Drew Brees, Saints offense prove that early narrative about steep demise was premature

Alvin Kamara told everyone a few weeks ago that it was time to shut up.

They said the Saints were done, that Drew Brees was finished. They said that Sean Payton had become predictable and boldly stated that the end had arrived during the third quarter of a season-opening win. No need to see more. Twenty or so passes were enough to get on national television and confidently tell the world that the end had arrived.

Kamara’s response a couple of weeks later was sage advice. Anyone paying attention to this team and studying the cause of the issues saw that the timing was off, that the newcomers still looked like newcomers. Either you believed those things would forever remain an issue, or you thought that this offense, one of the best of the last two decades, would figure out how to get players to run routes to the right depth and get the timing figured out.

Either way, a smart person would have taken Kamara’s advice to stop talking. The issue needed more time and evidence. Together, those two things have shown that Drew Brees and the Saints are still Drew Brees and the Saints – or at least close enough that any conversations about irrevocable demise need to get sidelined. Sunday’s 27-24 win over Carolina was proof positive that this team can still get it done under the most difficult circumstances.

Are these the vintage Saints? Probably not, but that team is gone. The vision changed and morphed in 2017. The visions of Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson should have faded long ago and got replaced by images of precision passes going to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Players running after the catch, not before. This version of Brees is more than good enough to continue to execute that offense.

But without Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Thomas on offense, Brees completed 29-of-36 passes for 287 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. The quarterback was so sharp, and so on point that he made No. 12 look like No. 12 by connecting with Marquez Callaway eight times for 75 yards. The undrafted rookie dominated the game by getting open against Carolina’s zone coverage and played like he had been here for years.

The other way to put that: Brees made his teammates better. He uplifted Callaway, he hit Tre’ Quan Smith four times for 54 yards, he threw Jared Cook open on a touchdown. For a while, the belief has been that other players needed to perform well to make Brees look better, and there is probably some truth to that over the entirety of a season. Still, the quarterback reminded everyone that he is considered one of the best ever for a reason.

Pretty impressive considering Sanders fell out of the game plan on Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19.

“I’ll be honest. It’s difficult. You sit there and look at the call sheet and look at the personnel groups and how you are going to piece it all together and, at the end of the day, putting them in the right positions to succeed,” Brees said. “It all goes through my thought process too. I need to know where guys are. There are little things that I can do throughout the game to help them and instill confidence in them. I just can’t say enough about those guys coming in and stepping up and having the games that they did.”

This game won’t satisfy people who are looking for an air-it-out attack. Brees didn’t attempt a single pass over 20 yards. His average depth of target was only 5 yards, his second-lowest total this season. But these conversations are pointless and stupid. Efficiency, tempo and accuracy are the core tenets of this offense. When those things hit and there’s a groove, nothing else really matters.

The chemistry Brees and Callaway had together might have been the most impressive thing about the performance. Playing against a team that uses a heavy dose of zone concepts, the Saints knew they could attack the soft spots between the cornerback and safeties and over the middle. These are the type of games where Thomas would dominate by catching a handful of hitches. Callaway stepped into that role by catching five passes on the route for 47 yards. He added two crossing routes for 14 yards and picked up 14 yards on an in route.

“We knew this was a big zone team,” Callaway said. “And we knew it was a lot of zone coverage. So we just went out there with the mindset of them playing zone. So we know how to get open during zone (coverage). And that’s just how the game went.”

The Saints did a particularly good job of creating mismatches against linebacker Shaq Thompson, against whom Callaway caught at least three passes during the game. Every snap, New Orleans had a player in position for easy success — or at least that’s how it felt. The free-flowing nature of the offense returned. The scheme and tempo were so good that it almost didn’t matter that the two best receivers were missing.

Does this mean everything will be easy going forward? No, nothing is guaranteed. Being without Thomas and Sanders on the road against the Bears is no small task. Things could easily revert to being a bit of a struggle. But there should be enough evidence at this point that every pass, every incompletion, and every decision should no longer be hyper analyzed. Brees is fine. His arm is good enough. The team can win with him at quarterback, and occasionally because of him.

Sunday didn’t show that. The last few weeks did. The evidence is the evidence.

Three up

QB Drew Brees – The quarterback played his best game of the season and was without his two best receivers. No small task.

WR Marquez Callaway – Finding an undrafted rookie who could step up in a single game the way Callaway just did would be remarkable in and of itself. But to do so during a season when there wasn’t much of an offseason is an even bigger deal. Callaway is making a strong case to be the No. 3 receiver after Thomas and Sanders return to action.

OL Cesar Ruiz – The rookie guard appeared to play a clean game and had some big blocks in the running game. Further review is needed to verify these assumptions, but more importantly, it looked like a solid bounce-back performance after Ruiz struggled against the Chargers.

Three down

S Marcus Williams – The safety appeared to abandon his zone coverage and double a player in Marshon Lattimore’s zone on a 74-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Moore. These coverage busts happen nearly every week in some form or fashion. Not all of them are Williams’ fault. But these things need to be corrected. The season is almost halfway over, and New Orleans just had a bye. When is it going to happen?

S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – Carolina had a clear plan: Attack Gardner-Johnson. The Panthers did a good job of getting advantageous matchups against him in the slot and attacked ruthlessly. We’ll see how it looks on review, but charting live, it looked like he gave up 10 receptions for 97 yards. But that wasn’t all with him. He got lost in coverage a couple of times and missed at least four tackles. Not a good game for him.

OT James Hurst – Hurst got thrust into action after Terron Armstead went down with an arm injury, and his performance reflected the difficult circumstances. He gave up a strip-sack and was later called for a false start on third down.

Pressure package

New Orleans took a more conservative approach in this game, sending five or more pass rushers on only 12 plays. Unlike against the Chargers, when the Saints took a similar approach, the four-man rush did not do as much damage. It looked like New Orleans only created pressure on four plays with four guys rushing the passer.

Personnel groupings

The Saints were extra creative against the Panthers on Sunday, using a season-high 14 different personnel packages. Brees had some easy reads, so the mixing and matching appeared to work well this week against a team that knows the New Orleans offense well.
• One running back, one tight end, three wide receivers: 28 plays
• Two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers: 9 plays
• One running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers: 7 plays
• Two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver: 4 plays
• One running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver: 3 plays
• Two quarterbacks, one running back, three wide receivers: 3 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, two tight ends, one wide receiver: 3 plays
• Two quarterbacks, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers: 2 plays
• Two quarterbacks, one running back, two tight ends, one wide receiver: 2 plays
• Six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, two wide receivers: 2 plays
• Six offensive linemen, two running backs, one tight end, one wide receiver: 1 play
• Two quarterbacks, six offensive linemen, one running back, one tight end, one wide receiver: 1 play
• Six offensive linemen, two running backs, two tight ends: 1 play
• Two quarterbacks, six offensive linemen, two running backs, one tight end: 1 play
Week 1: 13
Week 2: 8
Week 3: 11
Week 4: 14
Week 5: 13
Week 6: 13

Defensive groupings

Things looked a little bit different this week with a heavy dose of base defense, a response to how often Carolina uses two tight ends or two running backs. Rookie Zack Baun played 13 snaps.
Nickel: 24 plays
Base: 13 plays
Dime: 6 plays

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