WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Those who have worked with Drew Brees always know how each play is going to begin. They don’t need to look. It’s always the same.
He’ll take the snap, take three quick steps and scan the field. When he’s in shotgun, the play always begins 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Measure it. Variations are rare. His linemen always know where he is and never have to look.
It’s what happens after that is when the jazz begins. Few players are as good at navigating a pocket as well as Brees. He has the athleticism to climb the pocket and likes to live between his guards.
But too often his patch of turf became the home for invaders last season and Brees was either forced to flee his preferred spot or was knocked from it. Home was no longer safe.
Of the 233 sacks, pressures and quarterback hits Brees took last season, 106 of them were allowed by his guards and centers. That’s a considerable climb from 2013, when only 70 out of the 205 such plays were allowed by the interior offensive linemen.
The leakiness of the interior line was a major flaw of last year’s team, which is why the Saints dealt Brees’ security blanket, tight end Jimmy Graham, to acquire actual security in the form of center Max Unger from the Seattle Seahawks.
“So far, Max Unger has proven it’s an upgrade at center (over Jonathan Goodwin),” offensive line coach Brett Ingalls said. “This guy can do just about everything we ask him to do.”
While the Saints are confident in their personnel, they aren’t simply plugging Unger into Goodwin’s spot and Tim Lelito in at left guard for Ben Grubbs, who was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. They also took a hard look at their protections and decided that a guard should feel like he has help whenever possible.
That wasn’t always the case last season. Of Brees’ 659 passing attempts in 2014, Evans received help from the center on 163 occasions and Grubbs on 232 times. On the rest of the plays, the center had his own man to block, other responsibilities, or waited for the play to develop before determining which player to help.
Unger will not be asked to approach the position in the same manner — at least not all the time. Along with upgrading the personnel, New Orleans is taking further measures to make sure the guards are provided help on a more consistent basis by working to get more three-on-two combinations in pass protection in the middle of the line.
How this works is the offensive line typically has two down linemen and a linebacker to worry about on any given snap. If the defense decides not to bring the linebacker, then the offensive line’s set progression and the technique they use to help off that set would change, giving the offense three guys versus the defense’s two.
“We’re trying to get it to where I always have help at guard or else I always believe I have help,” Ingalls said.
This is a change from last season when the line played sides. Each side of the line operated more in tandem and the center would chip in where he thought he was needed. Now, instead, the middle of the line will work more to help one another when a linebacker isn’t coming and the tackles will be left alone on the defensive ends.
This approach should give Brees the room he needs to operate as he likes.
“It’s just basically to keep the inside pocket clean for Drew,” backup center Senio Kelemete said. “We have great tackles. We’d rather be really firm up front and then have the tackles watch the defensive ends.”
That means the Saints will more or less be putting tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief on an island to protect the edges. The team is confident both players can handle it, and there’s a belief Armstead is becoming one of the better tackles in the NFL.
“He’s a player. I’m not going to use the word underrated but man, I am telling you what, he has really done a lot of the things we look for and hope for when we drafted him in the third round,” coach Sean Payton said of Armstead. “He’s athletic, smart and I think his skill set for that position is outstanding.”
If those two handle can handle the edges and the interior line works in tandem to keep the pocket clean, Brees should have the stage he needs to do his job.