Saints have been short on deep passes

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints are well aware that they haven’t hit on many deep passes this season. No one appreciates the value of a “shot play” more than quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton.

At the same time, neither is too concerned about it because the Saints have done such an effective job of taking what the defense gives them.

In fact, the Saints have had the most efficient offense in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information – a formula that calculates the value of every play based on the specific situation and result, with either a positive or negative grade assigned on a 1-10 scale.

The Saints lead the NFL in third-down conversions (61.5 percent). And Brees ranks first in completion percentage (70.9 percent) among all quarterbacks who have started every game.

But only two of those completed passes have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Brees is 2-of-6 for 66 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on those deep throws.

Instead, it’s been a heavy dose of an efficient run game and mid-range throws to tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Brandin Cooks.

“Really, I feel like we’ve dialed them up and just for one reason or another just had to go elsewhere,” Brees said. “Obviously those are difference-makers in a game. And especially when you talk about the first two weeks of the season the way that we lost some of those games, we were one play away here and there, and maybe that one play is the one that makes the difference. So we would like to be there to make it.”

Saints coach Sean Payton pointed out an example of a good decision where Brees adjusted after a shot play was called this past Sunday. The Saints were looking to hit Graham on a deep throw, but Brees found Cooks coming open across the field underneath for a 16-yard gain instead.

“Sometimes the progression takes you to an underneath throw,” Payton said.

The deep-ball deficiency actually began late last season when the Saints' offense slumped in December, and it was a particular issue on the road (though stout defenses and weather conditions had a lot to do with that).

It seems as though defenses began to try to take that away from the Saints more and more as last season went on. It was certainly an emphasis for the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, when they sometimes had seven defensive backs on the field.

The Saints, however, have gotten better and better at making defenses pay for that tact with an efficient run game.

"Every defense is so different," Brees said. "[But] I’d say for the most part people understand our big-play capability and so obviously they are trying to kind of manage that.”