Saints go short to score big

AP Photo/Bill Feig

Drew Brees leads the highest-scoring offense in the NFL.

The New Orleans Saints have scored a league-high 239 points after their 62-7 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night. Drew Brees led the charge with five touchdowns passes and no interceptions, recording 300-plus passing yards for the fifth straight game.

Big plays have been the highlight of the Saints’ passing game over the years, but Brees and the Saints have used the short pass to help open up the downfield passing game.

The Saints have been very effective when they do go deep. Brees is completing a league-best 62.5 percent of his throws 21 yards or more downfield this season. Since the start of the 2008 season, he leads all quarterbacks in completions, completion percentage and touchdowns on such throws.

Fewest Air Yards per Attempt
2011 Season

Despite the success, only 8.0 percent of Brees’ attempts this season have been over 20 yards. That’s the 25th highest rate among 34 qualified quarterbacks. Only Colt McCoy is averaging fewer air yards per attempt than Brees this season.

Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham have been two keys in the short passing game for the Saints this season. Sproles is tied with Wes Welker for the most targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (54) and Graham is fourth with 43.

Brees has targeted running backs on 90 percent of his league-high 30 screen attempts this season. Across the NFL this year, only 57.1 percent of all screen passes have been to running backs.

Saints’ Running Back Screens

Sproles has been an upgrade over Reggie Bush in the screen game. In 2010, Bush’s 36 receiving yards were the fewest on screen passes among running backs with 10 such receptions. Through seven weeks, Sproles has almost doubled Bush’s full-season screen yardage total from last year.

Sproles has also made an impact splitting out wide. Entering Week 7, Sproles was targeted 31 times when lining up as a wide receiver, catching 22 passes for 172 yards. No other running back had more than nine targets or receptions when splitting out wide.

Play-action passing is another key to the offense, with Brees attempting the most such passes this season. While most teams – including the Packers, examined here last week -- use play action to go over the top, the Saints go even shorter.

The average air yards per pass attempt in the NFL this season is 7.3, which jumps to 8.7 on play-action passes. Brees is averaging 6.8 air yards per play-action attempt this season, slightly below his average of 7.0 air yards on all passes.

Brees’ favorite play-action target is his tight end. Graham leads all NFL tight ends in targets (19), receptions (13) and yards (175), and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (3) on play-action passes.