Much has been made of Drew Brees’ lack of arm strength and inability to push the ball downfield for a few years now. And this notion has been proven true, to an extent. His average depth of target of 6.5 yards, which is the second lowest season total of his career, ranks near the bottom of the league this season.
But does it really matter? I’m not sure it does.
Not only is he leading the league in completion percentage and adjusted completion percentage by a wide margin, but he’s at a level of accuracy and consistency as far as completing passes that is even a career-best for him.
According to airyards.com, his depth-adjusted completion percentage over expected (CPOE) is at plus-9.8 percent, which is the best of his career–his second best being plus-8.4 percent last season.
He’s been so unbelievably accurate in the short-to-intermediate levels of the field, that his lack of throws in the 20-plus yard range hasn’t really had much of a negative affect on the Saints offense.
One could make the argument that he isn’t taking as many shots downfield due to his possible lack of faith in his current deep threats, compared to when he had Brandin Cooks, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem or even Jimmy Graham running seams and double moves.
However, the real truth is that Brees has never predominantly relied on the deep ball.
Since 2008, Pro Football Focus has recorded one season where Brees ranked in the top 16 of NFL passers in deep passing percentage (percentage of passes that travel 20 or more yards through the air)–2012 when he ranked 16th with 11.9 percent of his passes being thrown 20 or more yards downfield.
He’s always trusted his accuracy in the short and intermediate levels of the field and it’s always worked for him. And now he has two of the most electric playmakers with the ball in their hands in the game, with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, who also thrive in the short-to-intermediate area.
So why would he take chances downfield when he doesn’t need to?
Brees’ record-breaking Monday night performance against the Indianapolis Colts was a perfect encapsulation of how Brees can beat you in pretty much any way he wants to, and against any coverage a team presents to him. And yes, he can still hit the deep ball when the opportunity presents itself.
Not only did he break the all-time touchdown record, but he also set a record for the best completion percentage posted in a single game (96.7), going 29-for-30, with 307 yards and four touchdowns on 10.2 yards per attempt.
We’ll take a deep dive into his performance and analyze all four of his touchdowns and what coverages were attempted to try and stop him and the Saints offense:
Here, the Colts show a two-high safety look pre-snap, but rotate their weak-side safety down and their strong-side safety to the middle of the field, deploying a Cover 3 zone.
What’s the perfect cover 3 beater? That’s right, it’s your favorite play to call in Madden–four verticals.
Michael Thomas, who still can’t be guarded apparently, is running the seam here, while Tre’Quan Smith has the crossing route over the middle of the field.
Notice how hard the deep-middle safety Malik Hooker (A good safety who just had a miserable Monday night) bites down on the Smith crosser, due to the eyes of Brees. Brees stares down his first read, the crosser, and as soon as Hooker turns his hips, he’s done for. That’s why there’s a huge hole between he and the corner for the seam shot on Brees’ first TD of the night.
The Saints are in a trips right formation with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and the Colts are going to drop back into a Cover 2 zone, which is one of their staples. According to Next Gen Stats, Indy leads the league in Cover 2 rate, with over 30 percent of their defensive play calls consisting of that coverage.
With this in mind, Sean Payton had the perfect Cover 2 beater schemed up. Tre-Quan Smith sacrificed his route to bring the coverage down on him for the first touchdown pass of the night, but here he was the one benefitting from Jared Cook doing so.
Cook runs a short middle curl to pull the deep middle linebacker down, so he can’t carry Smith up-field.
Once again, Brees manipulates defenders with his eyes. He stares down Cook for a beat and as soon as the linebacker commits, he throws a dart. Look how low the Mike linebacker is covering Cook in the middle of the field underneath, allowing Smith access to the deep middle. Before the safeties can merge down, Brees fires it below and in between them, and voila, the touchdown record is tied.
And the record-breaker. The most important score of the night for Brees was also the easiest.
The Saints run one of their favorite red-zone plays, Y-leak. The underlined defender is in man coverage and bites hard on the run fake, allowing Josh Hill to sneak past him for one of the easiest, yet memorable, scores of his career.
Here the Colts are in single-high man-to-man coverage, so the Saints call a max-protection play-action shot play with Taysom Hill running a corner and Mike Thomas on the deep crosser. Timing here is really important because Hill is going to drop his hips as if he’s going to block during the run fake, before starting his route. This causes the defender Pierre Desir, who’s in man coverage against him, to pause for a beat, and Hill gets a step on him because of it.
Hill is able to stack Desir and gets outside leverage on the sail route and Brees delivers an accurate ball. Hill ends up shedding Desir’s attempt at a tackle and gets in the end zone for Brees’ final score of the night.
There are many more examples in this game of Brees showcasing his rare ability to absolutely disintegrate defensive gameplans with his mental processing, footwork, technique and deadly accuracy. But his four scores against the Colts were great examples of just how helpless defensive coordinators are in trying to figure out which coverages to call against the savvy veteran. Cover 3, Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6, you name it. He’ll find a way around it.
The only real answer is to double Michael Thomas, try to get pressure with four and attempt to lock up his other weapons in man coverage.