Eagle Eye: The Well-Studied Drew Brees
Not too long ago, Malcolm Jenkins and Drew Brees shared a sideline. The two played together in New Orleans for five years, winning a Super Bowl in their first.
Jenkins is a year and a half removed from his time with the Saints now, but the way Brees prepared each week still sticks with him.
He’s never seen anything like it.
“On every single snap in practice, he’ll throw the ball, and then after he throws the ball, he’ll sit there and go through his next couple of reads like he still has the ball in his hands,” Jenkins said. “He does that, play in and play out.
“What he’s doing is preparing himself for the game, so that if his first read isn’t there, he’s gone through it. You’ll see him, in the game, doing the same exact progression. He’ll drop back, and if his first read isn’t there, it’s the next one and the next one, and then the ball’s out.
“He gets the ball out really, really fast. He protects himself from the pass rush by getting it out fast.”
Brees’ stellar preparation is a big part of why Chip Kelly called him a Hall of Fame quarterback this week. Despite suffering an injury early in the season, Brees bounced back from missing Week 3 with a stellar outing against Dallas in Week 4.
He completed 33 of 41 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning 80-yard wheel route to C.J. Spiller, which was Brees’ 400th career touchdown pass.
His shoulder may be ailing him ever so slightly, but preparation and smarts can help counter injury, as can playing style. Here are a couple of things Brees does well, possibly better than any quarterback in the league.
1. MAKING QUICK READS
As Jenkins said, Brees knows his reads before he snaps the ball, and he’s gone through his progressions so many times in practice that he can flip through them like pages in a book.
In this play, Brees’ first two reads are on the left side of the field. He begins by looking for a fly pattern on the outside, and then a mid-range post over the middle, both of which are taken away.
He goes through his progression in roughly one second, stopping incrementally at each player, before coming to the conclusion that his best move is to check down to his third option.
Brees makes his decisions and reads so quickly that defenses don’t have time to see plays developing.
“[Brees] is a smart quarterback,” Nolan Carroll said. “Whatever types of looks you give him, he knows right away what it is and what it could be, and what it’s not.”
Here, the Saints pick up just four yards, but it’s progress and they don’t fall behind the chains.
2. OWNING THE MIDDLE
This week, Birds 24/7 legend Sheil Kapadia put together a comprehensive piece on the Seahawks’ step-kick coverage technique, which essentially has Seattle’s defensive backs trying to take away long balls and short, quick tosses, leaving only intermediate routes and passes.
While that philosophy has obviously worked well for them, it’d be tough to apply to Brees because he loves throwing over the middle.
“He likes the middle, intermediate, and he gets it to the backs a lot,” Brandon Graham said. “I didn’t realize the backs have more catches than the receivers.
“I have to make sure I’m always on his outside shoulder, and try not to run past him, because he likes those windows in the B gaps. We’ve got to make sure we collapse the pocket and don’t run past him this week, because you’re doing him a favor when you give him that lane to throw.”
On this play, Brees and the Saints build off our first example. By sending Spiller in motion, Brees shifts Dallas’s attention to the short dump-off pass, which he completed against them earlier in the game.
Notice how Dallas’s linebackers track towards Spiller in motion. Brees plays into this misdirection by angling his body towards Spiller initially, before coming back to the left side.
The linebackers over-pursuethe back in motion and take themselves off Brees’ outside shoulder, opening up an easy throwing lane for Brees to complete this pass.
Jenkins has seen Brees play long enough to know that even if you put yourself in good position to defend his passes, he can still sneak passes into tight windows. It’s part of the territory when you’re facing one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
“As a defender, it drives you a little nuts because you can be in perfect position and he’ll still fit the ball in there somehow,” Jenkins said. “You really have to be on your A game.”
When it comes to “stopping” Brees, there isn’t really a blueprint that has worked for defenses in the past.
It’s more about limiting the damage, Jenkins said, and making sure nothing comes easy.
“You just try to make him earn everything,” Jenkins explained. “You try not to make big mistakes, and you try not to give him anything deep down the field. He’s going to complete passes underneath, and you’ve just go to try and limit it.
“If he does make a mistake, you’ve got to take advantage of it. You can’t drop interceptions, you can’t miss opportunities to get pressure on him. You’ve got to take advantage of the mistakes that comes, because they’re few and far between.”