Preston's Buccaneers @ Saints Preview: Running To Redemption

If you listen to Jeff Duncan, the Saints seemed to be a team that was complacent, ignorant of their underlying problems and without much fire or emotion after Sunday's loss to St. Louis. His "feeling" was that the Saints players (and coaches) acted as though the Rams game was an anomaly, with the attitude of "we're better than that" and "today was just one of those days."  He was much troubled by the lack of urgency during (and after) the game and lack of anger and display of passion on the sideline. 

I don't disagree that the Saints were emotionally flat and lacked urgency.  However, I do not believe the staff or the team overlooked the Rams or didn't prepare adequately for them.  I believe the Saints were out-coached, shell-shocked that Plan A wasn't working and the half-time adjustments that were a hallmark of the 2009 season were absent.  The Saints simply let the Rams stick around until they found confidence and validated hope; the Saints looked as if someone cast some bad juju on their voodoo doll.

 

The Rams were the last ranked rush defense going into that game, yet the Saints didn't do much to take advantage of it when the game was close.  The Rams were down to their 6th, 7th, and 8th cornerbacks, yet you didn't see the Saints spread them out to get those mismatches.  It was so apparent that one of the analysts in the broadcast booth, Tim Ryan, pointed it out on numerous occasions. 

Sure, pressure was on Brees for much of the game from the front four defensive linemen.  In addition, Steve Spagnolo employed numerous fire blitzes to confuse Drew and nullify Jimmy Graham.  What's the solution?  As T-Rock suggested, spreading the Rams defense out -- getting into shotgun with multiple receivers split wide and forcing the Rams to defend the field vertically and horizontally -- so that the defensive backs have more field to cover and the pass rushers have further to go to get to Drew (who can get rid of the ball in two seconds).  The other answer was committing to the running game against the worst run defense while the game was close. It seemed the Saints had it backwards: they threw out of running formations and ran the predictable plays, like the draw, out of passing formations, with Sproles for example.

Why, you might ask, am I going into great detail about last week's loss? I do so in order to stress that while Drew Brees leads a Top 3 offense in scoring and yardage, and while the Saints lead the NFL in 3rd down conversions and trips to the red zone, their offense can be better.  What is common in a majority of the Saints losses during the Brees/Payton era?  Turnovers and lack of (successful) balance on offense, as well as a defense that bends till it breaks your heart.

The roster is pretty much set.  What I mean by that is the majority of resources are allocated, and no addition will drastically improve the talent on defense.  The best way to protect the Saints defense is by giving it a multi-score lead to defend.  Gregg Williams blitzes when he doesn't need to anyway, so you might as well make the opponent's offense more one-dimensional to give those blitzes a better chance by building that lead.  The next best thing is to keep the defense off the field while the game is close.  How do you do that? By running the ball.

Drew is a gunslinger.  He's not afraid of failure and he's extremely confident, but he'll take unnecessary chances with the ball.  It's part of the package. Since the start of last season, Drew has thrown more interceptions (32) than anyone else in the NFL - that's an undeniable fact.  He's tied for second in the NFL (ironically, with Josh Freeman) for most interceptions this season with 10.  Drew throws, on average, 43 passes every game, about 10 too many.  I love Drew Brees, but if he is ever to win an MVP, he needs to throw the ball less. In short, he needs a running game to fall back on.

When the Saints play a defense that can play man coverage and get pressure with the front four, Drew gets forced into mistakes. When the Saints play a good "Cover 2" defense that plays a form of zone coverage, like Tampa, Drew struggles because the short, high percentage passes (the Saints' substitute for legitimate rushing plays) are nullified by the speedy front seven.  So to recap, a man coverage team with a good front four can get pressure on Drew before the deeper routes come open, and a "Tampa 2" or "Cover 2" defense takes away the short passes that help open up the deeper passes in a West Coast offense.

Once again, how do you counter this?  By running the ball between the tackles with a legit north/south running back who packs a punch.  The Saints are very capable of doing so yet, like a Jason Garrett led offense, they tend to forget this fact and lose patience. I believe this will get cleaned up during the bye week when the staff has the time to do a thorough job of "self scouting." But the problem is a bit of a trend now, so they should just as soon get started against Tampa.  The Saints will need to establish a viable rushing threat if they expect to advance in the postseason.

The Saints are playing like a 10-6 team, no doubt about that.  Tampa is playing like an 8-8 team, yet they have a chance to sweep the Saints and take the divisional lead on Sunday.  The Buccaneers get LaGarrette Blount back, but they are without Earnest Graham.  This isn't so bad.  Blount is a load, but he lacks the versatility Graham brings.  Graham was on pace of 70 receptions and was Freeman's "go to" target in the passing game.  Look for Freeman to target Preston Parker and Kellen Winslow.  Parker is also a threat in the return game.  Mike Williams hasn't played as well as he has last year, but perhaps the bye week helped him regain some of his focus.  Benn is another WR looking to get out of his sophomore slump and Luke Stocker will eventually become a very solid tight end. 

