There weren’t many moments when the Saints were scratching their heads on offense.
They knew coming into Sunday’s game that New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was going to throw multiple coverages and looks at the New Orleans offense.
They knew he was going to try to disguise those things and create some confusion; that’s what he attempted to do as the Saints’ defensive coordinator in 2012, with varying degrees of success.
And they also knew how a lot of that stuff was going to look.
New Orleans’ plan coming into the game was to circumvent huddles whenever possible and get to the line of scrimmage with plenty of time on the play clock. This would let quarterback Drew Brees take a long look at the defense and figure out their intentions before snapping the ball.
The plan didn’t just work. Brees rode it to a historic day by completing 40 of 50 passes for 511 yards with an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns. Giants quarterback Eli Manning managed to keep pace, but New Orleans eked out a 52-49 victory when Kai Forbath connected on a 50-yard field goal as time expired.
“It was important we didn’t make it too complicated. In other words, let’s keep giving him these opportunities,” coach Sean Payton said. “There were a lot of empty looks; we liked the matchups. We felt like we saw a lot of things with that defense that gave us tips, blitz indicators. The one play to (receiver Marques) Colston was one of their bail pressures. We caught them in the right coverage.”
While there were only four Saints no-huddle plays listed on the official play-by-play, there were several plays when New Orleans got to the line as quickly as possible and gave Brees ample time to study the defense. Based on what he was seeing, he would check out of the play and get into something more advantageous for the offense.
Of the many instances when Brees appeared to make an adjustment before the snap, one came with 10:14 remaining in the third quarter, when he barked out some orders to his receivers on both sides of the line. He then connected with Brandin Cooks on a well-placed pass over the heads of cornerbacks Trumaine McBride and Jayron Hosley for a 21-yard touchdown.
On Cooks’ first touchdown, a 26-yard reception that came with 2:24 left in the first quarter, Brees could be heard killing off a play before hitting his receiver in stride on a slant route.
What Brees likely noticed is that New York moved nine guys into the box after seeing New Orleans was in a three-tight end set, which typically indicates a running play is coming, and that the free safety was playing closer to the line. This alignment on defense meant Cooks was going to have single coverage on the outside, and the Saints were able to take advantage.
“Drew watches a ton of film, obviously. So coming into the game, we kind of knew how they play from watching film, and he had an idea of the plays that he liked,” tight end Ben Watson said. “So he had a package of plays that he liked, and he was able to dissect the defense and see what they were giving him and call those plays.”
Payton said that was one of the keys to the game plan.
“We are playing at home so you can use the cadence; you notice we didn’t huddle a lot,” he said. “The reason for that is you can get to the line in 20 seconds, 18 (seconds), use the cadence and get back some indicators as to what we are getting. (Brees) is outstanding at that.”
After the game, Brees’ head was spinning a little bit. There wasn’t enough separation between the game when he stepped to the lectern to put anything into context or to fully appreciate what had just occurred.
He was aware of the numbers. But he wasn’t ready to talk about it in a historical context. He cited things like rhythm, momentum and resiliency, just as he would after any other game.
But after calling Spagnuolo a great defensive coordinator and saying he didn’t expect a day like this, he admitted his ability to read and diagnose the New York defense played a role in the outcome.
“You know there’s going to be a lot of stuff that you kind of just have to diagnose as you go along,” Brees said. “You try to simplify as much as you can and you also try to be ready for those opportunities. I felt like we were able to take advantage of some of those opportunities.”
Wide receiver Willie Snead was more direct and more willing to give his quarterback his just due.
“I think it was clear what the defense was trying to do at times,” Snead said. “Drew’s a really smart guy, studies a lot, so he knows what they’re going to do in certain situations.”
That intelligence led Brees to one of the best games of his career. He set a new mark in yards and tied an NFL mark for touchdown passes in a game. That’s a nice statement to all of those who questioned whether he remained an elite passer or was on the downward slope of his career.
Brees eventually will look back on this game and put it into context.
“It’s not about the numbers,” he said. “That’s cool to look at and it goes on the stat sheet, but it’s not like I came out today with the intent to break a few records just to shut some people up.”
Maybe that wasn’t his intent, but it just so happens that one of the side benefits of his ability to read and diagnose the New York defense is that his performance should silence some of his critics.