Entering the season, the New Orleans Saints were expected to be one of the deepest and best teams in the NFL. Their all-in approach centered around getting the most out of what was left in a 41-year-old Drew Brees. After three weeks, that appears to be less than previously expected.
The Saints sit at a disappointing 1-2 and Brees has looked old and labored when he has dropped back to pass. New Orleans is still 10th in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders, The high points are there for the Saints, for instance, they rank ninth in points per drive and they’re not giving the ball away, eighth in both interceptions and turnovers per drive.
But it hasn’t been easy getting to that point. New Orleans is just 14th in yards per drive and the offense has stalled more often than in the past. This year, the Saints are 26th in three-and-outs per drive after ranking 11th last season.
Brees’s arm strength has been pointed at as the main culprit of this offensive decline, but that’s not really the biggest issue here. The Saints haven’t been putting up gaudy deep passing numbers over the past few seasons, so it’s not like that element suddenly disappeared from the offense. Instead, New Orleans has been built on an efficient and methodical short game. The current problem with the Saints is that’s what’s been missing.
Through three weeks, Brees has the highest expected completion percentage among quarterbacks per NFL Next Gen Stats. That takes into account player tracking data such as the depth of throw, how open the receiver is, and pressure on the quarterback. Brees leading that metric is nothing new. He was first last season, also, and fifth in 2018.
What is different is that Brees had previously outperformed those metrics, upping his actual completion percentage above those already high expected completions. Brees’s Completion Percentage Over Expectation the past two seasons were 6.9% in 2018 and 6.3% in 2019. Those ranked first and second in the league during those seasons. This year, Brees sits at -2.9%, which is the sixth-worst among 35 qualified quarterbacks.
So much of that has come from a fall in production on those shorter throws. Brees’s numbers have dropped in on-target percentage, completion percentage, and EPA on throws that traveled 1-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, per Sports Info Solutions.
Drew Brees Passes 1-10 Air Yards, 2018-2020
Last season, Brees’s 67.3% positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive EPA) led the league among 35 quarterbacks with at least 100 short attempts. Only 12 other quarterbacks were over 60%. So far in 2020, Brees’s 52.6% positive play rate on those throws ranked 31st among 35 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts from 1-10 air yards.
Some of this can be attributed to the loss of Michael Thomas. We wrote about what made Thomas such a special receiver midway through last season and his ability to get open quickly and be consistently successful on these short routes made him an outlier among other receivers and also a perfect fit for the way New Orleans relied on those throws to move the ball. Last season, Thomas led the NFL in targets from 1-10 air yards with 112, significantly led the EPA on those targets (44.5 with the next highest at 29.4), and was second in positive play rate (72.5%) behind only Tyler Higbee, who had exactly half of Thomas’s targets.
The Saints offense was built around that level of efficiency and consistency as the foundation of the passing game and without it, a support wall has been knocked down and the surrounding pieces are starting to crumble.
Without Thomas, defenses are also able to play the Saints differently, not having to worry about him as a constant threat off the line. With Thomas on the field to start the season, the Saints saw man coverage on 42% of snaps. Without Thomas on the field, that rate has gone down to just 19%. The rate of straight zone coverage has gone from 35% with Thomas on the field to 67% without, per SIS.
Of course, with just three games and only one in which Thomas played, there is a small sample for these splits, but it does reflect a defensive tendency that has clearly impacted the New Orleans offenses. Opposing defenses have been able to sit back and wait on the short stuff, daring Brees to beat them deeper down the field. To this point, that’s just not happening.
Brees is working with an internal clock that wants to get the ball out quickly, so if the route isn’t developing instantly, he wants to get the ball out. That’s where the zone comes into play. So far this season, Brees is holding onto the ball a little longer but his average depth of target and completion have both fallen off.
|Year||Avg. Time To Throw||Avg. Depth of Target||Avg. Depth Of Completion|
Short throws to Thomas have been replaced by short throws to Alvin Kamara, and while those can lead to some broken tackles and big plays, they don’t have the same hit rate and it’s much harder to consistently make those positives. Kamara leads the league in targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and that’s led to seven broken tackles and three touchdowns but there’s a lot of boom or bust there. Despite the most targets, Kamara ranks just 11th in EPA and his 50% positive play rate is just 53rd among 86 players with at least 10 targets within 10 yards of the line.
There was a three-and-out late in the Sunday Night Football game against the Green Bay Packers that highlighted just where the Saints are right now and how much of a struggle it can be to consistently move the ball. New Orleans was down 30-27 and started on their own 25-yard line. First down saw a quick checkdown to Kamara after the defense sat on a quick curl from tight end Josh Hill and Brees didn’t look to Tre’Quan Smith in the slot. Second down was a short throw to Deonte Harris on a crossing route that was tackled immediately while the intermediate routes never developed. Third down was a quick swing screen to Kamara that was stopped for no gain.
It’s now a compound problem for the Saints. New Orleans isn’t currently built to have a strong downfield passing game and the short passing game isn’t there to mask it. Of course, there have been problems there when the Saints have tried to push it this season. Brees has only 18 attempts of 11 or more air yards, which accounts for just 17.3% of his attempts. On those throws, he’s been one of the least accurate quarterbacks in the league.
The biggest concern is that number is even lower on throws from a clean pocket, where performance tends to be more stable and predictive. Just 40% of Brees’s 15 attempts have been considered on-target. Brees also hasn’t had a lot of help in this area from his receivers. Through three weeks, Jared Cook leads the team in targets of 11-plus air yards with five. This could be a place where increased playing time from Tre’Quan Smith could pop up and eventually there could be better chemistry with Emmanual Sanders. More creative uses for Deonte Harris could work their way into the offense, also.
New Orleans doesn’t need Brees to suddenly become Patrick Mahomes and start slinging the ball 50 yards down the field. This all could improve once Michael Thomas returns, but with a high ankle sprain, it’s best not to rush a return to the field and there is no guarantee he’ll be the same player when he comes back.
Still, there is some time for the Saints to figure things out. Even at 1-2, the Saints’ season isn’t in full crisis mode, at least not yet. Football Outsiders still gives New Orleans a 64.1% chance of making the playoffs and FiveThirtyEight has them at 58%. New Orleans needs to either figure out a way to open up the intermediate passing game so both the quarterback and receivers are on the same page or that short game needs to go back to being exceptionally efficient. For years, Brees has gotten more out of the offense than expected, but it’s time for the offense to do more to help bail out its quarterback.