Brees keeps cool; Saints keep winning

Calm. Focused. Poised under pressure. Those are the words Pierre Thomas used to describe New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on third down.

Thomas could have used this one, too: money.

Brees has been nothing short of terrific on third down this season, completing 42 of 54 passes for 566 yards, with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. His third-down completion percentage of 77.8 is the best in the NFL, as is the Saints' overall third-down conversion percentage of 58.6.

Last season, when the NFL's overall third-down conversion percentage was 38.2, the Saints' was a league-high 48.8. This season, the average is 39.0.

Brees keeps New Orleans moving and keeps its defense on the sideline, which is a big reason the Saints are 4-1 heading into Sunday's game at Tampa Bay.

"He's always been a guy that's going to take charge and step up when the time is needed," said Thomas, a Saints running back who has played with Brees for the last five seasons. "He has great poise, great focus. He's our team leader, and he does a great job. We all follow him."

Brees is having another typically strong season. He is second in the NFL with 1,769 passing yards, behind only New England's Tom Brady (1,874), and like Brady is on pace to shatter Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards in a season. Brees is second in completion percentage (69.4) behind Rodgers and is fourth with 12 touchdown passes, behind Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (14 apiece) and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (13).

According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Brees is first in the league when opposing defenses send four or fewer rushers, completing 74.6 percent of his passes. He has completed 73.7 percent of his passes of 10 or fewer yards, and 61.7 percent of his passes of 10 to 20 yards.

But third-down conversion is the first stat Brees looks at after a game. For Brees, it tells the story of the game, even more so than time of possession and red zone efficiency.

After the Saints came from behind to beat Carolina on Sunday, Brees was "surprised" that New Orleans had 17 third-down plays. Five came on third-and-1, and the Saints converted four of those, including one for a touchdown. They faced four third-down situations in which they needed to gain either 3 or 4 yards, and converted three of those.

New Orleans converted four of five times needing 6-9 yards, and three times had to gain 10 or more yards, converting just once.

"You run 73 plays and have that many third downs, that's a little over one of every four snaps as a third down," Brees said. "That tells me we had a lot of methodical drives, not a lot of big plays. I think we came out of the game with only five big plays, but I think it says [a lot] about our ability to mix the run and the pass, execute, not getting into many bad situations, being in third and manageable situations.

"If you're about 70 percent on third down in a game, you're going to win a lot of games."

Two of the Saints' 12 conversions came on the game-winning drive. On third-and-3 from New Orleans' own 18-yard line, Brees was in the shotgun, dropped back, then stepped into the pocket and hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 12-yard gain. Eight plays later, facing third-and-1 at the Carolina 17, Mark Ingram ran for 2 yards. On the next play, Brees rolled to his right and completed a short pass to Thomas, who ran 7 more yards into the end zone.

Before the drive started, Brees told his teammates to "stay calm, stay focused, and go through our assignments," Thomas said. It turned out to be the 17th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of Brees' Saints career, and the second this season.

"We knew what to do. We were not going to be confused or out of control," Thomas said. "Drew said, 'We're going to be focused,' and that's what we did. We played Saints football. We had to put together a great drive, and coach [Sean] Payton made great calls, and we executed everything and came down with a touchdown."

It wasn't by accident, either. Thomas said the Saints spend an inordinate amount of time during the week practicing third-down situations, usually on Thursdays and Fridays.

"We work very hard in practice on that," Thomas said. "That's one thing Coach Payton is always talking about, that it's very critical that we get the first down so we stay on the field. We really, really work on third down and short yardage, because that determines if your offense is going to stay on the field."

When an offense is continually moving the sticks, particularly on third down, it can take the life out of an opposing defense. Thomas said he saw that a little bit against the Panthers.

"They're a tough team, so they were bouncing back," Thomas said. "But we kept making plays on the offensive side. We kept attacking them."

That will continue to be the plan as the Saints move forward. Keep attacking. Keep moving. Keep Brees on the field. Do that, and New Orleans will keep winning.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.