There were several acts to Drew Brees’ performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
There was the slow start to the game, a slight uptick in the second quarter, a poor third quarter, and then a solid fourth quarter. After suffering an injury to his shoulder in the second quarter, you could see when he cooled down and when he started warming back up late in the third quarter.
His play coming out of halftime was probably as bad as Brees has ever looked on a football field. He threw a pass behind Brandon Coleman, underthrew one to Marques Colston over the middle, and then underthrew a pass to Brandin Cooks by at least 10 yards that was intercepted. His throw to Willie Snead off a flea flicker was also woefully short.
But once he got beyond that stretch, Brees settled in and the execution of the passing game actually might have looked the best it has all season. Brees was sharp throwing passes in the short and intermediate areas of the field and the offense started to click. Some of that was Brees making throws. Another big reason for it was that the play calling in the second half consistently put the Saints in a position to succeed.
The letdown wasn’t exclusively due to Brees’ shoulder. Without a pair of fumbles and a dropped pass near the end zone, it’s conceivable this team could have found a way to win. The flip side to that is one could argue New Orleans might have won if Brees hit Cooks on the deep pass that appeared to be a sure touchdown.
It remains unknown if Brees will play this week against the Carolina Panthers. If he does — and is capable of making the throws he made late against Tampa Bay — it’s possible New Orleans could be competitive. The Saints would simply need to limit the amount of passes he throws deep and attack the middle of the field, where he completed 16-of-21 attempts against the Bucs.
However, that’s assuming a lot. His shoulder might not respond the same way and that point of view is ignoring the struggles he endured to settle in. But if Brees and the Saints want to roll the dice there’s a potential path to success on this week’s film.
QUARTERBACK – 2 out of 4
It certainly wasn’t the best performance Brees has had, and much of that is due to the aforementioned injury. The only major nitpick on him missing receiver came on a dropped pass by Austin Johnson in the first quarter. On the same play, Brees had a receiver underneath and Cooks open deeper down the field. While the pass blocking left him exposed several times, Brees often had time to let plays to develop. His average time to throw throughout the contest was 2.83 seconds.
RUNNING BACKS – 2 out of 4
Khiry Robinson’s ability after contact continues to stand out. He gained 48 yards on five rushes, and a large majority of those yards were gained through his ability to keep churning after being hit by a defender or making guys miss. On a pitch in the third quarter, he dodged a defensive player after immediately receiving the ball and turned up the field for a gain of 13 yards. He also had a gain of 5 yards up the middle in the third after Max Unger missed a block. This was another game where the running backs did not have the benefit of great blocking. The backs averaged 1.8 yards per carry during the first half and it was largely the result of not having running lanes to work with. Robinson averaged 7.3 yards per carry with eight men in the box. He had two runs of 12 and 14 yards with seven men in the box. The latter of those were created when Terron Armstead blocked Gerald McCoy in the backfield to spring Robinson loose. Ingram averaged 3.3 yards per carry. He faced eight in the box on 10 of his 16 carries.
RECEIVERS – 2 out of 4
The Saints did a better job of getting the receivers open in the second half when the team started to run shorter routes. Colston might not have the same speed as he did during his prime, but he’s still excellent at finding soft spots in zone coverage. Brandon Coleman showed glimmers of this same ability late in the second half. Cooks did his best work running routes over the middle. On the first play of the game Brees hit him on a quick slant and he took off for a gain of 8 yards. In the fourth quarter, Brees found Cooks on a crossing route about 4 yards down the field and he picked up another 17 on the ground. The other receivers ran vertical routes to up things up for him. The only play where there was an egregious example of the receivers not getting open came on Ingram’s fourth-quarter fumble. Brees first looked to the right side of the field for Cooks and Snead. He then looked over the middle for Ben Watson, who also was not open. He was forced to go to Ingram, who was quickly hit by a defensive back who was not blocked. Josh Hill’s drop on a back-shoulder throw in the fourth quarter near the goal line was killer. New Orleans was forced to settle for a field goal and Zach Hocker missed wide left.
OFFENSIVE LINE – 1.5 out of 4
The offensive line didn’t give up a ton of pressure. But the ones they did often resulted in sacks or hits. Zach Strief struggled to keep up with speed rusher Jacquies Smith, who beat Strief up the field three times to sack Brees. On of those, which occurred in the second quarter, resulted in Brees injuring his shoulder. Strief struggled to keep up with him and get his on Smith during those three plays. Smith also beat Strief with an inside move on an Ingram run stuff. It didn’t help that after Brees injured the Bucs sent the quarterback to the turf on the very next play on a well-designed stunt between Gerald McCoy and George Johnson. The stunt pulled Armstead over to McCoy and freed Johnson, who beat Tim Lelito, for the hit. Unger and Lelito were beat by McCoy for a fourth sack of Brees. After beating the Saints for nine pressures during a Week 5 meeting last year, McCoy finished with a sack and two pressures. Armstead and Lelito both had positive moments as run blockers, as well as in the screen game. Unger, Strief and Evans were all responsible for multiple bad runs.