METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Drew Brees describes the Saints' passing offense as an "equal opportunity" system.
Politics aside, Brees demonstrates a democratic approach to spreading the wealth in regards to the number of options he finds through the air.
He hit 11 different receivers last Sunday in a victory over San Francisco, during which rookie tight end Josh Hill became the 10th Saint this season with a touchdown catch.
The game marked the second time this season Brees had found at least 10 different receivers in a game, and his ability to connect with a wide range of options becomes Atlanta's concern when the Falcons host the Saints on Thursday night.
"You really just don't know how it's going to shake out during the course of the game," Brees said. "We kind of feel that and see that as the game's going on and guys know that if it's not this week or next week, it might be the following week. ... But also, everyone knows that, 'Hey, my opportunity could come at any moment and I've got to be ready."
The Saints are one of only two teams on which the number of players with TD passes has reached double digits. The other is Atlanta, which also has 10.
Among some other big-name quarterbacks, Denver's Peyton Manning has found seven players for scores, as has Seattle's Russell Wilson. New England's Tom Brady has found six. On the other end of the spectrum is San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who has TD tosses to only two receivers.
In the Falcons' case, Matt Ryan's ability to spread the ball hasn't stopped his team from sliding out of contention.
Still, Falcons coach Mike Smith appreciates how hard it can be to devise a defensive scheme for a quarterback who is comfortable throwing to more than just a few favorite receivers — especially close to the goal line.
"It's very difficult when you know that the ball can go to numerous targets," Smith said. "It gives the offense a whole lot of flexibility and puts a whole lot of stress on defenses. I think Drew is having another fantastic year operating that offense.
"It's amazing the number of targets, the number of different targets, they have in the game," Smith continued, referring to the Saints.
"'You can put your resources into stopping a certain guy or a couple of guys, there will be someone else who ends up getting the football.
"A lot of that has to do with (Brees) going through his reads, (the offensive line) doing a good job of protecting the quarterback, which allows them to go to a second, third and even fourth read."
Saints coach Sean Payton said his game plans don't necessarily call for Brees to spread the ball around. Rather, plays are designed to give the quarterback flexibility to respond to where defenses concentrate coverage.
"There are certain coverages that will dictate maybe a direction the ball goes," Payton said. "Drew is very good at recognizing that and then getting to his second or third receiver based on the look he is getting."
Tight end Jimmy Graham has been Brees' favorite target this season, and it's been hard to argue with the results. He has 60 catches for 846 yards and 10 TDs. But as teams have adjusted their defenses to account more for him, other options have opened up.
Last week, Brees found Marques Colston five times for 80 yards and Robert Meachem for receptions of 44 and 35 yards. Meachem has been trying to resurrect his career in New Orleans after being cut by San Diego, and said he has benefited from Brees' ability to find him, even when he may not be the first option on a play.
"The way this system wins is everybody touches the ball," Meachem said. "You see teams around the league are starting to try to do it. For the last three years, you see teams go get a big tight end or go get three speedy wide receivers or a possession wide receiver or something. We've just been blessed to be able to have those skill guys that can come in and not be selfish."
Statistics, of course, can affect a receiver's pay. Yet Saints veterans such as Lance Moore said it's hard to argue with a system that works, and that receivers in New Orleans believe they represent themselves well by sharing the ball in one of the NFL's most prolific offenses — and by being part of a winning organization.
"Once we start worrying about getting touches more and more, or worrying about how it's going to affect our pay, then we're not focused on what we should be at that time, which is doing what we have to do to make plays," Moore said. "As long as you're productive when your number is called, I think that will speak for itself."
Notes: Payton said Saints linebacker Victor Butler, who has been on the physically unable to perform list, is back at practice on a limited basis, but that it remains unclear whether the Saints will place him on the active roster in a 21-day window they have to do so. If not, he'll be placed on injured reserve. ... RB Darren Sproles (knee) and RG Jahri Evans (ankle) did not practice. ... S Kenny Vaccaro and TE Benjamin Watson, who both missed practice last week because of concussion symptoms, have returned to practice on a limited basis.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report from Flowery Branch, Ga.
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Posted on Wed, November 20, 2013