Teddy Bridgewater has more than held his own. Albeit, the gritty team wins against Seattle and Dallas had more to do with the Saints’ defense and special teams performances than Bridgewater’s, but the win against Tampa Bay had Bridgewater’s fingerprints all over it.
Instead of simply “game-managing” like he had his first two starts, #5 finally took control of the offense, limited penalties, and made quicker and more decisive throws only where his receivers could catch them. In one game, the quarterback we cheered “Teddy!” for reminded us that is was a completely savvy decision to pay Michael Thomas $20 million a year no matter who’s throwing him the ball.
But before we anointing Bridgewater and start talking potential future Saints quarterback controversies (just kidding, no one is talking like that, yet), we have to remember one simple fact. Ranked 32nd overall, Tampa Bay has the worst passing defense in the league.
In fact, they have given up an average of 323 yards per game, so Bridgewater’s 314 passing yards were right in line with what the Buccaneers had yielded to the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton, Daniel Jones, and Jared Goff. No other team in the entire league besides the Bucs has averaged more than 300 yards against them through the air.
Long story short: the Saints put up a bunch of points on a weak defense at home and they are about to play two better defenses, on the road, two weeks in a row.
After Drew Brees posted an Instagram story displaying his expedited recovery and new found ability to throw a non-regulation size football again, some wondered if Brees was eyeing an early return to the field. Is it possible he could be available for the October 20th game in Chicago?
“As far as the timetable for getting back though, they say six-to-eight weeks,” Brees told WWL’s Bobby Hebert. “I think I can beat that, but I’m just gonna take it one week at a time and see how things go.”
Luckily the Saints’ current four game winning streak has lessened the pressure on Brees’ immediate return. Unlike the win against Tampa Bay, which had a lot to do with the Saints’ offense, this latest win against Jacksonville had much more to do with their defense. CSC’s John Hendrix posted this interesting tweet that acknowledged Bridgewater’s pedestrian performance, but also displayed his strong leadership.
Teddy Bridgewater: "I apologized to DA (Dennis Allen) today right after the game. Told him, man I'm sorry. You know, I don't want to have to put you in that situation where you're having fight all game and where we're making it hard on you."— John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) October 13, 2019
They could drop the next game against Chicago and still be 5-2. Because the 4-2 Panthers have their bye next week, the Saints would still sit atop the division even if they lose. The following week, the Panthers will have to take on a surging, undefeated San Francisco team while the Saints get to play a weaker Arizona opponent.
If Brees’ thumb feels normal again, which it doesn’t yet, the team can be even better with him in the lineup. Their offense would certainly benefit from his return.
The Saints are 5-1, but their point differential for the season is just +6. That's the lowest by a team with at least a 5-1 record through six games since the 1988 Bills, per @ESPNStatsInfo.— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) October 13, 2019
Yet, even if Brees woke up tomorrow and could magically throw “the Duke” pain free and with 100% accuracy, I would strongly advise he wait until at least the week eight matchup against Arizona. Their 29th ranked defense would provide a softer matchup for Brees to get his feet wet again.
The Bears defense, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. They currently rank fifth overall and have only given up an average of 13.8 points per game this year. Their sixth ranked run defense is stout and has only yielded 83 yards per game. Their 11th ranked pass defense is also better than average and has displayed some ballhawk moments with four interceptions.
With possible rain and mild low 60s/high 50s temperatures expected, this road game against an underachieving NFC North team doesn’t seem as scary as it could be mid December. Snow and/or freezing temps in Chicago are entirely possible then. Normally, I would of course prefer a healthy Brees against this defense rather than Bridgewater, but there is one game-changing factor that gives me serious pause on pushing the Brees early return button.
As most of us can’t forget, it was Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald whose hand awkwardly high-fived Brees’ hand as he was releasing a pass. There are few players in the league on the defensive side of the ball who can be compared with Donald.
Chicago’s elite pass rusher Khalil Mack is just as disruptive, and if the Saints offensive line had trouble containing Donald, they may have a similar problem containing Mack. During this season alone, Mack already has one more tackle, three and a half more sacks, and three more forced fumbles than Donald, who is arguably of the league’s best defenders.
What’s even more terrifying is a quick look at Mack’s solo production versus his former team’s entire production since his trade from the Raiders mid last season.
Since the trade...— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 2, 2019
Khalil Mack: 18 games played, 17 sacks (.94 per game), 10 forced fumbles, 1 TD.
Raiders: 20 games played, 18 sacks (.90 per game), 8 forced fumbles, 2 TD.
Since collecting four sacks his rookie season, Mack has never finished a season with less than double digit sack totals. He gets his hands in the air and is a master of the batted pass much like the Saints’ own Cam Jordan. That could be a recipe for re-injury to Brees’ hand.
Mack’s aggressive and relentless style of play screams one thing to me. If there is one player who is more than likely to rip through the Saints’ potent offensive line and put his hands all over the opposing quarterback, it’s Mack. This is simply not the matchup Brees should try to rush back for.
The following week on October 27th, the Saints play the defensively hapless Cardinals outfit which is currently ranked 29th overall. The game is at home in the Superdome against a team that’s giving up 27 points and 408 yards per game. Their pass defense is ranked 24th and their run defense is even worse at 27th.
Brees has shown before that he heals fast and is willing to attack rehab seriously in order to recover faster than other humans. If he is actually starting to feel closer to playing again, the home game Halloween weekend against Arizona is a perfect place to start.
But trying to return any earlier than that could pose significantly more risks than benefits. Brees could risk re-injuring his thumb facing an above average defense with an elite pass rusher or he could wait until a more favorable matchup.
Even if Brees has to sit until after the bye week as originally expected, the worst case scenario would be Brees starting his first game back at home against a familiar and rudderless foe while his team can’t have worse than an above .500 record.
Because the back half of the Saints schedule hold five of their six divisional matchups, the team’s quest for a third divisional title is still very much in the mix. Brees and the Saints can afford to be patient, but if the field general says he’s ready to go week eight against Arizona I’ll be ready for that too.