Walking down to the Saints locker room Sunday, I began to wonder what exactly I was going to write from an 18-point win that felt more blah than impressive.
When I listened to Sean Payton once he emerged from the victorious locker room, my belief was confirmed that it appeared less inspiring than imposing. The comments from the players and the mood from the dressing room was one of frustration.
Yet, Drew Brees threw for five touchdowns, completed 76.5 percent of his passes and finished with a 146.1 quarterback rating.
He was anything but blah.
Then again, watching Brees since his arrival in New Orleans will do that to you. He makes the remarkable look average. That’s how good he plays the game of football.
“At times we can be accustomed to him playing well,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, adding, “I think that each week we’re trying to put together our best effort and I think Drew even said it, there are some things as we play games of more importance, as we play potentially teams that are different, we’re going to have to be better, especially early.”
How good has he been? And how good was his performance Sunday?
Since 2006, there have been only 17 games in which a quarterback finished with a rating of at least 140.0, threw at least 30 passes and completed at least 76 percent of them.
Brees has seven of those games. Of his contemporaries, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is closest with three such games.
Since 2006, there have been 43 games with a quarterback recording a quarterback rating of at least 140.0 and at least four touchdowns.
Brees has nine of them. Of his contemporaries, New England’s Tom Brady has seven, Rodgers has five and Denver’s Peyton Manning has four.
His performance Sunday was right in this group of games.
And yet, the tenor of Sunday’s post-game session wasn’t one of awe but one of aww man.
“The tough part of being Drew Brees is you are expected to be great,” Saints fullback Jed Collins said. “And it wasn’t until you go home last night and watch on TV that you even realize he broke another NFL record and it kind of does get lost in the wayside.”
The record? He now owns the NFL mark for games with five touchdown passes with eight such performances.
Each of the five touchdowns came in a different manner Sunday, but maybe the most impressive was the final dart on the run to Kenny Stills that converted a third-and-20 into a 42-yard touchdown and the knockout punch.
Brees showed everything on that one play – athleticism to escape the an oncoming presence of four Bills defenders, awareness to know where the line of scrimmage was, vision to find Stills one-on-one and pinpoint accuracy to get the ball exactly where it needed to be.
But while I might be bringing this up now, don’t expect Brees to ever puff his chest out and act superior because of this kind of game.
“He doesn’t need confirmation that he’s a good football player and he’s productive and he has five touchdowns,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “He knows it and we know it and yet, we also all know that there’s things that have to be cleaned up.”
What follows is our weekly (most of the time; we apologize for no post-New England breakdown) video breakdown. Today, it’s Five Drew Brees Touchdown Passes (and Two Forced Fumbles).
It’s Seven Plays from Sunday, Buffalo version.
Brees Makes Football Look Easy
Saints ball, third-and-20 at the Bills’ 42, 7:44 to play in the fourth quarter:
It’s a long distance play so obviously the Saints will be passing. Buffalo knows this and, in reaction to New Orleans’ formation, has nine players tight to the line and near or inside the box.
Kenny Stills begins out wide near the right numbers before motioning to his left in towards Marques Colston, who is almost on the right hash mark. Benjamin Watson is at tight to the right and Lance Moore is at receiver short to the left. Pierre Thomas is back as Drew Brees’ running back to his left.
As Stills motions in, Buffalo’s Nickell Robey follows him – Brees knows he likely has single coverage here.
At the snap, sure enough, each Buffalo defender not on the line of scrimmage takes a man going out on a route, meaning five offensive linemen will block four defensive linemen.
And they don’t do well. Marcell Dareus is the first to get through, powering past Jahri Evans. Defensive end Mario Williams gets past Charles Brown on the left side of the line. A designed roll out this was not, but Brees turned it into one.
He eluded Dareus 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, then had to hustle in front of an oncoming Williams as well as Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes, both of whom had broken free of their blockers.
Moore and Colston both ran intermediate routes and kept the coverage tied to them while Watson released late. Brees, though, knew where he was going with the ball. After briefly surveying the middle of the field, he sets his sights on the end zone.
At the 45-yard line and on the run, he launches a pass toward the end zone, where Stills is tightly covered by Robey. The ball feels like it’s in the air for an eternity but lands on the outside arm of Stills, Robey’s incoming hand helping secure the ball to his chest.
It’s as impressive a play as you’ll see considering how it unfolded.
Saints ball, first-and-10 at the New Orleans 31, 3:53 to play in the second quarter:
New Orleans aligns in a fairly basic offensive set. Nick Toon is split to the left on the bottom of the numbers. Stills is to the right and just outside the hash, lined up off the line of scrimmage. Watson is on the line at tight end, Jed Collins is at fullback and Thomas is three yards behind him.
Like I said, nothing fancy.
But when Stills motions over, Hughes, the Buffalo linebacker, appears to shift from a blitzing position to a coverage position. According to Lance Moore, Stills had already won the route.
At the snap, Hughes bites up briefly on Thomas’ swing route to the right. Toon releases up the field before hedging towards the middle, a move that kept coverage towards him.
Stills, meanwhile, ran up before heading to the left behind Toon. He was wide open as Hughes’ brief bite kept him out of the picture.
Brees had enough time – just enough as Kyle Williams was oncoming from the left edge – to spot Stills and loft a pass. The most impressive part of this play? Brees throws accurately off his back foot.
When Stills catches the ball, he’s four yards behind Hughes and is never touched as he sprints 40 yards into the end zone for what would give the Saints the lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the game.
“You’re on the sideline and you don’t always hear the play call,” Moore said. “As soon as he started running the route, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to be open.’ Then when I realized what the play was, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to score a touchdown.’
“He did a great job of finding the ball because Drew threw the ball so early. As soon as he made the catch, I knew they weren’t going to catch him.”
