NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees and Sean Payton are a match made in pro football history.
The Buffalo Bills got an up-close look at why in Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Brees beat the Bills’ defense for five touchdown passes. All of them were pinpoint throws that showed why he ranks second in NFL history in passing accuracy.
Payton, the master of pre-snap motion, out-schemed the Bills on a couple of key scoring plays. That’s what Payton does. And with Brees as his triggerman, the Saints have ranked among the top four in the NFL in passing seven straight years.
“They’ve got a lot of playmakers and Brees is a great quarterback,” Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso said. “It’s tough to defend them but we’ve just got to make plays. We gave up way too many points, simple as that.”
The Bills were game and crept within 28-17 midway through the fourth quarter. They didn’t have enough quality to outgun a Saints team that improved to 6-1.
The big play of the game was a 69-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Kenny Stills. It was classic Payton.
New Orleans was in a two-back set, which meant the Bills were in their regular defense, with seven big men and four defensive backs. Stills came in motion from the right side of the formation to the left slot before the snap. Tight end Jimmy Graham was outside Stills and was covered by cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Given the Bills’ defensive call – they were rushing five on the play – the linebacker on that side, Jerry Hughes, had to step out to watch Stills, a rookie with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash.
Brees faked a handoff, Hughes took a step toward the backfield and Stills was wide open down the left sideline to give the Saints a 14-10 second-quarter lead.
“Yes, I was supposed to carry him all the way,” Hughes said. “I had my eyes in the backfield. It was an unfortunate mistake that played out on my part. But he’s an elite quarterback, he’s going to find that.”
Bills coach Doug Marrone acknowledged the Saints called the perfect play against the defense the Bills dialed up.
“It was a good call by them, and it got us in a tough call,” said Marrone. “We put Jerry in a tough situation on that play. We told him that when they came off the field. Those things happen in this game, but you feel really, really terrible as a coach when that happens because you feel that you put them in a bad situation. … We need to be careful about those situations.”
Peyton runs one of the best screen pass games in the league too.
The Saints built a 21-10 halftime advantage in part thanks to two well-executed screen passes that produced 26 yards. Both came out of a four-receiver formation with the Bills using seven defensive backs one time and six the other. The secondary men have to back up because of the Saints’ downfield threats, and both times the running back caught the ball running downfield against smaller defenders.
The drive ended with a play in which Hughes was trapped in another bad matchup. He had underneath coverage on the Saints’ all-world tight end, Graham, who was lined up in the left slot. Hughes got a one-armed jam on Graham but didn’t get enough of the 6-foot-7 weapon. Brees threaded a perfect throw to Graham, who was in front of safety Da’Norris Searcy for a 15-yard TD.
“Obviously from seeing their past games, we know they do a lot of things and put a lot of smoke out there pre-snap, which at the end of the day can confuse you,” defensive end Mario Williams said. “We just have to be smarter, be on top of our game.”
Rookie cornerback Nickell Robey made some nice plays for the Bills, with two tackles for loss and two passes defended. But he was victimized by Brees on two TD passes.
The first was the opening score of the game, a 15-yard strike from Brees to Lance Moore. Robey had tight coverage and dove at the right time. But Brees’ throw led Moore perfectly.
“I don’t know how he got it in there,” Robey said. “I really thought I was going to get an interception. When I looked up and he had the ball I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It took me by surprise. I guess that’s what great quarterbacks do.”
Brees’ last TD pass was a 42-yard strike to Stills in the right corner of the end zone. Brees put the ball in a perfect spot despite running at a full sprint to the right to get away from Williams, who had burst up the middle of the Saints’ line.
“I really was just trying to get a peek at the quarterback – a quick peek,” Robey said. “I was playing my man the whole time. They tried to double-move me again, and I didn’t fall for it. I thought the play was kind of extended a little bit and when I looked back, the ball was coming and I tried to get it. Everything happened so quick and so fast.”
Brees has a knack for winning the game of inches, which is what he did again on his second TD pass to Graham, a 13-yarder in the third quarter that put the Saints up, 28-10. Graham ran a speed-out from the right slot. Alonso was almost in position but the ball was beyond the defender’s grasp.
“That was my fault,” Alonso said. “I gotta get underneath it and hopefully pick it off or just force him not to throw it there. That’s how it is. Plays are that close and you’ve got to make them.”
It wasn’t all bad for the defense. It held the Saints without a score after New Orleans recovered a Thad Lewis fumble at the Buffalo 22 to open the game. It thwarted another good field-position start in the first quarter. It forced a punt to open the third quarter. It sacked Brees four times.
“When he doesn’t have a favorable protection, he throws the ball quick,” said Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “Then when he wants to go downfield, they block it up and use play-action.”
Brees finished 26 of 34 for 332 yards, which was 6 more than his per-game average entering the game.
Lewis finished 22 of 39 for 234 yards, which was 23 more than the Bills’ per-game passing average entering the game.
Lewis also made three turnovers, two fumbles and an interception. Brees made none.