Willie Snead sometimes talks like a man trying to bounce back from disappointment.
Never mind that Snead surprised nearly everyone last year, rising from a practice squad player to a playmaker in less than a calendar year.
Snead’s so focused on getting better that he can make his brilliant debut season in New Orleans sound more like a happy accident.
“I’m just feeling a little more comfortable in this offense,” Snead said. “I definitely have a lot better timing with Drew (Brees) this year. I’m just starting to feel the offense now, reading coverages. ... Things are just starting to come together.”
Snead’s rising comfort level in the offense comes with a new area of emphasis.
Built relatively small for a receiver at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Snead displayed impressive strength and toughness in piling up 69 catches, 984 yards and three touchdowns in 2015.
But he did a lot of his work outside the hash marks, beating cornerbacks to the sideline and then picking up yards after the catch.
Now, with Marques Colston gone, Snead has been working on making plays over the middle of the field, where the New Orleans offense requires receivers to make adjustments to their routes based on the defense.
His improvement was apparent against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday night. Working mostly over the middle, Snead caught four passes for 58 yards and a touchdown.
“I watched Ben Watson do it a whole bunch of times last year, and I just want to take my game to that level, and just read defenses a lot better,” Snead said. “Today, I was able to do that. I saw a couple of creases, me and Drew were on the same page, and we were able to connect.”
Being on the same page with Brees requires a receiver to know an opponent’s defensive tendencies as well as his quarterback. When Snead steps to the line and gets a certain look from the secondary, he usually knows where Brees wants to attack.
“It’s all about the look that we get,” Snead said. “When you get those looks, you want to take advantage.”
One of those looks produced a highlight-reel touchdown against the Steelers. Releasing up the seam, Snead beat the slot cornerback off the line, ran past one safety and made a leaping catch from Brees as he absorbed a vicious shot from the free safety.
The hit briefly jarred the ball loose, but Snead was able to corral it on his back in the end zone.
“It was third and long, third and 12 or so from the 15 yard line. One of those you know you’ve got points and you take a shot to the end zone,” Brees said. “The coverage gave us a small window to throw that ball and he jumped up and made a great catch. ... The level of concentration on his part was pretty phenomenal.”
Snead finds himself in a different position this season. With Brandin Cooks established as an up-and-coming star and rookie Michael Thomas producing daily highlights in training camp, a different receiver could have taken a step back as he worried about touches.
But that’s not the way Snead thinks.
“I’ve got so much trust and confidence in him, and he’s a guy we have the ability to do a lot of things with,” Brees said. “Having a weapon like that is great for this offense.”
Particularly now that Snead has a pretty good idea how Brees wants to use him.