Patrick Peterson thought he knew how to solve Drew Brees. Not permanently, or even for a quarter. Just for a moment here and there.
When the Cardinals faced the Saints last season, Brees was coming off a pair of games in which he threw a combined six interceptions. People were concerned. Was Brees hurt? Was he suddenly fading? Naturally, when the Arizona cornerback spoke with New Orleans media before the game, the conversation centered on what was going on with the Saints' offense.
Some of those interceptions were squarely on Brees. He had a few passes jumped and was off the mark on others, but Peterson didn't overreact. He explained that it looked like the Saints’ receivers let the quarterback down on a couple of plays and. And Brees always bounces back, Peterson noted.
That was all fine and good, but at the end of the conversation, a reporter asked Peterson if there was any way to fool Brees. He decided to share a theory.
“He does not see that very often in defenses. Quarter-quarter-half is definitely that. Not only does it confuse him, but it can confuse a lot of quarterbacks because it’s a great changeup call,” Peterson said. “You just never know which side is going to that quarter side, which side is going to be the Cover 2 side because it all looks the same.
“I believe that is one of the coverages that I’ve seen him have a couple issues with throughout the season. Can’t show it to him too many times. You always have to give him a changeup.”
Basically, the coverage is a combination of Cover 2 and 4, where one half of the field is patrolled by one deep player, as in Cover 2, while the other half is split between two players, usually a safety and cornerback, as in Cover 4. Teams don’t use it often, so it can serve as a nice change of pace.
There was only one problem with Peterson’s assessment heading into Week 15: He was wrong. Brees eats up the coverage. By the time the season ended, Brees had completed 73 percent of his 55 attempts against the coverage for 483 yards with one touchdown. His 107.7 quarterback rating against quarter-quarter-half was the highest he posted against any look.
If there are clips of the coverage fooling him, they’re well hidden. In fact, if there’s tape of him being fooled by any coverage, it’s buried beneath success. Brees spent last season moving the ball well against almost every coverage he saw. He was an equal opportunist, dicing up Cover 1 (91.8 rating), Cover 2 (102.2), Cover 4 (93.7) and various goal-line and red-zone coverages (110.7) throughout the season, according to statistics provided by Pro Football Focus.
Brees attempted 95 other passes against coveages labled as “other” for a rating of 105.2
That leaves the question: Is there a defensive look that gives Brees problems — or at least against which he doesn't succeed at such high levels?
The easy (and probably correct) answer is no.
When a player is as talented as Brees, there’s danger in making too much of a perceived issue. These narratives are usually manufactured and quickly debunked on the field.
That’s probably the case here. But there is one coverage not mentioned above — Cover 3. Brees posted an 83.7 quarterback rating against it, and the reason that number is so low is because Pro Football Focus has him throwing seven interceptions against it.
The overall interception figure leads all looks by a wide margin. Brees threw one interception against a prevent defense, three against Cover 1, two against Cover 2, and another two against quarters (Cover 4) coverage.
What does this all mean? Is this sign of a player who is struggling against a specific look? Is this the real coverage that gives Brees fits?
The first thing to consider is that Brees completed 72 percent of his 188 passes against Cover 3 last season. That means 3.7 percent of his passes against the coverage were intercepted. That’s just a tick higher than the 3.6 percent of his intercepted throws against 55 Cover 2 looks, but well below the 1.6 and 1.9 percent he posted against Cover 1 and quarters, respectively.
The next part of the equation is adding context. Three of Brees' interceptions came during his rough two-week stretch against Detroit and Tampa Bay, one of which was the result of Detroit safety Glover Quinn sitting on an out-and-up route to Brandin Cooks on a play the team ran twice earlier in the season. Sometimes all you can do is throw your hands up and commend an opponent for his extensive film study.
None of that excuses the errors, but it’s undeniable something was off with Brees, the offense or both during those two games. Another interception came as the result of middle pressure earlier in the season, putting at least partial blame on the offensive line.
The other three plays were the result of Falcons linebacker Deion Jones jumping a route, Brees soaring a pass to Cooks against Carolina, and a well-contested pass to Michael Thomas that Atlanta’s Jalen Collins intercepted in the end zone of a Week 17 game. No excuses on any of those. Everyone gets beat now and then.
It’s also worth considering his success against Cover 3 outside of those seven passes. Not only was his completion percentage high, he also racked up 1,583 yards against it, for an average of more than 11 yards per completion. The only coverages against which he averaged a higher return were Cover 1 (12.4 yards per completion) and quarter-quarter-half (12.3).
Peterson might be right. There could be a couple plays out there where Brees got fooled by a specific coverage. Just like there might be times when he has issues with Cover 3. That stuff happens to every quarterback. What this seems like, more than anything, is the result of a poor stretch for the offense settling in at the same place.
As Peterson said, Brees has a way of bouncing back. He noted at the end of the call he hoped the return wouldn't happen against the Cardinals. He didn’t get his wish. The quarterback completed 77 percent of his passes for 389 yards with four touchdowns in a 48-41 victory.
At some point, Brees will start to fade a little bit, and these negative trends will start sticking. That hasn’t happened yet. Until it does, you can bet he'll continue to find a way to bounce back and silence all criticisms on the field.