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3 Steps & It’s Out - Saints QB Drew Brees’ mastery of the 3 step drop

How the Saints Stay on Schedule

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Being able to throw the ball in a rhythmic manner is one of the most important parts in playing quarterback. Anytime a quarterback has to stand around in the pocket waiting for his receivers to get open, his life becomes infinitely more stressful. Not even the best quarterbacks want to hang out in a collapsing pocket for very long.

According to ProFootballFocus, quarterbacks throwing to their first read adds .09 Expected Points per play. Going to the next read drops the EPA/play to -.04 and finding the checkdown results in -.03. That’s a big difference

Drew Brees adds a whopping .46 EPA/play throwing to his first read. There was no other quarterback in the league over .30 in 2018. This is where talent and scheme meet. Sean Payton crafting ways for Brees’ first read to get open and Brees finding that receiver while delivering an accurate ball.

I have few qualms with how the Saints run their offense but I do believe Sean Payton calls too many runs on 1st down. The need to “stay on schedule” is classic offensive coordinator thinking. The problem is that few teams running on 1st down actually stay on schedule. Excluding red zone snaps, on 1st and 10 runs throughout the league, teams only had a successful play (4 yards on 1st down) 47% of the time compared to 54% of the time when throwing the ball. The Saints splits are even more striking: 49% when running (241 times) and 65% when passing (211 times). Success rate also doesn’t take into account the fact that passing plays will likely result in more explosive plays than running plays will.

I believe that the Saints should allow Brees to keep them on schedule more than their running game. When the team does throw on first down, a big chunk of their passing attack revolves around a lightning strike “quick game”. Quick game pass concepts, in my estimation, are plays that involve the quarterback taking at most a 3 step dropback and not a screen play. I charted 62 examples of Drew Brees performing a 3 step drop from the shotgun on 1st down in the regular season. For reference, the Saints called 160 pass plays in total on 1st down in those games.

The first thing you realize from watching Brees is that not all 3 step drops are created equal. Receiver routes will break open at different times so the ability to change your dropback subtly so that the end of your dropback correlates with a lane to throw becoming available is paramount.

Brees has 4 different dropbacks: 3 step, “quick” 3 step, “open” 3 step and “slide” 3 step.

3 Step

-17/62 plays-

12 completions within the context of the pass concept, 4 incompletions and 1 completion on a scramble.

This is the dropback that every young quarterback learns in his life. Brees will push off with his left leg in order to swing his body open to the right. As he’s pushing off, his left foot will pivot to become parallel with the line of scrimmage so he can use that leg to cross over his right leg. Once the left leg plants on the ground, the right leg pulls back and lands to finish the drop.

With his shoulders opening to the right sideline this makes it easier to throw routes to the right. 12 of his 17 dropbacks using this 3 step resulted in him throwing to the right. Even from the left hash, he can position his body to aim all the way to the right sideline using this dropback.

From this drop, Brees was able to throw a lot of “speed outs” in rhythm. Here’s one to Ginn:

3 Quick


9 completions within the context of the pass concept, 2 drops on accurate throws and 1 completion on a scramble.

For this dropback, Brees will again push off his left foot to swing open his right leg but instead of crossing over with the left over the right, he will plant the left foot and stop his dropback there.

This will allow him to hit slightly quicker routes and he was able to throw a few slant routes off this dropback.

Because he doesn’t cross his feet over, he can finish this dropback less tilted to the right sideline like the previous one. Now, he can throw to his left easier. He threw to the left 7 of the 12 drops.

3 Open


12 completions within the context of the pass play and 1 on a scramble.

When Brees starts this dropback by pushing off his left foot, he won’t swing the right leg open as much. This allows him to almost perform an inverted crossover step with his left leg behind his right leg. Now, his shoulders can stay parallel to the line of scrimmage as he drops back.

He can throw much easier to his left side. 11 of his 13 dropbacks using 3 quick went to the left. On plays where he’s pretty sure before the snap he’s going to go to the left this is a good dropback to use like this wheel to Kamara:

3 Slide


15 completions within the context of the play, 2 drops on accurate throws, 2 incompletions and 1 run on a scramble.

This dropback snuck up on me. Really it’s a pseudo 4 step drop that Brees makes look like a 3 step drop. Instead of pivoting on his left foot, he will hop back or “slide” back before finishing the dropback.

By adding an extra step in his drop, he’s able to hit deeper targets. The average depth of target on this dropback was 10 yards compared to 7.2 yards for the regular 3 step and 4 yards with the 3 Quick.

Instead of throwing Ginn a speed out route at 5 yards with his regular drop, he can throw it passed the first down marker:

In all, of the 62 plays charted, 52 were completed or dropped within the context of the play. Brees had to escape the pocket on 6 of them.

Brees threw the ball rhythmically as he finished his drop on 29 of those plays. He completed 28 of them and 1 was dropped.

When he had to hitch up once (either when he was going through his reads of by design to hit a deeper route), he completed 21 out of 24 passes.

The Saints quick passing game on 1st down is absolutely lethal. Brees’ ability to throw on time and to the right receiver allows the Saints to stay on schedule.