Saints’ air attack experiencing an unusually light Brees

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

In Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees dropped back and with good blocking around him in the pocket, he cocked his arm to throw a deep pass but decided against it. Instead, he pulled the ball down, looked to his left and found running back Alvin Kamara for a short screen pass.

Kamara evaded a couple of potential tacklers and with offensive lineman Erik McCoy escorting him down the field, Kamara zagged, hurdled and made his way to the end zone for a scintillating 52-yard touchdown play.

It’s become one of the best highlights of the NFL season so far, but it’s also emblematic of the transformation the New Orleans Saints offense has undergone this season. Of course, it’s only a three-game sample size, but there are some signs that things aren’t rosy in the Bayou, especially in the midst of their first two-game losing streak since the opening of the 2017 season.

Much of the attention is on Brees, who has been the face of the franchise and brought New Orleans a Super Bowl title in 2009. At age 41, he’s not slinging the ball around the field the same way he did a few years ago, but some of the numbers are concerning.

Just 2.9% (3 of 104) of Brees’ pass attempts this season are deep throws of 20 yards or more from scrimmage. The Saints also have been without their biggest deep threat, Michael Thomas, who will miss his third straight game because of a high-ankle sprain.

Without Thomas, they don’t have nearly the same downfield threat, but they’ve had trouble adjusting. In last week’s loss to the Packers, Brees only targeted wide receivers on 14 of his 36 pass attempts.

Saints coach Sean Payton doesn’t see the issue being related to Brees’ arm strength or even to Thomas’ absence; rather, he sees their reliance on short passes as a result of how the Packers defended them.

“I don’t know specifically if that’s a function of not having Mike,” Payton said. “We’ll continue each week to have plays down the field. We had a little bit more soft zone last week, which forced some underneath throws. But it isn’t really an area or a statistic that that I’m looking at.”

Kamara has become the Saints’ new go-to option, with 13 catches (on 14 targets) for 139 yards and two scores last weekend. Emmanuel Sanders had four receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown, but the longest pass play beyond Kamara’s big play was a 19-yard play to Tre’Quan Smith. In the previous week, there was one pass play for 29 yards and another for 20 yards.

The lack of big plays in the air is bringing some level of concern.

Brees ranks last of the 33 qualifying quarterbacks with 4.64 yards in the air per pass attempt. Comparatively, the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins leads the league at 10.36 yards in the air.

Lions coach Matt Patricia doesn’t put much stock into the statistics that suggest Brees isn’t as effective in the passing game. With only three weeks of data as a basis, it’s too soon to draw any decisive conclusions.

“I’ve played against Drew Brees for a long time. I have the utmost respect for him, and his arm talent and his arm strength is still phenomenal,” Patricia said. “I don’t really read into all that (statistical) stuff.

“We’re three weeks into the season, coming up on four weeks into the season. All those stats and all those numbers are going to change by the time we get to Week 14 (and) 15, and everything is going to look different.”

Considering the damage that Kamara has been able to inflict, it’s just as effective as throwing deep passes to Thomas or the other receivers. With tight end Jared Cook also out because of injury, there could be some question about where Brees can look for big plays.

That’s a concern for the Lions’ defense.

“(Brees) is going to be able to sling that thing downfield, there’s no doubt. He’s really smart. I don’t think anyone is going to argue with throwing the ball down to Kamara for a 52-yard touchdown,” Patricia said. “I mean, the ball may have gone behind the line of scrimmage — it doesn’t matter; it’s still 52 yards.

“That’s a smart play by smart player. So, I don’t really know how you criticize that.”

Expecting the best

As Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is turning back the clock at age 43, Brees is maintaining the high level of expectation that he’s set for himself. He’s still healthy and for what it’s worth, the accuracy still is there.

All the numbers and advanced statistics can tell a story, but in Payton’s eyes, Brees’ performance on the field still passes the eye test.

“I’ve said this a bunch — you’re looking at a unique athlete, someone that is very diligent, not only in season but offseason in how they train, how they take care of their body, how they sleep, all the details,” Payton said. “When you combine that with the talent — and the sport has changed and we’re smarter now than we were 10 or 20 years ago — and he and Tom are two examples of guys that have extended their careers, but there’s a lot of time and energy that goes into that.”

The same goes for Kamara, who is standing up for his quarterback amid the criticism and questions about how effective he still is. The Saints have adapted to not having Thomas, who was the offensive player of the year last season and had a league-record 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I’m fine with Drew. It’s early in the season. Everybody outside of this building has something to say and quite honestly, I don’t really give a damn,” Kamara said. “Drew has proven to be one of the best, if not the best quarterback, year in and year out and I’m expecting the same thing this year, no matter what’s going on.

“When you’re losing, it’s easy to point and point fingers and say this and say that. But we’ll get back on track and everybody will shut up.”

‘Few plays away’

At 1-2, the Saints aren’t in the usual position that they’ve ascended to in recent years, where they’ve become one of the elite teams in the league — fueled mainly by their Brees-led offense.

The defense has been a culprit in the slow start this season, but Brees remains optimistic about how they can turn things around and get back to their usual position in the NFC South, only a game behind Brady’s Buccaneers.

“We’re a few plays away on both sides of the ball and that’s usually the way it is especially early on in a season; you’re still trying to find your rhythm,” Brees said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s more glaring because of the losses. Plenty of times early in the season, you are still working through things, but finding ways to win games. I think at the end of the day, you just have to realize what wins and loses them.

“I can think of one play on offense and one play on defense that I’m sure would have been a big difference in that game (last Sunday). If you can just win the majority of them and do the things that you know result in playing winning football, your percentages go way up. It’s as simple as that.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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