Thursday, January 14, 2010

Endgame 2010 - New Orleans Saints

The way people have been talking about the Saints, you would think they got beat by 800 points instead of a combined 10 in their two losses that counted (that Carolina game was a rest week, an issue whose debate was officially closed by Wes Welker). Certainly, the Saints wish they could have their last month back, in which they caught a tough loss to a Cowboys squad with everything in the world to play for and a divisional rival that desperately wanted to buy its young, likable coach one more year. The result is that a team that was once and has every right to still be a media darling has become an afterthought, not unlike the city they’ve represent. And while I generally eschew the idea that its best to enter the playoffs showing signs of weakness (history shows that peaking at the right time generally beats being the better team), I’m not so sure the return to the shadows is a bad thing for the Saints. For all the talk about how many weapons this team has, it is built around one man, and the Saints will survive only as long as his unique abilities and tactics go unchecked by opponents. Which brings us to the million dollar question: How do you stop Drew Brees?

If that seems like an exaggeration, check Brees’s stat sheet, the real punchline to the joke that is Peyton Manning’s latest MVP award (if the excuse for robbing Christ Johnson was that he didn’t win enough, what’s the word here, sportswriters?). Highest quarterback rating. Sixth in yardage (and Matt Schaub, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady all throw so much because their teams have no choice). Finally, an ABSURD 70.6% completion rate on 514 attempts, and in case you think he’s dinking and dunking to that number, his average yards per attempt is 8.54. Throw in a league leading 34 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions (again, on over 500 pass attempts) and the picture is clear: Drew Brees is the Saints. Despite the plethora of weapons on this team, no weapon operates as effectively, or perhaps operates at all, without him. A glance at the receiving statistics over the course of the year reveals that despite having the leading pass attack in the league, the Saints don’t have a single top 15 receiver (although Marques Colston deserves credit for giving the Saints the crucial matchup problem that prevents teams from simply going to man and attacking Brees up the middle ruthlessly).

If Brees is the tangible cornerstone of what makes the Saints great, then precise execution is its intangible engine. This is what makes him so difficult to stop with conventionally constructed defenses. Edge rushers, the poison of shakier quarterbacks and the weapon of choice for some defenses, don’t faze him; his release, quicker than any quarterback except for Warner, makes teams pay for removing defenders from his line of sight. Leaving more defenders back only lets Brees cycle through his copious weapons, inevitably finding the passing seam he needs to allow his receivers to take advantage of the time they have to work. Brees, perhaps better than any other quarterback, knows how to use the weapons at his disposal quickly and precisely. It helps that his weapons are a team of pass catchers that would be top targets on their own for any other team. Devery Henderson might be the best second receiver in the NFC. Jeremy Shockey is over his hangover, or at least his metaphorical hangover, and finally seems at home in the Saints’ multifaceted, pass first offense. Robert Meachem is proving that the three year rule for wideouts, particularly ones whose promise lies in syncing physical gifts with technique learned by experience (did you know he had 9 TDs and over 700 yards?). But the “and” credit goes to Marques Colston (9 TDs, 1074 yards), who thinks that the three-year learning curve is for baby soft kids born with spoons in their mouths. It is to Colston’s credit that he stands out on what would otherwise be a really, really, really well choreographed dance by virtue of his nasty refusal to be tackled. He’s the bread knife in the kitchen set, not the prettiest, but without it you’ve just got shiny metal for show.

The way to stop Drew Brees, then, is not to mess with his control; you won’t take that from him. Rather, it would appear that the secret to stopping Drew Brees, one that teams may or may not have figured out in the last month of football, is to strike at that which he never controlled in the first place. Brees’s height, long the only physical gift believed to be missing from his arsenal, rarely comes into play against conventional defenses. However, when defenders have been able to attack the middle of the line, behemoths holding their hands high and creating a wall that Brees must go around, not through, the precision of Brees’s attack has seemed off. Not that he’s looked bad, but instead he’s looked human, which, for opponents of the Saints, is about as good a result as one can expect. Unfortunately for Brees, the road to the Super Bowl is filled with defenses built around punishing defensive tackles, along with linebackers capable of attacking offensive lines at their center. There’s a reason Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck didn’t faze Brees, but Jay Ratliff gave him fits, and it has nothing to do with the combatants and everything to do with the field of combat.

All of this is to say that while the Saints are Drew Brees, and have lived and died by him since his arrival in 2006, their hopes this postseason will travel only as far as perhaps the most forgotten man on their roster. Make no mistake: Reggie Bush needs to punish defenses on screens, flats, and quick outs. If defenders are free to leave him only minimally accounted for and crush Brees’s field of vision in the pocket, the Saints will have a very hard time beating elite competition. If, however, Bush does enough to keep linebackers honest and defensive ends from stunting to the middle consistently, teams may not have the opportunity to exploit the emerging weakness of the once infallible Saints offense. It’s really that simple; with the skies clear, nobody is stopping the Saints. Without that clarity, the ground game is mediocre and the defense (still bad statistically despite all the press to the contrary) can’t keep up with opponents. After years of hiding from the focal point status that ought to be required of his draft selection, and the Saints building their team around the surprising rise to power of a previously underrated veteran, Bush either becomes the title that was forced on him or irrevocably cements his reputation as a mistake. I guess the Saints really are a team of destiny, after all.

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