Buccaneers-Saints: The evolution of Drew Brees

The quarterback attempted more than 100 fewer passes last season but was as efficient as ever. And by throwing shorter passes, he led the Saints farther than he had in years.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw 536 passes last season, his fewest since 2009. [Associated Press]
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw 536 passes last season, his fewest since 2009. [Associated Press]
Published Sep. 7, 2018|Updated Sep. 7, 2018

After 17 seasons and 249 games, Drew Brees isn’t showing many signs of decline. Soon, the 39-year-old Saints quarterback will leap over Peyton Manning and become the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards. He’s 1,496 yards away.

There are moments, though, when Brees, a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, is just like most quarterbacks. Turn up the pressure, and his performance drops off. That’s when he plays less like Peyton and more like Eli.

Getting in Brees’ face will be the goal Sunday when the Bucs travel to New Orleans to play the Saints and debut their rebuilt defensive line. But don’t count on seeing much of a pass rush. Few are as good as Brees at evading pressure. He faced the lowest rate (22.4 percent) of any quarterback last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I think you just have to disrupt him in other ways,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “He works hard based on his height (Brees is 6 feet tall) to be able to see where he’s throwing. Just staying in front of him is part of it and not making those lanes, getting your hands up. It’s hard to get to him.”

How does Brees do it? Here’s a look:

Setting the standard

“He’s really good,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said Wednesday in the understatement of the week. “He understand (Saints coach Sean Payton’s) offense, and he knows where to go with the football. I think that shows in last year’s percentage.” And his completion percentage the season before that. And the season before that. And the season before that. A 70 percent completion percentage used to be unheard of, but for Brees, it’s almost routine. He’s done it four times, most recently last season.

Screen grabs

Let’s put Brees’ completion percentage in context. The quarterback who held the record before him? Sam Bradford, who completed 71.6 percent of his passes for the Vikings in 2016. He didn’t do that by chucking the ball all over the field. Short passes were key to his success, as they were for Brees in 2017. Brees led the NFL in yards gained via screen passes (593) and targets to running backs (180). Running backs weren’t nearly as much of a factor in the Bucs’ passing attack. Charles Sims, Peyton Barber, Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers saw 95 targets combined.

A shifting Brees

The numbers don’t show a decline in the effectiveness of Brees’ deep passes — for five straight seasons, he has posted a rating above 100 on passes that travel at least 20 yards — but he is throwing deep less often. His average pass length of 6.4 yards was the lowest in the NFL last season and the lowest since he joined the Saints in 2006.

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Saints running back Alvin Kamara caught 81 of Drew Brees' 100 passes to him last season. [Associated Press]
Saints running back Alvin Kamara caught 81 of Drew Brees' 100 passes to him last season. [Associated Press]

Kamara chameleon

Brees’ favorite target last season besides receiver Michael Thomas? Running back Alvin Kamara. Only four running backs in modern NFL history (since the 1970 merger) have averaged at least 6 yards per run and 10 yards per catch, and last season Kamara become one of them, joining Barry Sanders (1997), Jamaal Charles (2010) and C.J. Spiller (2012). According to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, Kamara was so effective as a pass catcher that he gained 278 more receiving yards than a replacement-level running back. Oh, and in case you forgot, he can return kickoffs for touchdowns, too.

‘He’s a real tough out'

“There’s probably not a guy in the league that has done as much as he has done in his first year, both running and catching the football,” Smith said of Kamara. “It does stress you, and I think that’s one of the reasons Drew’s passing percentage was so high last year, is that he was really good and really accurate at getting the ball in the hands of the running backs.” The Bucs linebackers will be the ones most responsible for containing Kamara, who caught 12 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in two games against Tampa Bay last season.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.