Former Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister has played against and with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
With the Saints (4-1) playing the Ravens (4-2) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, he offers the Ravens the following advice:
“Drew Brees is LeBron James,” said McAlister, who played in Baltimore from 1999 through 2008 before going to New Orleans in 2009. “You know he is going to get 25 points every night; just don’t give him 50. You can’t let him scorch you with 50.”
“You have to get pressure on him, preferably with your front four or five, but you can’t give up those big plays of 20-plus yards,” said McAlister. “You have to limit the explosive plays.”
Few teams have the secrets of beating Brees like the Ravens. In an 18-year, definite first-ballot Hall of Fame career, Brees has the most career passing yards (72,103) and completed passes (6,370), but the only team he hasn’t beaten is the Ravens.
He is 0-4, with one of those losses coming with the San Diego Chargers back in 2003.
“I’m obviously aware of that, that they’re the only team that I haven’t beaten,” Brees said. “They’ve always been a great team.”
Brees has put up good numbers in certain games. He threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-22 loss in 2006 and had 420 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 34-27 loss in 2014.
But Brees also threw four combined interceptions in both of those games, three returned for touchdowns. Brees has thrown eight interceptions and nine touchdown passes in his battles against Baltimore.
“We’d give up that short curl route six or seven times a game and then we’d just come up and punish the receiver,” said outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who played with the Ravens from 2000 through 2006. “Late in the game, the receiver would get tired of that. We’d just say if you want to beat us, that’s the only way.”
Once the Ravens became a dominant defensive power in 2000, they usually had dominant cornerbacks or at least one like McAlister, Samari Rolle or Lardarius Webb.
Rolle was small but tough. A lot of the Ravens’ success was built on having fast linebackers like Ray Lewis, Bart Scott or Thomas who could cover and run with tight ends or running backs in pass coverage. They took away the over and short crossing patterns.
They had a big pass rusher in his prime in Terrell Suggs and a safety named Ed Reed who wouldn’t allow anything deep. It was hard beating the Ravens with nine-, 10- or 11-play drives.
Sooner or later, even an accurate and mobile quarterback like Brees was going to make a mistake, especially when the Ravens were getting pressure with four or five players and dropping six or seven into coverage.
Both McAlister and Thomas agree that this New Orleans team is different from the ones they faced. Brees didn’t have much of running game back then, but the Saints are ranked No. 3 in total offense in the league, averaging 424 yards, and they are No. 1 in points, averaging 36.
Maybe the biggest matchup of the game is, who will play the Saints’ Michael Thomas, one of the best receivers in the NFL with 46 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns?
“You always have to be mindful of the situation, space, call and drop,” said McAlister. “But you can’t slow down.”
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is built like McAlister at 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, and Thomas is only an inch taller and 3 pounds heavier than Smith.
“Thomas has good speed, but is not that shifty,” said Adalius Thomas, who was fined $7,000 for an illegal hit on Brees in 2006. “Jimmy also has those long arms and it’s a good matchup if he does shadow him. But what if Jimmy gets injured? That will change the whole game plan. That has to be a concern.”
Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara also cause problems. Kamara has rushed for more yards, but Ingram is the power back. Kamara is the speedster and a primary weapon out of the back.
The Ravens linebackers have been exploited for years in this area.
“You just can’t play the pass like you used to against them,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure the Ravens have a linebacker that can cover him. I am not sure if there is any linebacker in the league that can do that.”
The Saints offense is more multidimensional, but the constant is Brees. He has thrown for 1,658 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, completing 148 of 190 passes with a rating of 122.3.
One of his best assets is his desire.
“He has that combination of a high football IQ and the arm to complete any pass from anywhere at any time on the field,” said McAlister.
“Off the field, he is a great guy, talks to guys on both sides of the ball,” McAlister said. “But you know how Tom Brady looks on the field on Sundays. Drew Brees looks like that during practices. He is real intense and guys play hard for him because they don’t want to let him down, much like it was on defense in Baltimore with Ray Lewis.”
Thomas expects the game plan to be somewhat similar to those of yesteryear. Early in the game, he thinks the Saints will try to establish the run with Ingram and Kamara, but throw a lot of dink and dunk passes to slow the pass rush. Then the Saints will use quick slants and screens before showing the Ravens the real game plan in the second quarter.
“I don’t think the receivers they had are as talented as the ones they have now,” Thomas said. “The Ravens will study the tendencies, and it’s the same head coach [Sean Payton] and quarterback. They are creatures of habits.”
The Ravens have to come out wide open offensively in this game. Even if they gain a lead, they have to stay aggressive because the Saints have the potential to score quickly.
But the Ravens can’t abandon the running game. According to Thomas, the Ravens’ best defense is to get a good mix of both run and pass, but the Saints are ranked No. 1 in rushing defense.
But if the Ravens can hold the ball, then Brees can’t get his high-powered offense onto the field.
And if Brees isn’t playing a lot, then he can’t beat the Ravens.