How Drew Brees has become one of the NFL’s best ever in 2-minute situations

Drew Brees reminded everyone last week why he is one of the best ever in two-minute situations.

The pressure isn’t pressure for Brees. He’s too cool, too calm, even when it comes down to attempting a pass with five seconds left. See, that isn’t easy. The key is making sure that one tick remains on the clock after the pass is caught or hits the turf. The Saints quarterback was asked to do this against the Panthers last week and never blinked. That feel for the game is rare, just one of many subtle things Brees regularly does to remind everyone that he isn’t like most of the guys who play the position.

“I think there’s a comfort level relative to what he’s wanting,” coach Sean Payton said.

Usually, yes, but the remarkable thing about that play at the end of the first half against the Panthers is that Brees didn’t even get what he wanted, and yet he remained patient enough to find another receiver while also recognizing the urgency of the situation. His first look was to Jared Cook, who was running a fade to the outside. Once that was gone, the quarterback quickly scanned to his left, saw Deonte Harris coming off a whip route, and fired a pass.

It worked. The Saints took a 21-17 lead into halftime. The clock read two seconds when New Orleans kicked off.

Brees has been one of the best quarterbacks at running the 2-minute drill for more than a decade. His continued mastery of the offense and understanding of the game has only made him better as he has gotten older. But how does the team operate in these situations, and what makes it so simple? Evaluating the last four seasons of 2-minute plays reveals some identifiable trends and philosophies that correlate to success.

Since 2017, among players with 150 or more dropbacks in 2-minute situations at the end of either half with the score within seven points, Brees leads all quarterbacks with a 103.5 rating. Seattle’s Russell Wilson (94.1), Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (91.4), Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (90.9) and Houston’s Deshaun Watson (90.1) round out the top five.

“I’d put us against any defense. We’re locked-in on two-minute,” Alvin Kamara said. “We’ve got calls that we want to get to. I think that we practice it more than anything. Going in there, we are confident, we know the looks that we want to get to.”

As good as Brees is at conducting these situations, a significant portion of the success is due to Payton and the coaching staff to creating a successful philosophy and making sure the players always know the situation. You won’t often see the quarterback with four fingers up, wondering what just happened. The details, like approaching the referee before the play is stopped to call timeout, not trying to do too much or waste time by struggling for extra inches, and handing the ball to the officials after plays, all makes a difference.

But the real brilliance is the offense itself. Offensive assistant Curtis Johnson recently compared playing wide receiver for the Saints to being a quarterback as far as knowledge of the offense and what is happening on every play. That’s because those players have to be able to play every spot. This helps with disguising plays in all situations and plays a part in making the 2-minute offense effective. Knowing the whole offense allows the players to become interchangeable if they get caught on the wrong side of the field and need to get lined up quickly.

Also, having a quarterback who knows things inside and out makes a true difference. Before taking the field for a 2-minute drive, Brees goes over the calls with the coaching staff on the sideline and is then asked to execute. Many of the plays come with hand signals. That type of mastery and the ability to get in and out of this by cupping his hands or moving his arm like he’s swinging a lasso can overcome a lot of chaos.

As far as how the offense operates, since 2017, the Saints have kept things pretty balanced as far as alignments and target distribution. While there have been about three dozen empty formations mixed in, the team has a near 50-50 split between 2×2 and 3×1 formations. No surprise, there are almost no motion plays (35) and even fewer play-action attempts in these packages. 

The defining element behind every throw and every decision is control. Brees only averages about 7 air yards per pass in these situations. The team is looking to convert first downs on every play but through a measured approach. With this thought in mind, it should be no surprise that Kamara (51 receptions for 546 yards) has been the team’s most productive receiver in these situations since 2017. Michael Thomas ranks second in catches (32 for 390 yards), but Ted Ginn Jr. is second in yards (433). For all his faults, former tight end Coby Fleener (10 catches for 155 yards) had a knack for making plays in this phase of the game.

New Orleans only attempted 19 deep passes in these situations. Some of those were calculated shots within the last 30 seconds of the half, but more often they’re the result of something opening up and an opportunity presenting itself. Brees’ 54-yard shot to Ginn against Atlanta in 2017 appeared to be a deliberate shot down the field with a specific read. Still, the only other passing play that gained 25 or more yards on a pass traveling at least 20 yards through the air during this period was Kamara’s 28-yard gain against the Chargers earlier this season.

Being calculated and patient is a little bit easier when you aren’t in many “mayday” situations.

The overall approach in these situations is about the same as during other moments in the game. Brees is a little more aggressive against Cover 1 defenses, throwing the ball about 10 yards down the field per attempt while being more conservative against zone looks. He’s been at his best in two-minute situations against Quarters coverages, completing about 85 percent of his attempts against the defense.

Brees’ touchdown to Tre’ Quan Smith at the end of the second quarter against the Lions was against a Cover 1 defense. The other two touchdowns were against goal-line defenses.

But those are just details, ones created by the defense to counter what has operated as borderline perfection for a while, but especially over the last four seasons. If Brees ends up in one these situations again this year, tensions might be high on couches and in the stands, but you’ll be alone in that. The guy under center will be locked in and ready to go.

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