After a 2-0 start, the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees hit an abnormally mediocre stretch in 2010—a stretch in which they were 2-3 with losses to the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns.
Some blamed injuries to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, among others. Many blamed the Super Bowl hangover.
Others blamed Brees.
In the three losses, Brees threw eight interceptions, including four at home against the Browns—his first four-interception performance since Week 3 of 2007.
He threw three picks in a 10-point loss to the Cardinals and two in an overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
In their two wins, he threw only one interception.
After that stretch, the Saints sat at 4-3 and third in the NFC South behind the Falcons and the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And with a tough matchup ahead of them against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were in danger of sliding to .500 and even further out of the NFC South race.
Then, Brees returned to his old self and the Saints went on a tear, starting with a 20-10 win over the Steelers at home.
Now riding a five-game win streak, the Saints are flying under the radar with all the buzz going to the 10-2 Falcons and the 10-2 New England Patriots in the AFC.
In the five wins, Brees has thrown just six interceptions with 11 touchdowns.
“(Brees) is playing at a high level,” head coach Sean Payton said. “He’s playing very efficiently. Each week we keep looking at opportunities for our players and it varies where the shot plays go.”
Brees has taken advantage of his many downfield targets on “shot plays”, hitting nine different receivers for touchdowns this season—five of them for multiple scores.
“It’s something in each plan where we want to aggressively get the ball down the field,” said Payton. “Sometimes you get a receiver that’s open or the look that’s good and other times you end up checking it down and looking for an underneath throw."
“I think we’re running the ball a little better in this last quarter of the season, if you look at it statistically. If you’re able to do that, you’re able to get some of the looks that you would prefer in regards to your down the field shots.”
Without Bush and Thomas for much of the year, rookie Chris Ivory has emerged as a go-to back, tallying 636 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He’s also averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Ivory has five touchdowns in the last three games and has two 100-yard games this year with a 99-yard performance to boot, so for Payton, there’s no need to rush Thomas back from an ankle injury.
And Ivory’s production has helped Brees get back to doing what he does best.
“As you effectively run the ball, it’s a little bit harder to sit in the same soft zone coverage and two-deep safety looks,” said Payton. “I think it all goes hand-in-hand. Our ability to run the ball efficiently and then come off of it with play-action or a drop-back pass, I think that goes together.”
Thomas is a full participant in practice this week and will likely return in Week 14 against the 6-6 St. Louis Rams at home, but Ivory will still get his carries, according to Payton.
And as long a the running game is working and Brees is doing what he does best, the Saints could make a lot of noise in the final weeks of the season and into the playoffs as they defend their Super Bowl title.
The Saints host the Rams Sunday at 3:05 p.m. CST.
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