Allen Park – Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and in his 16th season, he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
The New Orleans Saints signal-caller has masterfully orchestrated the NFL’s second-ranked offense, completing 71.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,587 yards and 30 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He’s on pace for his fifth 5,000-yard campaign. No one else has topped the mark twice.
The mission for the Detroit Lions, who rank last in opposing passer rating and completion percentage, is to cobble together a game plan that can slow Brees down.
“You better be able to play defense well across the board because he spreads it around quite a bit, and he’s accurate as a day is long,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
Brees has always been accurate, boasting the best completion percentage in league history. But he’s also benefitted from coaching continuity, being paired with coach Sean Payton since signing with New Orleans as a free agent in 2006.
So even as the weapons around him have changed, the quarterback’s production has remained steady.
“I mean they’re stilling running their offense how they do, they have a specific role for their tight ends and their receivers and they just find guys to plug in, so they don't change what they do,” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “They've been doing it for a long time. The guy they got running the show, Drew Brees, is one of the best in the business.”
The Saints’ top receiver is a rookie, second-round pick Michael Thomas. Coming into Sunday’s game, he’s hauled in 65 passes for 789 yards and seven touchdowns. But Brees’ second and third options aren’t far behind. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead each have 51 catches and combined for 10 scores.
Thomas is the big target, standing 6-foot-3, but the Saints often utilize him in the slot, similar to the way the team deployed Marques Colston the past decade. That’s a unique challenge for the nickelback in coverage.
“Yeah it can create some problems for you, particularly when most of the time you’re working on an inside defender,” Caldwell said. “That gives you a little unique advantage. Particularly with the way Drew can place the ball, they can give you some problems with his height and length.”
Of course, the Saints offense is at its best when the team has a reliable ground game and running back Mark Ingram happens to be in the midst of a career year.
A Flint native and former Heisman Trophy winner, Ingram has been a bull out of the backfield in his sixth season. After a midseason benching for a ball security issue, he’s responded with two monster performances the past four weeks.
Ingram is the NFC’s reigning offensive player of the week after tallying 167 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in last week’s 49-21 thumping of the Los Angeles Rams. For the season, he’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry, the best in the league.
“He's a big guy but he's got quick feet, a good center of gravity, good balance,” Quin said. “Big backs generally, if they can stay healthy, they come alive toward the end of the season.”
All totaled, the Saints are averaging a shade more than 30 points per game, having topped 40 three times, including twice in the past four games. The Lions counter with a defense has been playing better recently, limiting their past five opponents to an average of 17 points. But the team is bracing for the possibility of a shootout.
“You’ve got to understand who you’re playing,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “This is a really good offense, a talented to group. Playing at their place, where they’re playing really well, putting up a bunch of points. We just know that there’s no number out there, we just need to make our drive counts. We need to make sure that we have efficient drives and we’re getting points.”
That’s been a problem for the Lions lately. The team hasn’t scored more than two offensive touchdowns in regulation during that same five-game stretch.
“There’s too many periods of the game where we’re going three-and-out, three-and-out,” Stafford said. “We’ve got to limit those, and we understand that, especially against a team like New Orleans who’s going to command the football.
“When we get opportunities to put sevens on the board, we’ve got to come away with seven.”