Saints News Network's intern Andrew Gullotta analyzes the added dimension of Drew Brees after returning from his eleven rib-fractures - the Deep Ball in 2020.
Before quarterback Drew Brees’ four-game absence due to a rib/lung injury, the Saints offense faced criticism for the lack of deep passes within the offense. Even though New Orleans scored the fourth-most points in the NFL through week ten, Brees only attempted 13 passes over 20 yards, completing 6 of them. He also only accumulated 5.2 air yards per completion and threw passes that were an average 2.3 yards behind the first down sticks, which further conveys that the seven-time passing yards leader wasn’t uncorking passes through the season's first nine games.
Unfortunately, right when Brees and the offense hit its stride, he broke 11 ribs and punctured a lung. It seemed like the Super Bowl XLIV MVP was getting into vintage form after the Saints dominated Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. However, Brees hit injured reserve one week later after the game against the 49ers.
The 41-year-old vet rested his damaged ribs and his throwing arm during that four-game absence. Once Brees returned in Week 15 vs. Kansas City, the offense had an added dimension: the deep ball.
Since his return from the injury, Brees has attempted 13 of his 26 passes that traveled 20 yards or further. In those passes, he posted a 105.3 passer rating, threw two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Additionally, in the three games to end the season, the 12-time Pro Bowler accumulated 7.1 air yards per completion, which is 1.9 yards greater than his previous nine-game average. Brees also threw passes that were an average .2 yards ahead of the first down marker, a two-yard improvement from the first ten weeks.
Just because the Saints’ signal-caller is throwing the deep ball doesn’t mean that he is sacrificing his accuracy. After taking a game to knock off the rust and get on the same page with receivers, Brees has an actual completion percentage of 5.25 points greater than his expected rate in the final two regular-season games. This statistic shows that even though Brees is adding the deep ball back into his arsenal, he does not sacrifice his elite accuracy.
This new dimension added to the Saints offense should help them rise to the next level. In the past two postseasons, defenses in the playoffs have condensed New Orleans’ offense to a 10-15-yard depth. This ailment caused double teams on WR Michael Thomas and a bracket-style defense on RB Alvin Kamara.
Over the last few games, Brees has shown opponents that the deep ball has once again returned to the offense. Whether it’s over the middle of the field to Jared Cook or deep down the sideline to Emmanuel Sanders, the Saints have a new-found feature of the offense. Stretching the defense to account for a deep threat makes it harder to bracket and double team the Saints’ star weapons.
Let’s go back to the last time Drew Brees had the deep ball in his arsenal back in the 2017 playoffs. Thomas went off with 15 catches for 216 yards, two touchdowns, and 12 first down conversions in those two games. Kamara also had an excellent game through the air against the Vikings in the divisional round, as he caught four balls for 62 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
In that 2017 postseason, the Saints averaged 27.5 points per game, which was more than both the 2018 and 2019 playoffs. Keep in mind that output was without the free-agent additions of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook.
Once again, Brees has proven defenses must account for a big-play threat through the air from the Saints. Along with getting healthy, this quality should catapult the Saints' offense to a new level in the playoffs.
In what could be his “Last Dance,” and the Saints will get to show off their new dimension of the passing attack on Sunday when they welcome the Chicago Bears into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the NFC Wild Card Round.