Monday night was a coronation of sorts.
After a long and storied career for quarterback Drew Brees, one that saw him help deliver a Super Bowl — and some redemption — to a city when it was most needed, it was time for some individual accolades. On Monday night, Brees set the all-time yardage passing mark as a quarterback, surpassing Peyton Manning, whom he bested in Super Bowl XLIV. The record is testament to many of Brees’ traits as a quarterback, but one in particular.
Brees’ ability to quickly diagnose, decipher and decide is one of the things that sets him apart from his QB peers. His accuracy with the football is well-documented, to be sure, but it is what Brees does in those split-second moments in the pocket that enables him to be so very successful as a passer. Walking through some of these examples highlights just how impressive Brees is as a quarterback, and just how fine the line is between success and failure for QBs in the NFL.
To start us off, here is a play from the 2017 season. This is a third-and-13 play from the second quarter of New Orleans’ blowout victory on the road against the Buffalo Bills. The Saints come out for this third-down play with Brees (#9) in the shotgun and using a 2x2 formation:
This is the route design the Saints run on this play:
They run a Sail concept to the left, with the running back releasing to the flat, one receiver running an out pattern and another receiver running a vertical route. Brandon Coleman (#16) runs a backside dig route, and that is where Brees wants to throw the football. But just as he starts to pull the trigger, a defender jumps the route:
Brees, somehow, sees this and pulls the ball down. But he does not give up on the route to Coleman, and he slides a bit in the pocket to create space, then adjusts his arm angle to make the throw:
The end zone view of this play shows just how close safety Jordan Poyer (#21) came to jumping this route for the interception:
Instead, Brees pulls the ball down and creates enough time and space in the pocket to complete the throw to Coleman for the big gain. Instead of Bills’ football, the Saints are in Buffalo territory … and they would score a touchdown a few plays later.
Here is another example of this ability of Brees to quickly spot a defensive movement and then find another option to exploit the defense. The Week 15 meeting between the Saints and the visiting New York Jets, led by Bryce Petty, was an entertaining affair that actually was a close contest until a Mark Ingram TD run late in the fourth quarter iced the game. In the second quarter, however, Brees channeled his inner second baseman on another snap-second decision. The Saints faced a second-and-6 on the Jets’ 10-yard line and set up for the second-down snap with Brees in the shotgun and a three-receiver formation to the right. Alvin Kamara (#41) is in the backfield with his quarterback, shaded to the left side of the field:
Here is the route design the Saints run for this play in the red zone:
This play is a designed rub concept for Michael Thomas (#13), who is running the slant route from the outside. The two inside receivers in the trips release vertically, looking to create traffic for the defender across from Thomas to try and fight through.
Brees takes the shotgun snap and looks to throw this route to Thomas. But as he starts to throw he stops and pulls the ball back down. Why? Because the safety is jumping the route:
Brees reloads, sliding to the left a bit to buy some time. Then he picks up Kamara on his Texas route, and the Saints have a very easy touchdown:
If you look at the end zone angle you can see how Brees makes this throw:
The QB barely sets himself, making this throw with a simple wrist flick. This is something you might expect to see from a second baseman turning the double play, and not on NFL Sundays. But Brees makes it work, starting with the processing speed on the no-throw decision.
Of course, Brees’ quick thinking has carried into the 2018 season. Despite New Orleans losing in its season opener to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brees still put up impressive numbers and showed his processing speed on a number of plays. Trailing 31-17 late in the second quarter, the Saints align with Brees alone in the backfield for a second-and-5 play:
When trying to appreciate just how much information QBs have to process on a given play, it sometimes help to try and get into their heads as best as you can. Look at the alignment of the defenders in the pre-snap phase of the play. Tampa Bay has two safeties deep, showing Brees a Cover 2 look. However, one cornerback is in man alignment, looking toward his receiver, while the other is in a zone alignment, looking at Brees:
Here is the route concept the Saints employ on this play:
To the right the Saints run a go/flat or Ohio concept, with the outside receiver releasing vertically while the inside receiver runs a quick out pattern. To the three-receiver side, the Saints run a stick/slot-fade combination, with the tight end running a stick route, the outside receiver running a hitch, and the middle trips receiver running a fade.
Right at the snap, however, Brees sees a different look from the safety on the right hashmark:
Now the safety seems to be rolling to a single-high look, rotating toward the middle of the field. That might change the quarterback’s calculus. If the Buccaneers are in a Cover 2 look, then the go/flat or Ohio concept on the right is a good route to throw, because the vertical route along the boundary should attack that “turkey hole” area of the secondary. But if Tampa Bay is rotating to more of a Cover 1/Cover 3 look, then Brees might want to work the stick/slot-fade concept to the left.
Brees has to decide in a matter of seconds, and he does, throwing the vertical route to the right:
Why does he go here? Because the safety was trying to bait him, and instead broke back to the outside in more of a Cover 2 coverage scheme. So seeing this, Brees came to the Ohio concept on the right. He thought about throwing the flat route from the slot receiver, but the outside cornerback started to jump that, making the vertical route the best option. Taking things even a step further, Brees puts this pass toward the boundary and away from the safety, now crashing down on the vertical route receiver.
Bear in mind this all happens in mere seconds, as Brees has rather large men bearing down on him, trying to cause him severe bodily harm.
Now we can look at Brees' record-setting Monday night.
Late in the first half, the Saints offense took over with Brees only needing 35 yards to set the all-time passing yardage mark. Of course, Brees was able to do it in style. But as we will see on this play, yet again the veteran quarterback shows the quick processing and decision-making that have been a hallmark of his incredible NFL career:
New Orleans runs a vertical concept paired with Alvin Kamara (#41) running a route to the right flat, toward the trips side of the Saints’ offensive formation. Brees works through multiple reads on this play, first checking the middle of the field, and then working down to Kamara in the flat. But that’s when he confirms that Washington is in a Cover 2 look, with cornerback Josh Norman (#24) down near the line of scrimmage in the flat, held there by the swing route from Kamara. Seeing this, Brees knows that Tre’Quan Smith (#10) will be open in the “turkey hole” along the boundary on his vertical route, so that’s where he goes with the football.
Here’s another look at Brees once more working quickly through his reads and making the right decision with the football:
It takes many things for a quarterback to break a record like Brees did on Monday night. Accuracy, poise, hard work and even a little bit of luck along the way are factors. But one of Brees’ best traits as a quarterback, and one that showed up on the record-breaking play itself, is his ability to quickly diagnose, decipher and decide.