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Scouting the Signal-Callers: Drew Brees will provide difficult test for Giants’ defense

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Mark Schofield breaks down why the Saints could cause headaches for the Giants defense

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants righted the ship somewhat last week, earning their first win of the 2018 season with a 27-22 victory over the Houston Texans.

Things get harder this week when Drew Brees and the 2-1 New Orleans Saints come to town.

Brees and company improved to 2-1 on the season with an overtime victory on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. On the year Brees is once more one of the league’s top passers, leading the NFL in completion percentage (80.6 percent) and having thrown eight touchdowns on the year without an interception. His game against Atlanta, in which he completed 39-of-49 passes for 396 yards and a touchdown, in addition to his touchdown scramble that set up overtime, was almost clinical in passing execution. It was a performance that saw him named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. The Giants’ defense will have a number of things to worry about when facing Brees, but here are just three areas of concern.

Placement

Eight years ago ESPN featured Brees on its “Sport Science” program, testing whether the QBs renowned accuracy could match up with Olympic archers. The video is impressive, but Brees was making his throws in ideal conditions, without facing a pass rush or defenders in the secondary.

Eight years later Brees is still making throws with pin-point accuracy, now with defenders in the secondary and in the face of blitzes and defensive pressure. HIs prowess at ball placement was on full display Sunday in Atlanta.

Let’s look at how Brees and Michael Thomas (13) opened the proceedings:

Brees hits Thomas on a deep over route and the Saints are immediately in Falcons’ territory. This is the very first play of the game. The placement and the timing are critical to the success of this play, as Brees’ throw hits Thomas in stride, allowing him to maintain his acceleration and separation from the cornerback in coverage:

But because Brees puts this throw on Thomas before the safety can rotate down, he gives his receiver an opportunity to prepare for the hit from the safety. That gives Thomas a chance to pick up additional yardage after the catch. Quarterbacks play a huge role in YAC, and Brees certainly helps here.

The Saints have a number of weapons in the passing game, from Thomas and Ted Ginn to Alvin Kamara out of the backfield. But they use the tights ends, Josh Hill and Benjamin Watson, effectively as well. On this second-and-6 play from the second quarter, the Saints use a vertical concept and Brees looks to Watson (82) on a seam route:

This is another perfectly-placed throw, over the underneath defender in trail coverage to a spot where only Watson can make the catch. In addition, it comes on a vertical route that Brees releases from the Falcons’ 42-yard line, and drops in on the Atlanta 7-yard line:

A 35-yard throw made with both precision and placement. This is extremely difficult to defend.

Timing

As we saw on the first throw to Thomas, Brees is very adept at making timing throws, in rhythm with the structure of the offensive play. Whether on a throw downfield like to Thomas, or on shorter routes, Brees puts his receivers in position to succeed after the reception by getting the ball out of his hands with perfect timing. Here are two examples of this ability, and how it translates to success for the Saints’ passing game and their receivers.

In the second quarter the Saints faced a first-and-10 and ran a simple curls/spacing concept, with each of the receivers on the play running routes at a depth of 4 yards:

As you can see, the inside receivers run curls while outside receivers run out routes. Thomas is at the top of the image, and he runs a quick out route working toward the right sideline.

The timing and anticipation on this throw from Brees is perfect, as the ball is on Thomas as he comes out of his break. That puts him in position to pick up additional yardage after the catch:

When you can turn a 3-yard pass into a 17-yard gain, you’re doing something right offensively.

This next play, from the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, is another example of Brees using timing and anticipation to put his receivers in a good place after the catch. The Saints face a second-and-7 midway through the final quarter, and have the football on their own 22-yard line. Trailing by seven, New Orleans needs to mount a drive.

They run a simple slant/flat combination to the weak side, with Thomas running the slant route and Kamara (41) releasing to the flat:

The Saints catch Atlanta in zone coverage here, but what really makes this throw is the timing of it. Brees does not wait for Thomas to clear the underneath defender, instead, he throws him open behind him:

That puts Thomas in position to ready himself for contact from the safety crashing down:

It is a simple play but it speaks to the brilliance of Brees and what he can do for his teammates with timing and anticipation.

Play-action

With Mark Ingram serving one more game of his four-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs, Kamara remains the focal point of the Saints’ rushing attack. While New Orleans has struggled on the ground so far this season, averaging just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt and 82.7 yards per game, placing them 28th in the league in that category, they are still successful on play-action passing plays. That begins with design from Sean Payton, but it is aided along by execution from Brees himself.

Against the Falcons the Saints got into the end zone for the first points of the game using a play-action design down near the goal line:

The Saints come out with Taysom Hill (7), a third-string quarterback, in the game. This is something New Orleans does often, using Hill in the red zone or for a few packages per game. They align in a 2x2 formation with Ginn (19) in a wing to the right. On this play, Brees fakes a toss to the left before booting back to the right, a standard play-action design. It is Ginn who is the target, who comes down the line of scrimmage on this underneath shallow route, and that is where Brees goes with the football.

New Orleans showed the same look later in the first quarter, only this time Brees looked to Hill (89) running the underneath shallow route from the left wing:

While these two plays are more standard, textbook boot-action designs they are not the only way New Orleans looks to attack a defense off play-action. In the extra frame against the Falcons, Brees found Thomas on a deeper crossing route that had more of a throwback element to it. Brees came out of a play-action fake again rolling to the right, but then he stopped to throw a deep crossing route to Thomas where he receiver was working right-to-left:

On this play Thomas does a very good job on executing his route. Instead of going over the top of the linebacker dropping into zone coverage to handle him, Thomas cuts underneath him, making himself available for Brees. The QB hits Thomas, who cuts upfield and into Falcons’ territory with a big gain.

From accuracy and placement, through timing and rhythm, and into play-action schemes, Brees is playing at a high level right now and will be tough to slow up on Sunday. That task falls to the Giants’ defense, and it is indeed a tall test.