Last season, the New Orleans Saints' offense threw the football (or took a sack) on 65.3% of its plays; only the Detroit Lions (66.3%), Dallas Cowboys (66.2%) and Arizona Cardinals (65.4%) featured a higher ratio of passing plays to runs, and by a slim margin.
Now, the Saints were quite effective throwing the football, best in the league in fact, in terms of yards per game. They also had the second best offense overall, the third most points, the third-best yards per pass play, the third fewest sacks, the fourth best third-down efficiency…and on and on. In other words, if you were looking for a reason that the Saints fell to 7-9 last year after three straight seasons of winning at least 11 games, you wouldn't start with the passing attack. A historically porous defense, a few key injuries, a tough division, the absence of Head Coach Sean Payton…any of those would be more likely culprits.
Even with unprecedented distractions and his team faltering around him in a variety of ways, quarterback Drew Brees still put up his customarily enormous numbers – in this case, 5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdowns and a 96.3 passer rating. He's been in New Orleans for eight years now, counting the beginning of 2013, and he's never thrown for less than 4,300 yards or 26 touchdowns. With 357 yards in the season-opening win against Atlanta last Sunday, Brees is already started down the same inexorable path.
Despite all that, the above ratio bothers Brees. He proved he could make the offense go even in such an unbalanced state last year, as the Saints had the league's 25th-ranked rushing attack. But the Saints didn't necessarily prove they could win that way (and, it's worth noting, none of the three teams above them in pass-run ratio had winning records, either). At the very least, that's not the way they want to try to win games.
"That's definitely been a point of emphasis," said Brees of restoring the dual threat that has characterized some of the New Orleans' offenses of the recent past. "When I look back on years when we've been at our best, offensively, we've had a balanced attack – at least a big threat of the ability to do both. There's certainly that emphasis now."
In one respect, the Saints didn't exactly accomplish that goal in their win over the Falcons, throwing for 341 net yards but running for just 78. On the other hand, they did hand it off a whopping 29 times, meaning they only threw on 56.1% of their plays. The Falcons only allowed the Saints 2.7 yards per carry, but that didn't stop them from keeping Atlanta's defense honest with a variety of running plays to a variety of backs. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram each had nine carries, while Darren Sproles had eight (three Brees runs rounded out the total).
"We've got three really good running backs," said Brees. "We've got a great offensive line. We've got a great scheme. And, obviously, the way that the passing game complements the run game, there's no reason why we shouldn't be a very, very good rushing team in this league, and to have that complement everything else we're doing. You just understand the importance of what the run game can do for you; it helps you control the clock, it helps you finish out games. It does a lot. It keeps your defense off the field. All those things [are] reasons why we've put an emphasis on that."
It will definitely signal the Saints' intentions to greater emphasize the run this season if they hand it off as many times in Week Two. New Orleans' second game is in Tampa, against a defense that led the NFL in rushing defense in 2012, allowing just 82.5 yards per game. The Bucs gave up 90 ground yards last weekend in New York, but 47 of that was on quarterback scrambles, which is not generally a big part of Brees' game. Tampa Bay did make a great effort to improve its secondary during the 2013 offseason, so it may not make as much sense to simply fire away downfield all day as it did last year. Still, establishing the run against the Buccaneers is often difficult, and Brees is well aware of that fact.
"We're only one game in, but just from looking at the scheme and the way that they all play it, I'd say that the entire Tampa defense, when you look at the front four and the linebacking core, it's as solid a defense as there is," he said. "I think, man for man, [there's] a lot of talent, some very good pass-rushers, a very good run defense. [They have] some very fast, aggressive linebackers. They've got some good pressure schemes. So, all in all, it's a very well-built defense."
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, even if their defense succeeds in stopping the run and the Saints don't get their wish for a balanced attack, they're still facing a quarterback who can overcome that problem. Obviously, the goal in stopping the run first is to put the opposing offense into obvious and difficult passing situations so that the pass-rush can turn it loose and hopefully create negative plays. The Bucs know that doesn't often work against Brees.
"He's an elite quarterback, not in this time, but the history of the league," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Greg Schiano. "This guy is special. He does everything well. He reads and deciphers defenses well, he works defensive secondaries with his eyes and body, he understands secondary play, he understands front play. This guy is a seasoned veteran and then he has the tools to make the throws as well. So those are pretty good qualifications.
"You're not going to stop him, no one does. Can you contain him? That's more of the challenge. That's what we need to do, we need to contain him and our guys are working hard to do that."
Like most teams, the Buccaneers have few instances in which they've shut Brees down through the years. They've held him below 200 passing yards in three of the 14 meetings between the Bucs and Saints since Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006 (and won two of those three games). More often, they've given up more yards but remained competitive, winning six of those 14 games. Brees and the Saints won both games last year, however, with Brees throwing for 684 yards and eight touchdowns, and now they have another advantage: Sean Payton. The Saints coach is back on the sideline after a year-long suspension, and Brees says that will help the offense be even better.
"Sean and I have a great relationship," said Brees. "We're very much on the same page. [We] spend a lot of time together throughout the week, in preparation and communication, because when we get out to the field, we want to basically be [in a position] where I'm seeing what he's seeing, he's seeing what I'm seeing, and we're able to kind of anticipate each other's actions and thoughts. I feel like we're very much in sync, as we always have been. It's really as if we haven't missed any time, to be honest with you. It's just business as usual. [I'm] just excited to have the season going again, and I know he's excited to be back."
The Saint have had a lot of exciting seasons since Brees' arrival in New Orleans. According to the all-pro quarterback, offensive balance will be the key to 2013 being another one.