The most contact Stills felt, in fact, came when he jumped into the stands and a guy in a black Saints T-shirt, black hat with sunglasses above the bill exuberantly pats the receiver on the back. I might actually be more impressed with the guy wearing the Jimmy Graham jersey leaning over and reaching as far as he can to get a piece of Stills.
Saints ball, third-and-four at the Bills’ 15, 4;50 remaining in the first quarter:
Sean Payton mentioned Monday about how poor the Saints were on third downs in the first half. He wasn’t exaggerating. They were 1 of 8 on the down. That generally won’t win games. But the one they converted was important.
Three plays after Cameron Jordan forced a Thad Lewis fumble that he recovered, the Saints found themselves in third down.
Stills lined up wide right, below the numbers with Marques Colston and Lance Moore nearly stacked on the right hash. Jimmy Graham was standing up on the line of scrimmage to the left. Thomas was the lone back.
Buffalo, as it was much of the day, was in man coverage. After Moore motions to the left, he motions back to the right and the Bills’ Robey was situated on him. During the week, both Brees and Payton talked about how Moore was the team’s best route runner to take advantage of man coverage.
Brees saw right away that Moore had inside leverage on Robey. Colston cleared out the center of the field running a crossing route that kept linebacker Kiko Alonso and safety Aaron Williams from being a part of the play. Brees didn’t hesitate in throwing the ball and, despite Robey being in near perfect coverage, Moore took the pass in and walked into the end zone.
All that was left was the dancing, something he hadn’t done since Dec. 23, 2012, when he scored in Dallas.
Saints ball, second-and-10 at the Bills’ 15, :35 seconds remaining in the second quarter:
New Orleans lined up in its five-wide set, one of the most dangerous setups for opponents to cover.
With Brees in the shotgun, he was had Darren Sproles wide left with Graham on the top of the numbers. Colston and Moore were lined up short right with Stills wide to that side.
Buffalo showed three down linemen to defend this set with two linebackers poised to blitz. At the last minute of the defenders stood up and backpedaled into coverage. Four men came, two blitzing to the right and the Saints’ line walled off Brees’ right side.
Graham went on a post route, got behind Hughes after his failed jam down the field wasn’t enough. By the time the linebacker turned, Graham was already where he needed to be and brought in the pass from Brees. The tight end, who was injured, did the rest, powering through safety Da’Norris Searcy for the touchdown.
Saints ball, first-and-10 at the Bills’ 13, 5:21 to play in the third quarter:
New Orleans chooses a four-wide set this time, leaving Sproles in the backfield near Brees, who is in the shotgun.
This time, Stills is below the numbers to the left, with Colston between the numbers and hash on the side. Graham was on the line right next to right tackle Zach Strief and Josh hill was on the bottom of the numbers to the right and off the line.
Alonso, the Bills’ impressive rookie linebacker, is forced to get Graham after Hughes, who is lined up over the tight end, takes Sproles out of the backfield.
Brees seems to know where he’s going with the ball immediately. He takes a three-step drop and instantly rifles the ball to Graham, who is running a short out. The tight end does the rest, cutting back to his left side – the one with the injured foot – and lunges for the goal line through the grasp of Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd.
One of the keys to the play is what Hill does. The undrafted rookie free agent tight end runs a go route, but is blocking an extra defender, Stephon Gilmore, not allowing him to come help Byrd. Instead of two defenders, Graham only has to beat one into the end zone.
The Forced Fumbles
Bills ball, first-and-10 at the Buffalo 20, 15:00 to play in the first quarter
Talk about setting a tone for the game. The Bills lined up with seven men on the line of scrimmage, a receiver lined up at the left edge and one split wide right. Lewis, the Buffalo quarterback, was in the shotgun with Fred Jackson to his right.
The Saints countered with 4-3 alignment. Parys Haralson was tight to the right and safety Kenny Vaccaro was up close next to him.
Both Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne step up at the snap and try to make a read on what is a read-option play. Vaccaro is stood up and turned back towards the near sideline while Haralson is turned towards the Bills sideline.
The hole, in other words, was created and there to be had. Lewis saw this and took his chance, pulling the ball from Jackson’s belly.
Hawthorne, however, sheds his block, reads Lewis correctly and darts to the quarterback. Jackson could have blocked the linebacker but doesn’t and the quarterback pays the price. Hawthorne put his helmet right in Lewis ribs, popping the ball out.
Junior Galette, chasing from behind, picks up the ball for the turnover.
It was a picture-perfect hit on the young quarterback, who wasn’t holding onto the ball with both hands.
“We knew the pressure was going to be there – that’s what all teams will do,” Lewis said. “And I thought in the beginning we adjusted real well. But the Saints kept coming and that’s what led to some of the early turnovers.”
It's the type of play the Saints were looking for from Hawthorne when they signed him as a high-priced free agent prior to 2012.
Bills ball, third-and-five at the Buffalo 34, 6:12 to play in the first quarter:
New Orleans once again used four down linemen, but has six defensive backs in the game this time. Lewis has a running back next to him and receivers tightly bunched to the left and one to the right.
Cameron Jordan’s relentless energy should get credit for what transpires next. He starts up the field at the snap, getting right tackle Erik Pears off balance. Jordan then swims back to the right, beating Pears already.
By the time running back Tashard Choice has carried out the fake handoff, Jordan is already by him.
Lewis sets up to pass, clutches and Jordan shoves him, knocking the ball loose. The defensive end gets the sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery on the play.
That’s the type of play that this defense didn’t have a year ago and has been seeing this year. Jordan is one of the more underrated defensive ends in the game.
He’s the second-rated 3-4 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus. They have him missing no tackles, credit him with 24 quarterback hurries and five quarterback hits this season.