How the Jets Can Slow Down Drew Brees, High-Powered Saints Offense

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How the Jets Can Slow Down Drew Brees, High-Powered Saints Offense

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton went off against the New York Jets on Sunday, piling up 325 passing yards, a 125.7 passer rating and a career-high five touchdown passes.

How big could those numbers be if the Jets don't fix their pass defense before facing the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees?

"If we don’t play better pass defense than we did this past week, he’ll throw for 700 yards," said head coach Rex Ryan.

For the record, Brees' career-high single-game passing yardage total is 510, which he did against the Bengals in 2006; his second-highest total is the 446 yards he compiled against the Packers and Cowboys in 2012. For him to hit 700 yards would be something, but regardless of how bad the Jets play, Brees is highly unlikely to hit that number.

Here's how the Jets can make sure it doesn't happen though.

 

Covering Jimmy Graham

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is dealing with a foot injury and played just 20 snaps on Sunday against the Bills, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He finished with a season-low three catches on three targets for 37 yards, but he did manage to haul in two touchdowns. 

You have to wonder if Graham will continue to be solely a red-zone threat this week or if the team will increase his snap count. 

"I think from a pain standpoint, my understanding is it can begin to diminish," Saints coach Sean Payton said, via Mike Triplett of ESPN. "I know this—we're not gonna sit here week to week discussing it. But I think it's something he'll be able to manage."

He remains a force in the red zone, where he has been targeted 62 times and has 40 receptions for 630 yards and nine touchdowns this season, making him the best red-zone target in the NFL. Both of Graham's touchdown receptions against the Bills were short passes that he ran in for a score, but this fade route against the Cardinals provides a good example of what Graham is when he is at his best:

He played basketball at the University of Miami, and his box-out, jump-ball skills were on full display on this touchdown grab over Cardinals safety Yeremiah Bell. It's hard to out-muscle him to the ball, especially since he's so experienced at doing it to opponents.

Teams have tried virtually everything to slow down Graham, but the Patriots were the one team to have legitimate success in doing so, holding the athletic tight end to no catches in their meeting in Week 6.

Cornerback Aqib Talib lined up on Graham, for the most part, which is typically considered a strange assignment to give to a cornerback. However, considering how often Graham lines up on the outside as a wide receiver, the strategy was logical. The problem is, not every team has a cornerback like Talib that they can lock in on Graham.

Enter Antonio Cromartie, he of more flags than the United Nations (five pass interference penalties this year is a league-high). Cromartie has a similar frame to Talib, although he is a bit lankier and not as strong. If Cromartie can play sound man coverage on Graham, that will really help the Jets in other areas. 

If Graham proves to be ahead of where he was last week, the Jets could try worse things than putting Cromartie on him in man coverage.

 

Help the Cornerbacks Over the Top

Brees is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the league, but the Saints' high-powered offense lives for chunk plays. According to PFF, 14 percent of Brees' pass attempts have traveled 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage, and he has hit his target in the hands (either caught or dropped) on 39.5 percent of those pass attempts.

Drew Brees on deep passes traveling 20 yards or more, 2013
Attempt % Accuracy % TD INT
Brees 14.0 39.5 8 1
NFL Rank 8 13 1 T-2

ProFootballFocus.com

Brees has spread the ball around when he throws deep, going to Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills nine times apiece and going to receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem five times apiece.

With Jets cornerbacks struggling in coverage at times, helping them out with a safety would allow them to play a bit more aggressively and give them more wiggle room to take chances.

Rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, in particular, could use the help. He's been benched twice in the middle of a game this season, and according to one league executive who has scouted the Jets, there's some concern over whether the Jets are putting too much on him, via Brian Costello of The New York Post:

He’s a rookie. He needs time. It's been too much too fast. But I never saw a difference-maker. I don't think he’s as explosive as some guys and that can allow guys to get open. He’s better from press areas, but guys can get initially open on him. He needs to clean up his technique. I never saw him as a ball hawk. He's a steadily productive guy with tools, but I never saw ‘wow’ in his play. Given time, he could improve.

Issues with technique should come as no surprise; after all, Milliner attended the University of Alabama, otherwise known as the "University of Defensive Backs Who Don't Backpedal." That's a technique he has yet to learn, and it has cost him at the professional level, because wide receivers have been able to victimize him by getting his head turned around 

It hasn't been all bad for Milliner though—Patriots quarterback Tom Brady targeted him 12 times in coverage in Week 7, and Milliner yielded just six completions for 52 yards. Against the Bengals, however, he gave up completions on four of the five times he was targeted, and it could have been 5-of-5 had Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu not dropped an easy deep ball.

As alluded above, it's oftentimes his footwork that gets the worst of him. On the aforementioned play against Sanu, he dropped into a deep zone in Cover 3, but his technique on the backpedal was all kinds of sloppy—he took six awkward sort-of-backwards, sort-of-sideways steps before turning his shoulder to run with Sanu.

By that point, though, Sanu had gotten past him and was wide open in the deep half of the field—which is really never supposed to happen against Cover 3, since all three deep defensive backs have the responsibility of keeping everything in front of them.

It's perfectly understandable, then, why Dalton released the ball almost as soon as Sanu reached Milliner in the secondary—from that moment, Milliner had almost no prayer. Drew Brees preys on mistakes like that, and this could be a major Achilles' heel for the Jets defense on Sunday.

Perhaps part of the game plan should be to minimize Milliner's role? According to Rex Ryan, that looks highly unlikely:

The Jets made things a little easier on their cornerbacks against the Patriots by helping them out, at times, with safety coverage over the top.

In fact, deep help allowed safety Antonio Allen to intercept a pass from Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Allen was able to undercut the route because, with two deep defenders behind him, he knew that someone would make the tackle if he missed the play.

That being said, this was a play that was easily made, with Brady delivering a poor ball that landed square in Allen's hands. Still, he would not have been there were it not for his movement on the route, and while he may not have been thinking about his deep help when he made the play, it was certainly a good preventative move for a worst-case scenario.

 

Dial Down the Aggression

The Jets have always been known for their aggressive style of defense, but it's not all blitzes. In fact, against elite pocket-passers, the Jets are known to tone it down a bit and drop more players into coverage. 

Rex sent a blitz at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on just 21-of-90 dropbacks in the two games played between the two teams this year. Also, in knocking off both the Patriots and the Colts in the 2010 playoffs, the Jets blitzed Brady and Peyton Manning on only 20-of-77 total dropbacks in those two games.

That's a strategy the Jets may want to revisit against Brees.

Drew Brees under different kinds of pressure in 2013
Pressure Dropbacks Att. Comp. Comp. % Yds YPA TD INT Rate
Blitz 214 201 132 65.7 1615 8.0 11 4 100.2
No blitz 82 70 51 72.9 675 9.6 8 1 135.1

ProFootballFocus.com

Teams have not blitzed Brees very often, but when they have, he's made them pay. He's garnered a 135.1 passer rating against the blitz this season, and that's not an anomaly. He's finished with over a 100 passer rating in such situations in four of the past six years since PFF began tracking such data. He finished at 99.8 in 2011.

That being said, there is no surefire, 100 percent effective way to stop Brees. The Jets simply have to determine what they feel is the best game plan and roll with it, for better or worse.

 


Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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