When it comes to facing a quarterback, being tested by Tom Brady is about as tough as it gets. But if there was a way to up the ante, it would be facing Drew Brees at the Superdome in a must-win situation.
That’s a tough call. As the Vikings defense attempts to come up with a game plan to confuse and pressure Brees, the one thing the Saints do more than any other team is something that has players like safety Harrison Smith the most concerned.
“What stands out to me about Drew Brees and the Saints offense is that they love to throw deep vertical balls on all downs and distances,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter the situation in the game. They want to throw the ball deep. We just have to be ready for the vertical passes because that’s what they like to do.”
In order to throw so many vertical passes, Brees takes deeper drops than most quarterbacks to see over the linemen and let the plays develop downfield. For pass rushers like Everson Griffen, the key will be getting Brees moving and not comfortable in the pocket, despite his mobility.
To achieve that, it’s going to be an effort from all three levels of the Vikings defense.
“He likes to hold the ball,” Griffen said. “The D-line has got to rely on our DBs to cover for a little bit longer and (have Brees) hold the ball a little longer, because he holds the ball a lot. We’ve just got to get there and allow us to rush the passer like we know how to do.”
Against quarterbacks who throw quick dart passes from a three-step drop, the key is to get an initial push and get their hands up in the air because the chances of getting to him are greatly reduced. For a quarterback like Brees, it’s a matter of angles, as guys like Griffen and Brian Robison look to loop around or underneath the tackles and get him on the move. The best way to do that, as always, is to stuff the run and force Brees into bad down-and-distance situations.
“We’ve just go to get to his launch point and be around him,” Griffen said. “We’ve got to stop the run because we know we’re going to see the run. We had a couple of mistakes against the run last week, so we’re going to see the run. In the pass game, the key will be getting around him and hitting him at his launch point.”
Brees gets most of the attention and acclaim for the success of the Saints offense, but the team also has an unheralded run game that is quietly effective. The team hasn’t had a go-to bell cow back since Ricky Williams, but they find role players to mix and match that don’t grab the headlines.
“The thing with them is that, while the pass a lot, they sprinkle in runs,” Robison said. “If they can run the ball, then they come back to their play-action pass. We’ve got to be able to stop the run game they sneakily try to sneak in there, but the big thing with Drew Brees is that you’ve got to get him off his spot. You can’t let him just sit back there and pat the ball. If you do, he’s going to pick you apart.”
The defensive linemen are going to have a tall order as the front line of a defense that will be responsible for collapsing the pocket, but those who have the biggest job ahead of them Sunday will be the defensive backs.
Brees has a knack for sliding in the pocket to buy extra time or going on the move. While he isn’t a scrambler, he has the innate ability that greats like Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have displayed to buy an extra second or two and allow receivers to uncover downfield. As a result, the defensive backs will be hard-pressed to maintain their coverage longer than they typically have to.
“You’ve got to cover their receivers on the back end and make plays,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “You’ve got to try to eliminate the explosive plays, because that’s what they do. That’s how to beat that team – by eliminating the explosive plays, keep him the pocket and don’t just let him chuck it down the field.”
Munnerlyn should know. Having played five years with the Carolina Panthers, he faced Brees twice a year. Asked what he’s told him teammates about him, Munnerlyn said Brees has earned his respect again and again and again.
“Drew Brees is a great quarterback,” Munnerlyn said. “I’ve played a lot against him. You have to show him different looks. If you just sit back and let him pick his poison, he’s going to do it. He’s elite and one of the best in the game.”
Coming off a game against Brady, facing Brees a week later is a difficult proposition. While they’re very different quarterbacks, cornerback Shaun Prater sees a striking similarity that has helped make both of them Super Bowl champions and MVP candidates just about every year they’ve played over the last decade.
“Brady and Brees are similar in that they know how to take what the defense gives them,” Prater said. “If we’re covering plays downfield, they’ll check it down instead of forcing it. They like to spread you out and throw a lot in between the numbers. You can’t give them the time to make those throws, so bringing pressure will be critical.”
With the Saints having lost their first two games on the road, the Vikings will not only be facing Brees at a time when his team is in dire need of their first win and playing their home opener, shutting him down is going to be a tall order.
The last time the Vikings played Brees, he completed 32 of 40 passes for 412 yards and five touchdowns. In his last three meetings, he has thrown 107 passes for nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He has had his way with the Vikings and rattling him isn’t going to be easy. The Vikings will have to devise a game plan that will have to be executed almost perfectly because the only certainty Sunday is that Brees won’t rattle easy.
“One thing with Drew is that he’s going to stay cool, calm and collected,” Robison said. “That isn’t going to change. You never see him panic. He always goes out there, he competes and he plays well. He doesn’t let anything get in his head. He plays every play like it’s the last play and you’ve got to respect a guy who plays like that.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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