Vargas: Bringing clarity to the Saints’ sacks woes

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Drew Brees was sacked twice, this time by Peria Jerry as the New Orleans Saints faced the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday, September 8, 2013. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Drew Brees was sacked twice, this time by Peria Jerry as the New Orleans Saints faced the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday, September 8, 2013.

Despite the common perception, Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn’t being pressured behind the line of scrimmage much more than usual halfway through this season.

But that comparable amount of pressure is resulting in Brees being sacked almost twice as often as has been typical, creating the impression that he’s under duress in a way that he has never been before.

The good news is the sacks haven’t prevented Brees from putting himself on track for a mind-boggling third career season with 40 or more TDs and a fourth with 5,000 or more yards. He has passed for 21 touchdowns and 2,672 yards.

But the number of sacks surrendered is the offense’s most obvious flaw this side of a running game that has had trouble finding traction, though the ground attack has shown potential as of late. So let’s dissect the precise circumstances under which the Saints’ all-world QB is working.

During the previous five seasons, opponents hurried Brees an average of 131 times, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, which has data back to 2008. Blocked defenders knocked him to the ground an average of almost 33 times, not counting sacks, and pressured him 26.6 percent of the time he dropped back to pass. He was sacked an average of 21.6 times per season in that time frame.

After eight games this year, Brees is on pace for 136 hurries (slightly more than usual) and 26 knockdowns from blocked defenders (less than usual). He’s being pressured almost 31 percent of the time he steps back to throw, and though that’s more than usual, that’s still the sixth-lowest in the NFL — where Brees’ average spot has been dating to 2008.

The main difference — a big one, given the implications it can have on a QB’s health — is that Brees already has been sacked 20 times, a clip that will have him taking 40 sacks by the end of the regular season.

There are a dozen quarterbacks in worse shape than Brees when it comes to sacks. But in New Orleans, it’s unheard of for Brees to have been sacked this much by the second week of November.

From personal observations and conversations with those who chronicle the Saints, it’s clear Brees is facing more pressure between the tackles than in previous years, leaving him less room to move around behind the line of scrimmage and evade the rush. It also makes it harder for the relatively short QB to see downfield and get rid of the ball.

That new avenue of pressure coincides with a number of changes to the offensive line. They’ve been working with a new position coach, Brett Ingalls, who took over mentoring the group after his predecessor, Aaron Kromer, left for a coordinator job in Chicago.

The two newest offensive linemen, Charles Brown and Ben Grubbs, are in charge of protecting Brees’ blind side.

Brown is in his first year starting full time at left tackle after two-time Saints Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod departed for Chicago. Grubbs has started 24 games at guard since joining New Orleans last year after two-time Saints Pro Bowler Carl Nicks went to Tampa Bay.

The offensive line has made no excuses and has willingly shouldered much of the blame for the sacks. Its members tell reporters weekly that they must get better, even if a review of film on every sack this year shows only 12 could be attributed to the five regular starters.

A third of those sacks came via left tackle Brown. Two each came via left guard Grubbs, center Brian de la Puente and right guard Jahri Evans. Right tackle Zach Strief gave up one and could arguably share blame with Grubbs on a second.

Beyond those, three sacks occurred via undrafted rookie guard Tim Lelito in the Week 3 win at home over Arizona, when Evans had a hurt hamstring and missed his only assignment of 120 possible career starts. Fullback Jed Collins, running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas and tight ends Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson each permitted one.

Though many of the sacks haven’t directly been their fault, the Saints’ starting linemen don’t get a complete pass. They must eliminate the repeated penalties they’ve been whistled for weekly, and they know that.

The unit has been called for 14 holds and three more false starts in half a season. That’s frequently setting up obvious throwing situations that increase the risk of sacks on Brees.

“When you’re playing ahead of the chains and not behind them, it keeps the defense honest,” Evans said Friday. “You’re in a down and distance where you can either run ... or throw the ball.”

Coach Sean Payton acknowledged he can do more to alleviate the rash of sacks by seeking to complement the Saints’ passing attack with as legitimate a ground game as possible.

The Saints haven’t made that the easiest proposition for their coach. They’ve gained just 638 yards on 191 carries, or 3.3 yards an attempt, through the first half of the year.

New Orleans has gotten a much more respectable 3.8 yards a carry in the past three games, a victory against Buffalo and losses at New England and the New York Jets.

But, out of the 144 offensive snaps in those two games, Payton dialed up just 32 handoffs. That’s not exactly displaying a commitment to or confidence in the run. Neither is having Brees throw the ball a season-high 51 times against New York, nine shy of his personal NFL high.

Payton renewed his oft-made promise to establish a running attack and to be patient in doing so ahead of Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys, whose lackluster defense allows 114 yards on the ground per contest. If the Saints don’t make Payton regret that promise, Brees might be subjected to a sack pace with which he and countless Who Dats are more comfortable.

“That’s something in the second half of the season that we’re working to improve on,” Payton said. “Part of that is ... having the ability to run it where you’re not just one-dimensional.”