Saints QB Drew Brees is a formidable foe for the Bucs' defense, especially if he is given ample time to throw
Playing quarterback in the National Football League is a test of mental toughness. No other position requires the amount of focus, quick thinking and knowledge of both the offensive and defensive schemes at play.
With such a cerebral workload to deal with on a weekly basis, distractions can be a nuisance. The opportunity to approach the game with a clear head is at a premium.
For quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the New Orleans Saints, some stray thoughts and non-football worries would certainly be excusable, given that the team spent the week in Indianapolis instead of in their homes. There, the Saints prepared for Sunday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while Hurricane Gustav blew through the bayou.
That certainly could have qualified as a "distraction."
"Yeah, it has been different," Brees said. "Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were kind of tense there at times because all of our hearts and minds were back in New Orleans just hoping that everything would be okay. We were kind of glued to the TV, just trying to follow the hurricane and just getting updates any way that we could.
"Obviously [Tuesday] we just tried to call around, and everyone was trying to figure out if their house was okay, make sure that there wasn't any wind damage or water damage or trees falling on your house or anything like that. Now that we are kind of in the work week and the storm has passed, we are just trying to make the most of our situation and prepare as well as we can to go out and play well on Sunday."
Still, the Buccaneers should not expect the Saints to be any less prepared than usual. Led by the meticulous Brees, one of the top signal-callers in the league, the Saints will likely be operating at a high level come Sunday, bolstered by an energized Superdome full of rabid fans.
"I would think it is going to be really exciting," Brees said. "I hope that everyone is back and it is a sellout and we have all of our fans there, yelling, screaming and acting crazy like they normally do. I know that everybody is really excited with the fact that we are starting off at home. The last two seasons we started off with two road games in a row which was kind of difficult, so it's nice to start off at home for a change."
While it will be nice to kick off the 2008 season in familiar surroundings, Brees and the Saints face a stiff test in the opener. After the Bucs swept the season series with the Saints last year, Brees has been paying extra attention to his division rival and the stout defense they'll throw his way.
"You look at all those guys, and [Defensive Coordinator] Monte Kiffin has been running that defensive show there for a long time, and he has done a very good job," Brees said. "They know what they play and they play it well. They don't try to fool you. A lot of times, they kind of show you what they are doing and then they execute. They are well-coached, they have some talented players on that defense, but just prideful guys that have been doing it for a long time and have been doing it at a high level.
"I think you kind of know what you are getting, and that is why you have to be patient at times, you have to execute and you can't give them anything to boost their momentum. You always want to feel like the ball is in your court and you're kind of controlling the tempo of the game. That's what we try to do."
The respect Brees holds for the Bucs' defense is mutual. Tampa Bay defensive end Kevin Carter said shutting down Brees is the key to keeping the Saints' high-powered offense in check.
"He's crafty, he's slippery, he makes great decisions and he has such great pocket poise and pocket awareness," Carter said. "You aren't going to catch him off guard back there. You can throw any kind of look you want to at him but he seems to see everything. He's a great manager of the clock and everyone around him. He's a pretty good field general. He makes everyone else around him better, so we really have to make sure we're on point."
Added linebacker Barrett Ruud: "He's an elite quarterback. It's the same problems all the elite quarterbacks present – they're very smart, they make the right decisions, and you have to be on your assignments against them. When you're off, he finds the creases in your defense."
Last year, the Bucs paid keen attention to Brees and were able to corral him, for the most part, as they swept both contests against the Saints.
"I think they got me three times the first game and twice the second game," Brees said. "The first game, I think that a lot of that was a product of us playing from behind so you are in that two-minute mode. They were able to pin their ears back and rush the passer, and they have some pretty good pass rushers so they did a good job of getting to me a few times. The more even that you can keep it and the more balanced that you can be, the more chance you have of getting the ball out and avoiding those sacks."
Carter said the success last year was due to the Bucs' ability to play sound, fundamental defense within their scheme. A win in the season opener this time around could easily come down to the very same things.
"It was a combination of things," Carter said. "You have to have good coverage on the back end, you've got to be firm in your gap control against the run and you've got to take away some of his options and confuse him a little bit. Hopefully we'll try to do the same things and throw him off balance a little bit and get some pressure in his face."
That balance Carter referred to is a word, along with rhythm, that aptly describes Brees' 2007 season, according to Saints Head Coach Sean Payton. After Brees and the Saints limped to an 0-4 record to start the season, the team found their groove and was in contention until the very end, due in large part to Brees' outstanding play.
"I think a lot of times you see someone who is pretty decisive and gets rid of the ball in rhythm," Payton said. "He is someone that tries to play with urgency, he has a pretty good idea of where he wants to go, based on each defense, with his progressions. It's a combination of his timing and the clock in his head. He isn't afraid to throw it away. It is something he works real hard on and the offensive line has done a good job but it starts with getting rid of it on time."
And even though he and his teammates had some added distractions as they worried about the status of their home city all week, you can bet Brees will be well-prepared as he tries to lead his team to a season-opening victory at home and an early lead in the NFC South.