Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
METAIRIE, La. – The first thing Drew Brees does when he’s handed the post-game statistical booklet is turn to page three where he searches for third-down conversions.
Though a perfectionist, he likely has been pleased the past three weeks.
Against defenses that have statistically been near the top of the NFL, Brees and the Saints are passing with flying colors.
New Orleans leads the NFL on third-down, converting 58.7 percent of the time. The NFL average, by the way, is 39 percent.
Once again n Sunday, the Saints (4-1) will test their mettle against one of the NFL’s best units in getting off the field. New Orleans plays at Tampa Bay (3-2), the sixth-best team at getting off the field on third downs, allowing conversions just 32.7 percent of the time.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees says Tampa’s success on third down can be attributed to their style, playing man-to-man coverage with two safeties and a defensive line that creates pressure on the quarterback.
“When you look at what it takes to be good on third down, first of all you want to try to get teams in third and longs and second you want to have a good pass rush that’s making the quarterback uncomfortable, forcing him to get the ball out quicker than he wants in tight coverage, so that’s something that they’ve been pretty good at,” Brees said.
And yet, the Buccaneers could be saying the same thing about the Saints.
Brees leads the NFL in third-down passing, sticking a 149.9 quarterback rating to his opponents. Seven of his 12 touchdown passes have come on third down and none of his five interceptions have been on the down.
More impressive – he’s completing 77.8 percent of his passes on third down.
“I think when we drop back and pass and it is third-and-long, Drew just has a knack for finding the open guy immediately,” left guard Carl Nicks said.
Much of the time, those open have been tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.
Of Brees’ 42 completions on third down, 13 have gone to Sproles for 129 yards and a score while nine have gone to Graham for 130 yards and a touchdown.
“I mainly think it’s because they might be thinking we’re going deep,” Sproles said. “That’s why they always leave me open.”
New Orleans can only hope the trend from the past three weeks holds.
In Week 3, Houston brought the No. 2 third-down defense into the Superdome, holding its previous two opponents to conversions only 23.8 percent of the time. The Saints went 8 of 13 against the Texans.
A week later, Jacksonville boasted the No. 6 defense, allowing only 33.3 percent conversions. The Saints went 7 of 14.
And this past week, against Carolina’s No. 7 defense that had recorded a 33.3 percent rate, New Orleans was 12 of 17.
Since coach Sean Payton took over in 2006, the Saints are the second-best team in the NFL, converting 47.4 percent of the time.
This season, the Saints have been at their best on third-and-short and third-and-long, converting 13 of 19 from third-and-1 or 2 and 6 of 7 from between third-and-11 to 15.