In his estimable 10-year career, Drew Brees has thrown four interceptions in a game just twice. The first instance occurred on September 24, 2007, against a Tennessee Titans defense that finished first in Football Outsiders' defensive passing efficiency metrics that season. The second time, of course, was against the Browns last Sunday. And the Browns, for those unaware, went into that game against Brees' New Orleans Saints ranked 28th against the pass in those very same metrics. Anyone who had seen this pass defense would know that those numbers basically reflected the team's performance; the Browns have been extremely susceptible to all sorts of passing concepts this year and deep passes have been particularly terrifying adventures.
So how is it that this same defense locked down on last season's Super Bowl MVP in Brees, and a head coach/offensive coordinator in Sean Payton who is as good as it gets? Before detailing the interceptions, I will submit that three people are primarily responsible for Brees' terrible day. One plays for the Saints, one used to play for the Saints and now plays for the Browns, and one would like to play for the Saints but hasn't been able to do so.
We'll start with the guy who played for the Saints last season and got a Super Bowl ring for his trouble: current Browns linebacker Scott Fujita. After reviewing this game, I'm convinced that as much as "enemy intel" Is an overcooked concept when a player faces a former team, there's something to the way the Browns had a bead on what Brees and the Saints' offense was doing that speaks to Fujita's expertise on the subject. Brees and Fujita played together from 2006 through 2009, and his interception early in the second quarter may reveal some of those tells.
The Saints had second-and-7 from the Cleveland 11-yard line, and they lined up in shotgun, with a tight bunch right. Cleveland responded with a four-man front with two deep safeties and tight cornerback coverage. But the interesting move here happened before the snap, when Fujita (99) directed right defensive end Kenyon Coleman into an intermediate zone drop. The Browns closed ranks in a three-man line, and Coleman's positioning allowed Fujita to cover the left flat as running back Ladell Betts ran a flare route to the weak side. Fujita was able to jump the route and pick the ball intended for Betts because he knew the middle zone was covered, and this theme would resurface late in the game.
Of the two picks by linebacker David Bowens, the second came from the same middle zone idea. With 3:49 left in the game, the Browns had cornerback Mike Adams drop back from a 3-3 stack, and Bowens read Brees on the underneath route when he tried to get a quick pass to Betts. So many of those little passes were dealt with by the Browns in zone coverage, and that's where the third man comes in.
Running back Reggie Bush has been out since Week 2 with a fractured fibula, and whether his stats are impressive or not at any given time, Bush's ability to force defenders to deal with him in those same intermediate zones and flats is very much missed by his quarterback. That's allowing opposing defenses to sit in zones, it's made the Saints' offense less dangerous in formation and pre-snap diversity, and it's forced Brees to make throws he really shouldn't.
That's not to discount what the Browns did in any way – one of the marks of a team turning things around is that when you see a weakness, you will exploit it. Just because Cleveland didn't see the same New Orleans offense that might have ripped it apart in 2009 doesn't mean that this isn't a big step forward for Rob Ryan's defense.