Inability to Attack Downfield a Concern for Saints Offense

Arm strength doesn’t make a quarterback. You don’t have to have a cannon dangling from your shoulder to be effective as a passer. And we’ve seen plenty of gunslingers with powerful arms fail miserably in the NFL. Yet arm strength also isn’t unimportant, and the lack of zip on Drew Brees’ passes has limited New Orleans’ ability to consistently attack downfield.

Against the Bears, Brees played well. He completed 28 of 39 passes for 265 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The explosive plays in the passing game were few and far between, though. Even on intermediate throws, Brees struggled to connect with his receivers. This was especially true against zone coverage.

For the most part, defenders don’t play with their backs turned to the quarterback in zone coverage. Instead, they attempt to read the routes and receivers in front of them as well as the quarterback. This is why timing, anticipation, and accuracy are so critical for a quarterback. Drew Brees has all of those attributes, yet the lack of zip on his passes enabled Bears defenders to make plays on downfield throws that Brees executed with good timing. It also led to Chicago’s safeties sitting on routes at the intermediate level because they were not afraid of getting beat over the top.

Take this play, for instance. To the top of the screen, the Bears were playing quarters coverage. Focus on tight end Jared Cook, the intended receiver, and safety Tashaun Gipson.

Week 18 - Saints O vs. Bears D_1
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Despite Brees hitting his back foot and starting his throwing motion before Cook was out of his break, Gipson was able to get to Cook at the same time that the ball arrived.

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That was very close to being an interception (it was at first before replay overturned it). But the play was made because Gipson felt comfortable sitting on that route without fear of getting beat over the top. More concerning is that despite the timing by Brees, Gipson was still able to get to Cook in time because the ball didn’t have enough velocity on it.

You could make the argument that Gipson also sat on that route because he was covering Jared Cook and not a speedy wide receiver. Why worry about getting beat over the top by a tight end? Well, on the below play we saw the same thing happen on an intended pass to Michael Thomas. Below, focus on Thomas and Gipson again.

Week 18 - Saints O vs. Bears D_2
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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Again, Brees got rid of the ball quickly and started his motion before Thomas got his head around. But Gipson, still not afraid of getting beat deep, was ready to pounce. He got there just as the ball did to force the incompletion again.

None of this means Brees can’t succeed vs. zone coverage. But zone does inhibit his ability to consistently attack at the intermediate-to-deep levels of the field.

By contrast, the Saints’ big plays on downfield throws came against man coverage, where timing, anticipation, and velocity are often less of a factor. Focus on Deonte Harris (#11) in the slot to the left.

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If a receiver can beat his man like Harris did here and create lots of cushion away from help defenders, there is more margin of error for the quarterback in terms of timing, velocity, and even ball placement to still be able to complete the pass.

You can see another example here on this 3rd down. Focus on Michael Thomas on the outside to the left.

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Drew Brees has looked just okay since returning from his rib injuries. His velocity was already lagging pre-injury, and it’s fair to wonder if there is any pain or discomfort still in his midsection preventing him from getting the necessary torque to drive the ball on downfield throws. It will be interesting to see how any of this factors into the way the Buccaneers choose to defend New Orleans’ passing game this weekend.

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