We are in the thick of it now. Late era Drew Brees has finally arrived. After an age 39 season where the quarterback looked like a 29 year old quarterback, Brees’ age 40 season has made him look like the 40 year old quarterback he is. At some point even the greats fall off the cliff. Peyton Manning’s last season saw him throw 17 interceptions in only 9 games and this year’s version of Tom Brady is making him look like a 50 year old.
A major trait of late era Brees is how the deep passing attack has almost entirely left Brees’ game. Not only that, throws in the 10 to 20 yard range have dried up a bit as well. Yet, Brees and the Saints offense continues to move the football effectively through the air. The reason is Brees’ continued precision in quick game passing. You can make the argument that Brees is the best quick game thrower of all time. He’s just never wrong. His beautiful mind always leads him to the right receiver. His accuracy always puts the ball in that receivers hands. It’s truly uncanny.
In the current climate where deep and intermediate passing (especially off play action) is the new football meta, this late era Brees is going against the grain with short dropbacks and elite timing. Brees has learned to manipulate his dropbacks to compensate for different receiver routes and, as I will show, different opponent leverages.
For our control group, let’s start with one of rookie quarterback Daniel Jones’ dropbacks:
As we can see, the young kid likes to take a lot of hitch steps (those are the forward steps after the dropback is finished). This tends to throw off rhythm and, sometimes, accuracy.
Here’s Aaron Rodgers and Josh Rosen talking about hitching the least amount possible:
To throw the ball rhythmically, you want to fire the pass off at the end of your dropback or at most after one hitch. Brees is a master at this. You will rarely find him hitching more than once per play and can probably count on one hand how many times he does it per game. This nice corner route to Jared Cook is timed perfectly off one hitch.
One of the Saints favorite pass concepts over the years has been their weakside option/choice concept. They’ve been working this concept to death this season as they have 3 different players able to run the “choice” route as part of the choice concept. Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and now Jared Cook.
The route is run from the slot receiver or the running back coming out of the backfield. The route runner has 3 options: quick out route, quick in/slant route, quick hitch. The receiver is deciding his route based on where the defender plays him. If his man is inside, he breaks out. If he’s outside, he breaks in. If there is off coverage, he can just hitch up around 5 yards.
It’s a quick hitting route that the Saints answer with against all coverages. Where Brees separates himself from the other quarterbacks is that he will change the timing of his dropback, based on what he sees the defense do right before the snap. It’s a level mastery that not many quarterbacks have. Most teams have this play in their arsenal but not many quarterbacks can execute it like this.
Let’s look at 2 examples.
First, against Carolina, the Saints are running the choice route with Jared Cook on the bottom of the screen.
In order for Cook to effectively run the route, he must get close enough to the linebacker before breaking either inside or out. If he cuts his route too short without threatening the defender, it makes it easier for the defender to close on the route. Cook plants his foot to break inside on his 5th step. Brees matches Cook’s departure by taking a normal 3 step dropback and then hitching to find the tight end over the middle.
Contrast to this same concept against Atlanta one game later:
It’s the same concept with the outside receiver pulling off the deep coverage and the slot getting the option route inside. The difference is, because Michael Thomas’ defender is in a press alignment, Thomas is already close to the defender. The receiver just needs to gain inside leverage immediately instead of working up the field. In about half the steps of Jared Cook, he’s gained the inside. Now, Brees must change his dropback so he can throw to Thomas when the receiver is at the maximum amount of separation. The quarterback takes what I call a “quick 3 step” meaning he won’t crossover his feet like in the Panthers clip and then throws without hitching to Thomas. On time. On the money.
When the receiver needs to take less steps, Brees takes less steps. Timing is everything. Sean Payton called the same play in the huddle to the weakside of the formation and even with different defensive alignments, the wily quarterback is able to still throw rhythmically. These are the subtle reasons why the Saints can continue to have success even with a signal caller on the wrong side of 40.