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Film Study: Drew Brees’ refusal to pass the ball deep is hurting the Saints offense

The Saints are a timing-based offense, but there needs to be some respect from defenses

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The short answer to the question “when should Saints fans freak out” is “not yet.” The slightly longer answer is “wait and see what happens in Detroit.” When Alvin Kamara isn’t on the field, the Saints’ offense looks anemic, and part of that is a seeming refusal from Drew Brees to throw the ball downfield.

Part of this, of course, is by design. The Saints’ offense is built in such a way that it accounts for Brees’ waning arm and instead relies on his pinpoint accuracy. However, as this season — in which the Saints have started 1-2 with two straight losses — wears on, defenses are going to continue to see that the Saints just aren’t going deep, and they’re going to adjust accordingly.

The main reason that this development is so baffling is because with the Michael Thomas injury, it was assumed that Sean Payton and the Saints were going to turn Emmanuel Sanders loose. He was touted as the best (or at least most talented) No. 2 receiver Brees has had in his time in New Orleans, and he looked the part with the 49ers last year. And yet, in the past two weeks Sanders has five catches for 74 yards.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. Brees doesn’t look comfortable, and his timing looks like it’s being consistently thrown off. And yet, he still appears to have a pocket. The reality is that it doesn’t look like he trusts his arm to make throws like the one Aaron Rodgers was making on Sunday night.

That does, however, start with the playcalling. Take a look at this play and see what I mean.

You don’t have to be terribly be seasoned to see what’s weird about this play, but if you’re curious, here’s what the concept looks like:

If you’re still wondering why this is off, here’s what it looks like when the ball is coming out of Brees’ hands:

This entire play is just a fundamental failure of spacing. Even if the design of the play was to divert the defense from Kamara which, I might add, is the only logical explanation for putting three receivers in the middle of the field, Brees is seasoned enough to know a zone coverage and to know he needs to check out of this play as the Packers are in a Cover 2 and Jaire Alexander ends up in perfect position to make a play. It is baffling why this play would go off in this manner, and it’s even more baffling why, on 2nd and 7, you have three players congesting the middle of the field at the sticks.

Now let’s talk about the other side of the coin: What in the world are the Saints’ receivers doing?

One thing you notice about Thomas — because his absence is a glaring problem in all of this — is that he runs his routes differently based on different coverages. If the defense is playing zone, he plays a very backyard football style of route-running, in which it almost looks like he listlessly drifts into uncovered areas. This is where his chemistry with Brees shines, because he’s as cerebral as Brees in picking apart defenses. Against man-to-man coverage, he’s aggressively trying to run down his defender. His routes become significantly more violent. In fact, if you ever wonder if a defense is running man or zone, watch how Thomas runs his routes. He’ll tell you.

Conversely, look at this play.

There’s no separation, and as an offense, you have to know this situation. You’re inside the 20, and the defense gets to hunker down due to a lack of space. Every receiver is going through the motions, and Brees is forced to throw at the ankles of Tre’Quan Smith to move on to the next play.

It’s not all on the receivers, however. Brees doesn’t seem to have trust in his players to win the deep throws anyways.

Pre-snap, it’s clear the Saints have an advantage on the top side. Two receivers are going up against one Packers DB, and two players stick underneath. Brees doesn’t even look downfield before checking down to Kamara, who immediately gets smothered when the ball hits his hands.

These three plays illustrate a ladder-like progression of issues for the Saints. They aren’t drawing up plays to go downfield, and when they do, the receivers don’t get separation, and even if they do, Brees isn’t looking for them. This is partly an issue of trust, but it’s also the nature of the Saints’ offense right now.

The numbers back this up. So far this year, Brees is dead last in intended air yards at 4.8 yards per attempt. The Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew is second-to-last at 6 yards per attempt. His average yards to the stick (i.e. where his passes go relative to the first-down marker) is last at -3.7 yards per attempt. His average completed air yards is second-to-last as well, trailing only Sam Darnold at 3.9 yards per completion.

The accuracy is still there, but the willingness to go downfield isn’t. Brees isn’t going through his progressions in the same way. While this is great for Kamara fantasy owners, it’s not quite what you want if you’re rooting for the Saints to win games.

Brees is past the point in his career where he’s going to consistently throw the ball 20-plus yards. He has been for some time. But if the Saints’ offense is going to be effective, it has to be a threat. If it isn’t defenses are only going to stack the box more, and it’s going to be harder and harder to make plays offensively. When Thomas returns, it may help matters. But Thomas alone isn’t going to fix the problems on this offense. The playcalling has to ramp up as well.

The Lions are middle-of-the-road against the pass, but the Saints need to wear their defense down. Going down to 1-3 could be a death knell in a season like this, and the Saints have to recover. It’s not so much that they played the Packers poorly, it’s more that they problems they displayed were an extension of the problems they showed in Week 2.

It’s time to rectify those mistakes if they’re going to return to their status as a Super Bowl contender. That starts with the offense, and it has to start with the stretching the field and making the passing game a threat moving forward.

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