as the DEs are much bigger in size. #83 does an adequate job here and hooks #55 just enough to allow Kamara to go around him. This results in a very big running lane for Kamara and a good 9-yard gain.
Overall, the purported decline of Drew Brees has largely been misguided and a mere reflection of the down-tick in counting stats due to the changing structures and pieces around him. The Saints offense still remains one of the best in the league, and the Saints are the only team in the league to rank in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive DVOA%. Although the future of the Saints franchise is unclear with Drew Brees on the last year of his deal at age 38, in the present, they appear to be the best team in football with a great chance at competing for the Super Bowl come February.