Drew Brees threw a pass last week that was so out of character it created a sense of shock.The New Orleans Saints quarterback has been so incredibly efficient this season it would be hard to find multiple examples of passes that could have been intercepted.So, when Brees threw a fade to Michael Thomas that came in low and was almost picked off by a Washington Redskins defender, it looked entirely out of place alongside everything else Brees put on film this season.At some point, Brees is probably going to throw an interception, even though he has attempted 219 passes since his last pick, against the Minnesota Vikings. He is also completing a ridiculous 77.9 percent of his passes, which would crush the single-season record of 72, set by Brees last season.Keep in mind that these things aren’t supposed to be happening. Brees is 39. He shouldn’t be completing passes at a rate better than anyone who has ever lived. He shouldn’t be on pace to throw for 5,305 yards with 35 touchdowns and no interceptions.You’re supposed to be able to identify signs of decline within the numbers at this stage of a player’s career. Brees is showing signs of improvement — at least within his stats.Now, the schedule is about to get harder. Some of those rates will drop, and blemishes will form in other areas, but this remains one of the better five-game stretches of Brees’ distinguished career. How is he doing it?“I don’t know that we’ve sat in each day and said, ‘All right, we’re going this direction to improve the completion percentage,’ ” coach Sean Payton said. “I think it’s a byproduct of how we’re operating offensively, and there’s a lot that goes into that.”Has the approached changed?“I just do my job the best I can,” Brees said.There is no doubt the offense has changed a bit over the years. We’ve pointed out before how New Orleans sometimes uses deep crossing routes in place of go routes in specific situations, and a trained eye might spot some differences in the routes Brees targets (or doesn’t target) from time to time.And there is some truth to the idea that Brees is taking fewer risks than he used to as a younger player.On the other hand, he isn’t just throwing to open wide open receivers. He can still fit the ball into a tight window when he needs to. He’s just probably a little smarter about taking those chances, and risky throws are probably a little easier to avoid when the team around him can be trusted to do handle their end.I watched every pass Brees has thrown this season and marked down the ones on which it looked like he made a “tough” throw. The process wasn’t overly scientific. It’s how it sounds. I made a note of plays on which Brees seemed to squeezed the pass in a tighter window than usual, aggressively challenged a defensive back or attempted any throw with that had an obviously higher degree of difficulty.It isn’t the easiest thing to hammer down, and the process is extremely arbitrary. There are probably also times when Brees’ anticipation and accuracy make hard throws look easy to an outside observer.But working with what we can see and know, about 40-45 attempts, or eight or nine per game, fit the criteria, which sounds about right. If you have to make dozens of throws that are above and beyond the standard level of difficulty, each week your offense is probably poorly designed.Among those marked as “tough” plays were a hitch Brees connected with to Thomas after avoiding a sack, and he put another hitch in Austin Carr’s arms while on the run against Tampa Bay. There was the fade to Thomas against Cleveland; the pass he put right between a linebacker and a safety for a gain of 25 to Carr against Atlanta; and a back-shoulder throw to Thomas against the New York Giants.The degree of difficulty is there. There are a decent amount of open throws for Brees on film. He runs an offense created by some of the better offensive minds the NFL has seen, so those are going to show up now and then.It’d be a little weird to knock Brees for taking advantage of what’s there and running the offense effectively. Still, he’s not just standing in the pocket and throwing passes to receivers who are running free all day — even if that’s how it looked at times against Washington’s porous defense.One another thing: Tampa Bay might want to look at how it covers the middle of the field and defends the slot the next time these teams play, as there were a lot of open throws or plays where a linebacker covered Thomas.But overall, Brees is taking multiple calculated chances every game, just like every quarterback in the NFL.So, again, how is Brees completing all these passes?“Sometimes it depends on the team you’re playing,” Payton said. “Generally, the more zone coverage you get, maybe the higher completion percentage you’ll have. It doesn’t necessarily equate to success. In man-to-man coverage, it’s a little bit more challenging, but a lot of it has to do with his preparation.”That is also one of the keys. Brees has been tearing apart zone defenses this season. He has completed 83 percent of his passes against those looks, and success doesn’t seem to be an issue, as he’s averaging 11.5 yards per completion. The Saints quarterback has completed 68.5 percent of his passes against man coverages.The uptick appears to be a combination of things — one of which includes the reliability of Thomas, who has caught 46 of the 49 passes thrown his direction this season. That helps. A lot.It isn’t hard to see that Brees is doing special things. Even after seeing him do it for so long, after all this time, he can still create a sense of shock.
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