Holder: What’s the key to Drew Brees’ improved play? Not ‘air yards’

Holder: What’s the key to Drew Brees’ improved play? Not ‘air yards’
Video drew brees air football

You’ve probably heard the term “air yards” more in the past month than you’ve ever heard in your entire life. I know Drew Brees has. It’s the latest NFL “cool kids” term. But breaking news: It’s not the reason for Brees’ dropoff the first two weeks of the 2020 season.

Yes, I’m serious.

The reason is actually one of those football terms that’s been discussed for as long as the passing game has existed.


That’s it.

Brees simply wasn’t connecting with his pass-catchers as well as we’re accustomed to seeing. He’s great when he’s accurate. In Weeks 1-2, he was inaccurate, hence he wasn’t great. And that was with Michael Thomas in the lineup for basically all of the Bucs game. The dip in accuracy alarmed me the most. He’s never possessed the rocket arm, but he’s always been accurate.

The results are telling.

Brees appeared far more like himself in Weeks 3 and 4, even though the Saints only won one of those games. His completion percentage jumped by 14%.

There’s no doubt Brees’ lack of aggression couldn’t be hidden against Tampa Bay and Las Vegas. Combine that with the drop in completion percentage and that’s plenty enough to sound to sirens. That I understand completely.

Those trends reversed course against Green Bay and Detroit.

(Below stats via NFL Next Gen; rankings each individual week in paranthesis)

Notice the aggressiveness percentage in Weeks 1-2. Then notice the disparity in Brees’ completion percentage and expected completion percentage, especially in the Raiders game. Brees’ difference in each game stood around 8%. For those two weeks combined, only Carson Wentz and Dwayne Haskins computed a wider negative margin.


Then Brees exceeded expectations, given the type of throws he attempted, by 7.5% in Week 3 and a massive 12.6% at Detroit. Only Aaron Rodgers and Baker Mayfield succeeded more in that category than Brees. (Note: Justin Herbert, whom the Saints will face in Week 5, also exceeded by 12.6%).

Brees’ aggressiveness made Week 4 more Brees-like. He let it loose far more in Detroit than any week and still completed more than 75% of his passes. There’s no doubt the Saints’ potent rushing attack against the Lions may have opened up the passing game a bit more. Still, Brees made the throws.

Like on Tre’Quan Smith’s 19-yard reception on third-and-5 in the fourth quarter. Or the 20-yard touchdown to Smith near the end of the first half. Plus the lengthy connections to Emmanuel Sanders. And the 29-yard wheel route to Alvin Kamara on fourth down.

2️⃣ for Drew, 2️⃣ for Tre’Quan 🔥

📺 Fox // 📱 #Saints App pic.twitter.com/U8wdQR8u9j

— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 4, 2020

Drew 🎯 AK on 4th down!

⛓ Chain movers ⛓

📺 @NFLonFOX // 📱 #Saints App pic.twitter.com/7faE5PCBW9

— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) October 4, 2020

Brees was uncomfortable pushing the ball downfield the first two weeks. It looked painfully obvious at times with his propensity for simply dumping the ball off behind the line of scrimmage. His confidence even attempting passes more than 10 yards downfield seemed waning.

Weeks 1-2

The trend shifted the next two weeks.

He relied far less on passes behind the line of scrimmage. His completion percentages across the intermediate scope increased significantly. (Now he still LOVES to throw short to the middle of the field, thanks to Kamara.)

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Weeks 3-4

I’ll have more on Brees and the rest of the Saints and Chargers players in my weekly Cheat Sheet later this week. Yes, I’ll still keep tabs on Brees’ “air yards” because dips like in Weeks 1 and 2 are notable. There’s no question the national storyline around Brees will include his arm strength until the day he retires.

But always remember it’s more about accuracy with Brees than anything else. The increase in accuracy will result in more balls being thrown downfield, too. Brees’ Weeks 3 and 4 display that.

(Photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)