Tampa has beaten the Saints in New Orleans in 6 out of their last 7 trips to the Dome.  You should be very nervous about this game, especially considering Tampa had an extra week to prepare.

What can we expect?  We can expect a heavy dose of Blount.  We can expect a Tampa offense aiming to look like Atlanta's 2010 version of ball control.  The difference is that Freeman plays fearless (much like Drew) and won't hesitate to go deep just on principle, so a careless Gregg Williams all out blitz that never gets to the QB in time will result in a painful 40-yard bomb, whereas Matt Ryan would have just checked it down.  What's worse is the "let's try to fool you like we're the Jets with our version of controlled chaos" that always winds up in blown coverage because the Saints lack the athleticism at all three levels to pull it off.  Expect this to happen on/to the defense.

I demand  feel entitled expect the Saints to shove Chris Ivory down Tampa's throat.  Remember the first game against Tampa last season?  That's what I expect from the Saints offense.  Drew torched Aqib Talib on a few occasions, but he was so successful against that Tampa defense because Ivory was averaging 10 yards a pop to the tune of a buck fifty.  That's the formula to beating this Tampa team. Payton, Brees, and Carmichael just have to remember and stick to it.  Forget the pop and sizzle of the passing game.  POP, then sizzle.  Establish the run, then Drew will have easy picking with those seem routes.  Establish the run, then the defense won't be able to hedge their bets and disguise coverages because they'll have to decide to respect the run and leave 8 in the box or bring in the nickel back for coverage-- It's only an advantage if you take advantage of it.

After the local and  national media were shocked by the Saints performance last week, Drew and others on the team have been adamant about not "overlooking" the Bucs and understanding exactly how important this game is.  I believe they'll bring their A game and run to redemption in a 35 to 24 victory.

 

Stat Time

Offense

2. Saints - 32.5 points per game, 444 yards per game, 6.2 yards per play, 56% 3rd down conversion, 32:34 Time of Possession, -5 turnover margin

15. Bucs - 18.7 PPG, 340 YPG, 5.3 YPP, 40% on 3rd downs, 30:19 TOP, +1 TOM

Passing Offense -

1st. Saints - 327 YPG, 8.0 yards per attempt, 70.6 completion %, 19 TDS, 10 INTS, (30) 20+ yard plays, 19 sacks given up, 100.6 QB Rating

12. Bucs - 240 YPG, 6.3 YPA, 60.9% completion, 7 TDS, 10 INTS, (13) 20+ yard passes, 10 sacks given up, 74.6 QB Rating

Rushing Offense -

11. Saints - 117 YPG, 4.4 yards per carry, 8 TDS, 2 lost fumbles, (5) 20+ yard runs

23. Bucs - 100 YPG, 4.2 YPC, 5 TD, 1 FUM, (4) 20+ yard runs

 

Defense

15. Saints - 23.6 PPG, 346 YPG, 5.6 YPP, 38% 3rd down, 4 fumble recoveries

29. Bucs - 24.1 PPG, 391 YPG, 6.2 YPP, 34% 3rd down, 6 fumble recoveries

Pass Defense -

11. Saints - 222 YPG, 6.6 YPA, 53.1% completion, 13 TDS, 4 INTS, (19) 20+ yard passes given up, 19 sacks, 83.1 opposing QB rating

26. Bucs - 268 YPG, 8.2 YPA, 59% completion, 11 TDS, 7 INTS, (25) 20+ yard pass plays, 12 sacks, 88.5 QB rating

Rush Defense -

23. Bucs - 123 YPG, 4.5 yards per carry, 7 TDS, 6 fumble recoveries, (8) 20+ yards runs allowed

24. Saints - 124 YPG, 5.5 YPC, 7 TDS, 3 FR, (9) 20+ yard runs

Overall Statistical Comparison:  Tampa lacks explosive plays in the passing game, but an overload blitz with cornerbacks giving a 30-yard cushion could change that.  The Saints average 0.5 interceptions a game. Can the DB's please stay after practice and spend a little time with the JUGS machine?  The Saints are money on 3rd down, and they've taken more trips to the red zone than any other team in the NFL. However, on third and short, they don't do so well, and they settle for too many field goals in the red zone. Freeman and Tampa's offense has been in a slump, and he just lost his leading receiver (dual threat RB Earnest Graham) for the year.  In the first matchup, the difference should have been Brees and his group of WR's.  The stats point to that this week, however I believe the difference will lie with the team that has more success in the running game.

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