Saints fell short on deep balls

METAIRIE, La. -- When it came to throwing deep this season, the Saints fell a little short.

Overall, quarterback Drew Brees’ downfield passing numbers were actually very good (1,156 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions on throws of 20 yards or more in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information). That’s very similar to Brees’ best seasons in 2011 and 2009 (only the completion percentage was lower). So it’s hard to make the blanket statement that the Saints didn’t have enough of a deep passing threat in the offense this year.

However, like just about everything else with the Saints’ offense, it was an area that dropped off when the Saints were on the road. And it was an area where the Saints dropped off dramatically in December and January.

During the Saints’ slump from Weeks 13-16 (loss at Seattle, win vs. Carolina, losses at St. Louis and Carolina), Brees completed just 3 of 16 passes from that distance for 72 yards, with zero touchdowns and one interception.

In the playoffs, Brees was 3-of-8 on passes of that length for 115 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.

When Brees was asked last week whether the Saints missed having a deep threat like they used to have when Joe Morgan was healthy or when Devery Henderson or Robert Meachem were in their primes, Brees said no. But he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what the problem was.

“When I look at the last four out of six games where we were on the road, maybe five out of seven, I don’t think it was defensive scheme. I don’t think it was where we were playing or elements or anything like that,” Brees said. “I felt like we made our fair share of plays. I would say maybe over that six or seven game span, we were a little below our big-play average, our scoring average or what have you. I don’t sit here and necessarily attribute it to one thing or another.

“We still dialed up our shots, we still called them, we still attempted them. But maybe for whatever reason we didn’t get as many as we normally have.”

Obviously part of the problem had nothing to do with the Saints themselves.

Four of those late-season games came against two of the NFL’s best defenses (Seattle and Carolina twice each). And four of those games were played in some adverse weather conditions (Seattle twice, Carolina and Philadelphia).

But the question still remains: Do the Saints need to add more of that deep threat to keep good defenses honest?

Morgan was expected to fill that role in 2013, but he suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. Morgan said last week that his rehab has been going well and he expects to be back at full speed by the end of the summer. But he’ll have to prove he can shake off the rust to earn a prominent role in the rotation.

Rookie Kenny Stills wasn’t known as a burner coming out of Oklahoma. But he certainly stepped up to fill that deep-threat role for the Saints at times this year, leading the NFL with an average of 20.0 yards per reception (32 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns -- all on deep balls).

Meachem still broke free for a handful of deep balls. And the Saints had a lot of success throwing deep to tight end Jimmy Graham early in the year.

But the Saints need to decide if they need to add to that speed element this year in the draft or free agency -- especially with longtime receivers like Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Meachem getting older now.

Coach Sean Payton seemed to agree that it’s a fair question -- though he wasn’t set on his answer yet at this early stage of the offseason.

“You are in the absence of an injured Joe Morgan. You are in the absence of a player like Devery Henderson who has played successfully here a long time. I don’t know if it’d be fair to compare this receiver corps to any of the ones prior,” Payton said of the Saints’ need to adapt to start this season. “I think our explosive play number was still up there very high, and yet that is dealing with injuries again. I think Joe Morgan was a guy that got on top (of the defense) a lot. We got behind defenses. Whether we did it enough, we’ll have a chance to see (when we review the season).

“I understand the criticism, but I think that it’s hard to find film of the receivers like we remember back, you know, strictly getting behind the corner and the long bomb being thrown. Now, there are different routes that you get above coverages with. And can defenses start sitting on routes? Absolutely. …

“But we obviously put a value on explosive plays, and that is something that we will look closely at with our offense.”