INDIANAPOLIS — When quarterback Drew Brees capped a second 80-yard drive with touchdown pass No. 2 on Saturday, the Saints decided they’d seen all they needed and gave him the rest of the night off.
It mattered not in the slightest that Brees strained his left oblique Aug. 1, then missed full team drills as well as two exhibition victories for New Orleans over the next 16 days.
From the instant Brees walked up to the line of scrimmage for his first live-game snap of 2014 in a 23-17 win at Lucas Oil Field against the Indianapolis Colts to the moment he was subbed out three series later, he looked primed as he’ll ever be to pass for 5,000-plus yards a third regular season in a row.
Brees required less than a quarter to brandish several of the weapons that have allowed him to pass for the most yards (10,339) and throw for the second-most touchdowns (82) in the league since 2012.
Such as when he was facing his first third-and-long of the year on the fifth play against the Colts and fired the ball where only veteran receiver Marques Colston could catch it 4 yards past the line to gain.
Catch it Colston did for a fresh set of downs 5 yards into Colts territory.
But Brees’ accuracy is far from his only trick. Later in the drive, the Saints faced another third-and-long from the Colts 13. Brees took the snap from veteran center Jonathan Goodwin in the shotgun formation, scanned the field as he dropped a few steps back, identified the chance to run; seized it, and slid 2 yards past the first-down marker at the Colts 3 without regard to the tweaked oblique he had nursed recently.
“The end zone’s right there,” Brees said afterward. “You got to go get it.”
That set Brees up for what happened two plays later. He unloaded a short pass to reserve fullback Austin Johnson, who plowed through a tackler and dove over the goal-line for a score and a 7-0 lead that punctuated a drive beginning at the Saints 20 — a march that unfolded without any penalties, significant for a preseason that’s been rife with them.
“I thought what was real important ... were the third-down conversions, because ... we had to convert two ... to keep the drive going,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Look, that’s encouraging.”
When Brees and the Saints touched the ball two possessions later, they were again at their 20 and tied with the Colts, though it was now 7-7.
On the second play of the series, Brees threw his sharpest pass of the night, aiming it deep to the left side of the field and toward All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, covered by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The ball eased into Graham’s grasp without causing the tight end to break his stride, and the play didn’t stop until a gain of 38 and a tackle by Indianapolis safety Colt Anderson at his own 39.
After four plays and one penalty each on the Saints and Colts, New Orleans was at Indianapolis’ 13. Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner busted through the Saints’ protection and nearly sacked Brees — but the Saints quarterback avoided a loss by absorbing the contact, falling forward and shoveling an incomplete pass to tight end Ben Watson.
That enabled the events of the ensuing snap: Colston slipped past Jackson, and Brees delivered a pinpoint strike to the receiver in the end zone for touchdown toss No. 2.
It gave the Saints a 14-7 lead with 32 seconds left in the first quarter, allowing them to sit Brees, who finished 9-of-15 for 128 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to six of the seven receivers he targeted.
“Two touchdowns, two good drives — that’s what Sean wanted to see,” Brees said. “That’s what we wanted.”
Brees’ outing equated to a blistering passer rating of 127.2, a figure he managed to surpass just four times in 2013, and not once when the Saints were visitors. Away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season, his average passer rating was 86.2.
As is usually the case in the preseason, the Saints’ night on Saturday wasn’t perfect. The Saints were assessed 10 penalties for a loss of 84 yards, which brought up their totals through three exhibitions to 42 penalties for 372 yards lost.
Second-year receiver Kenny Stills left the game in the first half with a quad injury and didn’t return, a disheartening setback for a player who’s been unavailable for most of training camp and sat out the prior two exhibitions.
Speaking to the media, Brees insisted he’s not yet 100 percent.
“Just getting rhythm and timing back, and from a health standpoint — it’s not all there yet,” he said, without elaborating.
However, the franchise’s most important player is at least approaching midseason form two weeks ahead of the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Atlanta.
And that’s more than something for the Saints to simply hang their hats on.