New Orleans Saints: Is Drew Brees to blame?

It seems like the sky is falling for the New Orleans Saints, as they surrendered 39 points to a previously struggling Philadelphia Eagles offense in a 39-17 blowout loss on Sunday afternoon. Quarterback Drew Brees and the offense failed to get much going (his 335 passing yards were mostly garbage-time induced), and the Sean Payton rumors only make the situation in New Orleans seem more dire. Set to face the undefeated Atlanta Falcons on a short week, the Saints need to come up with some answers, and one of the questions some are asking is, “Just how good is Brees right now?”

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Brees was playing at less than 100% in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, but the Saints were able to eke out a victory against a Brandon Weeden-led team. That didn’t happen against Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, and an Eagles offense that threw for 333 yards, was never sacked, and racked up an impressive 186 yards on the ground.

Meanwhile, Brees was able to put up his third 330+ yard game in four appearances and has yet to throw for less than 250 this season, but he would finish the game with three turnovers. Walter Thurmond picked off one of his 43 pass attempts (six others were defended by the Eagles), and his two fumbles were the product of him holding onto the ball for too long.

At 1-4 without a single win on the road in three games, some are wondering if Brees is, as some said last season, rapidly declining. While it’s hard to argue against the notion that a 36-year-old who is now dealing with shoulder issues is experiencing some sort of decline, I just don’t see how Brees is even on the shortlist of the problems in New Orleans.

You can blame coaching, but the easiest thing to pin the 1-4 start on is the defense. Not only have injuries taken their toll, but this is a defense that came into Sunday’s game against Chip Kelly’s Eagles with the worst net yards per pass attempt allowed in the NFL.

Their pass defense is so bad that they were allowing 8.8 yards every time the opponent dropped back to pass, so Bradford had no problems putting up 7.4 yards per attempt against the Saints. Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux came up with picks, but the Saints should have done a better job against an offense that lost Nelson Agholor to an injury during the game.

Their run defense was even worse, and it’s a below-average unit that could get exposed by Devonta Freeman, who has pummeled three straight opponents. Freeman looms in the Saints-Falcons Thursday Night Football matchup, and he effectively carried the Falcons to a victory this week.

The Saints, on the other hand, don’t have a single running back who is averaging 4.0 yards per carry on the season. Mark Ingram is a true feature back and both Khiry Robinson and C.J. Spiller are capable rushers, but this team is forcing Brees to carry the day with the way they are defending. How can you establish a legitimate running game when you are allowing other teams to drop 30 on you? It just isn’t possible.

Brees is under an awful lot of pressure these days, and I’m not talking about the five sacks (three of them from elite defensive lineman Fletcher Cox) the Eagles had in Week 5. He has a new-look group of pass-catchers around him, and it’s hard to win shootouts with a bad defense and new, young weapons whom he is still trying to establish an effective rapport with.

Oct 11, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead (83) makes a catch past Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell (31) during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks both went for over 100 yards against Philly, and both players averaged over 20 yards per reception. However, nobody else on the offense had more than 36 receiving yards, and it’s clear that Brees’s only top options right now are Snead, Cooks, and whichever running back Payton calls for in the gameplan.

There’s no doubt that Cooks is a talented player and that Snead has been a massive diamond in the rough for the New Orleans Saints. In fact, I’d wager that Snead, who seems to get open at will, has been the team’s best player on offense this season. The issue is that the Saints need more consistency out of every single member of their offense as a whole, and the lack of cohesiveness on this offense is making Brees look older than he is.

Oct 11, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox (91) sacks New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and causes a fumble during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at the basic stats, Brees hasn’t done poorly this season. He averaged 7.8 yards per attempt against the Eagles, he came into the game with a 68.5% completion percentage and 7.6 yards per attempt, and he showed that his deep ball efficacy hasn’t completely eroded by hitting Cooks vertically.

Again, nobody will pretend that Brees is the same player he was in, say, 2009, but it would be unfair to rank him outside of the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL right now. He’s still a star, but it’s becoming harder to find other true stars on the Saints offense. Cooks, Snead, and Ingram are three key players who look like stars in some games, but we still need to see more.

The turnovers today? Those were on Brees. But he made some tough throws to Snead and Cooks, and, even though he held onto the ball too long, he showed some toughness in the pocket. Left tackle Terron Armstead is one of the best in the business, and he was sorely missed today.

Brees and the Saints need to completely come out of their shells in Week 6 if they want to take down the Falcons, because Matt Ryan won’t have another two-interception, 6.0 Y/A game, especially not agains a struggling Saints secondary. That puts the pressure on the Saints offense to set the tone against Atlanta, and I’m willing to say that it’s Brees who needs help, as opposed to it being Brees who needs to do more for this offense. The protection will be better next week, and, hopefully, so will this team’s performance as a whole (we don’t want to watch another TNF snoozefest).

Remember, it’s unfair to blame one player when just about everything goes wrong, and it’s even less fair to blame a player who threw it to eight different players, was constantly pressured throughout the game, and had to try and overcome the fact that his defense surrendered 39 points.

There’s only so much Brees can do, and the quarterback gets a reprieve when too many things are crumbling around him. Outside of Cooks and Snead, it’s hard to find pass-catchers on this team he can trust to help make plays for him when the Saints are facing a large deficit, especially since he can’t count on the running game in those deep holes.