The way Sean Payton sees it, the little area between the two guards and the few yards of space behind Drew Brees is the area of the field most worth fighting over on any given offensive snap.
The New Orleans Saints coach cherishes that area of the field. It has to be protected, guarded and respected at all costs. Lose that patch of turf, lose the play, lose the game.
“When we go into a game, this spot two yards behind the center is like the most important piece of property in football,” Payton said last week at the NFL’s annual meeting. “If we can occupy that spot, then we’re going to win the game.”
It’s long been theorized that with the way he plays the position and due to his height, Brees needs interior protection more than his counterparts around the league. He needs to be able to see down the field and his ability to climb the pocket is negated when there are men crashing this precious piece of property.
In some ways this makes the guards and centers more valuable to New Orleans than tackles, which is the opposite of how many teams assemble their offensive lines. General Manager Mickey Loomis suggested that the line is not built from the inside out early last season, that it just happened that way, but it’s clear the team places a premium on shielding Brees from interior pressure.
Measures have been taken this offseason to improve the interior line by acquiring center Max Unger from the Seattle Seahawks as part of the package in the trade for Jimmy Graham. Guard Ben Grubbs was shipped to Kansas City and will be replaced by Tim Lelito. It’s also possible the Saints will spend a draft pick to further shore up the interior offensive line.
This was a clear area of need. After he team allowed pressure on 25.1 percent of Brees’ dropbacks in 2011, that figure has steadily increased. Brees faced pressure on 28.6 percent of his snaps in 2012, 29.8 percent in 2013, and a hefty 32.9 last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Overall, Brees faced pressure on 231 snaps last season. Of those, 109 were allowed by his guards and centers, or 47.1 percent. That’s far too many invaders in what Payton considers the most important area of the field.
It’s been theorized that protecting that patch of grass has become even more important as Brees ages into his career. It’s been suggested that he can’t handle pressure the same way. He isn’t quick and sharp as he once was.
That theory appears to be bogus — at least partly. In some respects, Brees has never handled pressure better than he did last season. The quarterback completed 73.3 percent of his aimed passes while under pressure last season if you count drops as completions, according to Pro Football Focus. The mark was by the highest he’s posted since 2011, when Brees completed 69.2 percent of his aimed passes, and a huge jump from the 63.5 percent he posted in 2013.
The reason that theory can’t be debunked is that Brees often made poor decisions when under pressure, throwing nine interceptions against three touchdowns. The reason: He doesn’t like to take sacks.
This mentality was perfectly illustrated during an October win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Brees threw an interception while being wrapped up by Gerald McCoy and another falling to the turf after running into an offensive lineman’s leg. Brees almost threw a third pick that game while again being wrapped up by McCoy.
But this mentality isn’t a new development. In fact, it seems like every other year Brees regresses into this pattern. In the 2010 and 2012 seasons, he threw 12 combined touchdowns against 16 interceptions while under pressure. In 2011 and 2013, he had 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
Was last season’s ratio a sign Brees can no longer get away with some of the things he once got away with? Perhaps. But the best bet is to limit the opportunities to find out by protecting that small area turf as best as possible.
There’s no need to really know the answer to this question until you have to find out.