Buffalo Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer know they will be in dangerous cross hairs Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
Drew Brees is one of the greatest manipulators of safeties ever to play quarterback.
"He's skilled at what he does, and throwing off DBs is just one of the many skills that he has," Hyde said. "He uses his vision to hold the safety in the middle of the field. He does a lot of things to try to keep you from not being able to get a jump on the ball. That's why he's one of the best in the league."
Brees ranks third in NFL history in both passing yards and touchdown passes and No. 1 in completion percentage. In terms of athleticism, accuracy and instincts, he ranks with any of the greatest QBs ever to play. When it comes to pure arm strength, he's not at the top of the class, with the likes of John Elway, Brett Favre, Dan Marino or Jim Kelly.
It doesn't matter. Brees is a great downfield thrower.
One reason is Brees' underappreciated subtle movement ability in the pocket. All good quarterbacks look off their intended receivers. Brees has taken the art to another level. When Brees drops back at New Era Field Sunday, watch for his pump-fakes, semi-pumps, shoulder shrugs and twitches. All are designed to create a tad more space for him to squeeze tight throws to downfield receivers against zone coverage.
"It looks like he looks through the bottom of his facemask," Hyde said. "You try to read his eyes that way. From there, he uses the pump. Sometimes he has a couple hitch steps, a couple pump fakes. Sometimes he even just raises the ball up without even pump-faking. You think it's coming out because in the back end it's hard to see, especially with a shorter guy like that. You see the ball moving and you think it's coming out so you might break on it."
The key, says Poyer: "It makes you stay a little bit more disciplined in the post. You can't go off any pumps or anything. You just have to play a little more disciplined."
Saints coach Sean Payton says Brees' ability to manipulate stems from his remarkable ability to read the defense, not just pre-snap but after the ball is snapped.
"I think one of the traits we're always trying to measure with the college class is the ability to process," Payton said. "So let's for argument's sake, remove IQ. You want real good football intelligence. But this ability to process quickly – single safety, pressure, Cover 2, quarters, there's a Mike linebacker – all the nuances of space. And then what can and can't you do to help improve your primary read or your secondary read?"
"I do think he gets through the progression quickly," Payton said. "Not just him but some of these guys playing at such a high level. ... That moment the ball is snapped to the top of their drop – 3, 5 or 7 steps – is quickly processed. I think a gift and something he's developed."
Brees' career-best completion percentage is not just built on quick slants and check-downs. He ranks tied for second this season in accuracy on passes 20-or-more yards downfield (17 for 34, 50.0), according to Pro Football Focus. He has been among the top three in 20-plus accuracy six of the past nine years. He was No. 2 last year in passing yards on throws of 20-plus yards.
The cat-and-mouse game between the quarterback and deep safeties is more intricate than many realize.
Hyde says he looks for various "tells" in trying to gauge where a quarterback is going with the ball. One is watching the stripe down the middle of a QB's helmet.
"Every coach has their own little thing," Hyde said Wednesday on the Tim Graham Show on Radio 1270. "Pay attention to the front shoulder, pay attention to the helmet stripe. Try to see the ball come out, kind of like a pitcher, see the release. There's plenty of things.
"But at the end of the day when you're 20 yards back and you're trying to focus on this quarterback and get reads off him, it's pretty hard," Hyde said. "The one thing I try to do is the shoulder to the middle of the helmet, the stripe, just because obviously he's using his eyes. Once that shoulder gets brought into it and the ball comes up, just try to make a play."
The Bills will try their best to disguise coverages, as they do every week. One way the Saints respond is by running at a fast pace.
"It's not necessarily a no-huddle," Hyde said. "They switch personnel and they just go, go, go. You have to for sure get lined up. If you can disguise on top of that, you're obviously going to try to do so. But they're a quick offense. They get lined up, they snap the ball."
"You have to give the quarterback different looks or else they'll sit back there and dice you up all day," Poyer said.