NEW ORLEANS — Gregg Williams cracks a smile and leans even farther forward in his chair. He can’t wait to share one of his favorite Drew Brees memories.
“People have no idea about this young man’s work ethic. He has been an overachiever his whole life,” Williams, Cleveland’s defensive coordinator, said Friday.
He was just getting going in discussing the legendary Saints quarterback Williams is charged with slowing down Sunday. And he never mentioned a touchdown pass.
“I was walking through the hotel right before the curfew the night before the Super Bowl,” Williams said, referring to New Orleans’ 31-17 win over the Colts after the 2009 season. “I wanted to make sure there were no scraps of paper, stuff left around, game plans laying around. I come by the quarterback room, and it is 10:55 p.m., and Drew Brees has the video going on up there and has all of the chairs out of the room. He is going through the first 15 (plays) visualizing and stepping through throwing, checking and doing all of these kinds of stuff.
“I do not think he ever saw me standing there in the dark looking in the door watching him do this. Not only is he an intelligent quarterback, but he outworks everybody. He is very special. He really is.”
Williams had the privilege of Brees erasing many of the mistakes of his defense for three years as coordinator of the Saints. The football world has had the pleasure of watching Brees play for 18 years. He’s still going strong at 39 and is the second straight future Hall of Fame quarterback the Browns face to open the season.
Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is great. Brees is on another level historically. And not because he’s 5 inches shorter at 6-foot.
Brees has the best completion percentage in NFL history at 67.0 and set a season record last year with 72.0. He’s second with 6,259 completions, needing 42 to pass Brett Favre for the all-time lead.
His 70,884 passing yards rank third, and he’s only 955 from moving past Favre and 1,057 from taking the top spot from Peyton Manning — three good games. His 491 touchdown passes are tied with Tom Brady for third, trailing Favre’s 508 and Manning’s 539. He has a career 96.9 rating.
“He’s one of, if not the most efficient quarterback in NFL history,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “He knows his offense, he knows exactly what defenses are trying to do.”
The separators are Brees’ intelligence, work ethic and accuracy. So when he said during the week Baker Mayfield, the Browns’ No. 1 pick, could be better than him because he’s a better athlete with a stronger arm, it was part praise, part self-deprecation and part “people still don’t get it.”
“He is an exceptional athlete,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, beginning to list Brees’ attributes. “His preparation and attention to detail. How he works. He is extremely accurate. There is a routine that is very detailed in season and in the offseason. All of those things are extremely important to him.”
Brees said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll play but is in no hurry to hang up the cleats.
“I am having a lot of fun playing the game,” he said. “I love my locker room. I love playing with the guys on this team, and I feel like we have a great opportunity here and a great window of opportunity.”
The timing problems that sabotaged new quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the developing Browns offense in the opening 21-21 tie with the Steelers aren’t an issue for the Saints. Brees and Payton teamed up in 2006 and their 173 starts together are third in NFL history, trailing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick with the Patriots and Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin with the Giants. Leading receiver Michael Thomas is in his third season, speedy wideout Ted Ginn Jr. is in his second year with New Orleans and dynamic running back Alvin Kamara is in his second season.
Since 2006, the Saints lead the league with 404.5 yards a game. They ranked second last year in yardage (391.2) and fourth in scoring (28.0).
Brees’ quick decisions and quicker release discombobulate defenses and frustrate pass rushers, and his incomparable accuracy turns a good play by the cornerback into a long completion. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward said Brees’ pinpoint passes remove his margin for error.
“Technique is very important,” Ward said.
Defensive end Myles Garrett changed the opener with two sacks and two fourth-quarter forced fumbles. The Browns need another big day from him, defensive end Chris Smith, rookie linebacker Genard Avery and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, and the group of pass rushers can’t get discouraged if Brees’ three-step drop and in-rhythm release limit the sack opportunities early.
“If we stop the run, they’re going to have to rely on their passing game and then I’ll be able to get to him,” Garrett said. “You gotta have faith that the plan’s going to work. And when it does, I’ll get my opportunities.”
The Saints allowed only 20 sacks last year, second-best in the league.
“You just gotta keep coming because there’s going to be one time he holds it one second too long and you get there,” Smith said.
Brees isn’t infallible. He’s susceptible to batted balls and can be forced to hesitate with the right disguise in coverage.
“Just match the tempo. Get set early, get the plays in early, get all the calls right, make sure we’re ahead of the checks, motions, shifts and everything like that,” linebacker James Burgess said. “Get pressure in his face, just contain him, just affect him as much as possible with pass rush and getting your hands up at the line and everything.”
Browns fans remember the thrilling 30-17 win in 2010 when coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan mixed up the looks and calls enough to get four interceptions of Brees, including a pair of pick-sixes by aging linebacker David Bowens. The Browns forced six turnovers in the opener and believe that will be a theme of the season.
“We know that Drew is an accurate passer and takes care of the ball,” safety Jabrill Peppers said. “We kind of have to distort what he sees so that we can continue that streak.”
The Browns aren’t scheduled to play the Saints again until 2022, so this could be the final matchup with a legend. An upset — the Browns are nine-point underdogs — would be a lasting memory and a giant step forward after 1-31 the last two seasons and the opening tie.
“It would be awesome,” coach Hue Jackson said. “Obviously last week we let one slip away. We need to get to winning.”
It won’t be easy with old No. 9 on the other sideline.