The New Orleans Saints didn't have many issues on offense last year. But there was one play that highlighted one of the underrated, nagging obstacles the unit faced.
It came last fall against the Philadelphia Eagles. Operating from the 3-yard line, quarterback Drew Brees took the snap and faced immediate pressure. As things quickly closed in around him, he fled to the right side of the pocket and was eventually forced to toss the ball up and pray for the best.
The 6-foot-4 Marques Colston was in single coverage on the left side of the field in single coverage. Turning that way wasn't an option. His options to the right were Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks. He chose Snead.
It’s debatable if Brees ever saw his target, who was fighting through double coverage. But he tossed the ball up anyways, and it fell well beyond Snead in the back corner of the end zone. Colston might have had a shot at getting a hand on the ball with a well-timed jump, but not the 5-foot-11 Snead.
To call this a critical issue for the passing offense might be overstating things. Brees attempted 30 passes last season from 10 yards and in last season. Eleven of those resulted in touchdowns. However, he only completed 17 of his overall attempts, which is one of the lower percentages of his career.
The grading scale here might be harsh, but the efficiency could have been better. The Saints admit it, too.
“Two things take place down there,” coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, your area to work with is reduced and even when it comes to a running play that might be 3 yards; you have to have positive plays. But yes, that would be an emphasis for us.”
The Saints were creative within the 10-yard line last season. After evaluating the 30 passing plays, it’s difficult to find instances where things repeated or became predictable. Very seldom was the same route concept used twice, let alone entire plays. When it did happen, there was a reason for it.
The Saints used the same quick slant to Cooks inside the 5-yard line against Washington (touchdown) and Detroit (incompletion).
The team also used a rub concept on twice against Dallas (Ben Watson gain of 7) and Tampa Bay (Josh Hill for 6 yards). New Orleans used another rub concept to score from the 1-yard line against Detroit (Watson) and Tampa Bay (Colston).
The passing offense in this area of the field was creative and unpredictable. Payton worked to get players open. There weren’t many times when the plan was to throw it up and hope for the best. Every yard gained came from a plan.
The Saints won’t ever be a team that goes down near the goal line and looks to set up a jump ball. If that’s the plan, it really means you have no plan, and Payton is too good of an offensive coach to approach things in this manner.
Even when Jimmy Graham was here, the team did not often look to just toss it up to him. Of the 25 touchdowns the Saints scored in the red zone in 2014, Graham’s last season in New Orleans, only four were the result of him posting up or going up for a jump ball.
Again, this might be overstating a problem since New Orleans converted on 60.34 percent of its trips into the red zone last season, but having some targets with bigger catch radiuses should help an already potent offense get better.
This is where Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener come in.
Brees is already excited about the possibilities. At different points this summer he allowed himself to envision a world where he’s throwing both players open in traffic.
“It gets you excited about a guy who has that type of range and that type of feel,” Brees said of Fleener. “Time on task with a guy like that, the more time we have in this offense where he can understand the nuances and understand what I am thinking, and where I want him to be, and when I want him to be there, and when and where the ball is going to be thrown – that’s when you really start cooking. That’s when you feel like a guy is uncoverable. I don’t care who is on him. He’s 6-foot-5, or 6-foot-6, there’s a place where I can throw the ball where he can get it or nobody can.”
And what about Thomas?
“If you take a guy who’s smart, though and has a great feel for the game – he understands body position and control – then he’s never really covered,” Brees said. “There are always places where he can use his body, and there’s somewhere where you can throw it where it’s him or nobody.”
Thomas was known for making contested catches in college at Ohio State. As for Fleener, he made seven catches on 11 targets inside of the 10-yard line and turned each one into a touchdown over the last two seasons.
There weren’t many instances where he had to box out or go up and over someone, outside of one fade route late in the 2014 season against the Tennessee Titans. Most of the time he was able to use his route to get open or took advantage of busted coverage, which is better percentage play than having to go up and over someone and makes him a good fit for how New Orleans operates in that area of the field.
Still, that doesn’t mean that he can’t use his 6-foot-6 frame to create mismatches or serve as a safety valve when all else is lost. The thought of having that layer is protection is appealing.
“Again, that gives great confidence to a quarterback, knowing that I’ve got this outlet, that I’ve got a guy who has this range and this feel,” Brees said.
Brees should have multiple options fitting the description this year if all goes to plan.