While the “it’s hard to beat a team three times!” expression is tired and useless, the New Orleans Saints’ third attempt to topple the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season will likely be the toughest one yet.
But that’s not because it’s the third try. It’s because the Bucs offense has recently seemed to catch its stride, pouring it on the Washington Football Team — who held the third-highest defensive DVOA ranking in the regular season — with 31 points in the Wild Card round.
They also have a stout defense of their own, sitting at fifth in defensive DVOA.
In order to come out with a clean sweep of the Bucs this year, Brees and the offense are going to have to play at a higher level than they did against the Bears, because the defense isn’t holding Brady and that offense to three points again.
But the D is a bad enough matchup for Tampa’s O to where if the Saints O just plays a turnover-free game and makes a normal amount of plays, they should come out on top.
In order to be as effective as they’re capable of offensively, the passing game has to be on point.
So after going back and watching some tape and looking at some key numbers, here are some ways the passing attack can once again be sharp against an aggressive defense — as well as some concern areas to look out for.
1. Zone Beaters
There are two zone coverages the Bucs played a lot of against the Saints in Week 9 - Cover 3 and Cover 4. And they play a lot of those in general - mixed in with some Cover 2 and occasionally some Cover 1 Man.
Brees dismantled these coverages all the same with his eyes and understanding of alignment in zones.
Take this play below for example:
The presence of Michael Thomas loomed large in this play. The Bucs are in a max Cover 4 look, with four under and four up top, and Thomas has a hunt/drag route underneath.
The defense understanding how adept Brees is at targeting MT underneath on patterns like this causes the hook defender Lavonte David to creep down on him a bit. This opens up a hole in the zone right behind him for Taysom Hill on a crossing route.
Now, against Cover 4 — which the Bucs are top five in the league in usage of — we know the weakness of this coverage is the flats. Brees is not shy about checking down to the flats, and he’s got plenty of weapons who can create after the catch — whether it be Alvin Kamara or Deonte Harris.
At the same time, this coverage often can present one-on-ones underneath with a slot receiver and a slot corner/safety/linebacker. The Saints have historically liked to give guys like MT, Jared Cook and Kamara option routes from these looks.
Another thing Tampa does defensively is give a 3x3 zone look while rushing five guys.
Like Cover 4, this look is basically going to present a one-on-one matchup in the flats for the slot receiver. We didn’t see many option routes from MT last week, as the Bears were keying in on him pretty well and dropping edge rushers underneath him to make it tougher to get him the ball.
But if the Bucs are going to allow Thomas to have these favorable matchups, Sean Payton should make them pay with his play-calling.
If you give Brees these static looks with room to fit in throws in the intermediate level of the field, he’ll kill you all game with his eyes and decision-making. What you have to do, and what the Bears did really well for the most part, is pull your safeties down to smash hard on in-breaking intermediate routes.
This is what happens when the defense doesn’t respect the deep ball. The safeties are able to key in on and suppress the short-to-intermediate levels of the field.
The Bucs did a poor job of that in Week 9:
But you’d have to imagine it’s one of their adjustments — especially after watching the Bears do it effectively in the first half last week.
However, when safeties and corners get too aggressive, that’s when you hit them with the double moves.
2. Use corners’ aggressiveness against them
One thing that’s been evident on film all season long is the Bucs aggressiveness at the corner position. Carlton Davis (14) and Jamel Dean (6) combined for 20 pass breakups this regular season according to PFF.
They attack the ball and pinch down on underneath routes to try and make big plays.
However, this has burned them at times, as teams have tried to hit them with double moves all year. The Giants got Dean twice with double moves earlier this year, but only hit on one of them because Daniel Jones missed one — as you can see at the top of the screen in the gif below.
We saw the Saints hit them with a fake screen and a touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith, who acted like he was blocking before cutting upfield, on the first scoring drive in Week 9.
But the Saints also ran some double moves that Brees didn’t hold the ball long enough to hit on — mainly because he was taking what was there, due to them kicking the crap out of them and not needing to take any unnecessary risks.
But watch this one by Emmanuel Sanders:
It looks like he’s just running a basic curl pattern in a curl/flats play design, but after he throttles down, Dean bites. Then, Sanders turns on the jets and is open over the top.
For whatever reason, Brees doesn’t like what he sees, and hits MT underneath for five yards.
If the Saints are going to come out victorious on Sunday, Brees might need to let some these opportunities rip. I know at this point in his career, and with how good his surrounding team is, he wants to be uber-conservative and make great decisions all the time.
But in a game this big against a good opponent, you need to take advantage of the big plays when they present themselves.
3. Attack Devin White
Brees and even Taysom Hill did this relentlessly in Week 9, and the young linebacker had no answer.
Known for his speed and burst at the point of attack, Devin White is still developing his skills in coverage. He often times is slow to diagnose route concepts and is too aggressive, lending himself to allow big plays.
In Week 9, White was targeted in coverage 11 times and gave up 11 catches for 79 yards and a TD.
It was in zone coverage, like the play above, and in Man:
The guy was getting cooked all game. And he’s largely been served on a platter all season, allowing an 88% catch rate (86 catches on 98 targets) and four TDs.
PFF’s coverage grades can be a bit spotty, and I rarely use them, but his grade of 39.8(!!) this season just couldn’t go unnoticed.
A smart QB like Brees can manipulate the hell out of him with his eyes and open up zones behind or around him.
Watch the pump fake and eyes here by Brees, getting White to overcommit and hitting Cook in his zone responsibility:
(and yes, I know Cook fumbled on this play, but we’re going to ignore that)
I would think Todd Bowles would utilize White as a pass rusher a bit more in this game than as a drop coverage player, as he’s much more effective in that role. But if they are going to drop him back there and rely on him in zone, he should be attacked.
There are many plays to be had going his direction.
4. Clean up Pass Protection vs. Stunts
I’ve talked about it numerous times this season, but the interior protection from this Saints offensive line has been shaky at best lately.
Cesar Ruiz has allowed 25 pressures in only 401 pass blocking snaps this year, according to PFF. That’s one of the worst pressure-to-snap ratios in the league, compared to Andrus Peat — who is at a slightly more respectable 461-to-22.
And these numbers don’t tell the entire story, not by a longshot. There are plenty of times where they have been beaten in pass protection, but Brees gets the ball out quickly enough to where you don’t notice it on the live broadcast.
But the area they have struggled in the most is recognition of stunts by the defense. If you’re not familiar with a stunt, it’s basically when two defensive linemen switch places post-snap — like the play below, where the two defensive linemen to the right (#93 and #58) stunt.
It’s a way to test the communication of interior O linemen and create pressure through scheme, as opposed to just beating a guy one-on-one.
And the Bucs run a ton of these.
According to an article by Nick Underhill with neworleans.football, 25 of their 49 sacks this year came on rushes that featured a stunt.
PFF has them with the third-most stunts ran in the league this year.
We saw Peat and Ruiz both struggle with handling these last week.
One of the issues #Saints RG Cesar Ruiz had was a failure to recognize the stunt game. This can get covered up by a guy like Brees releasing quick to an early read, but another QB takes a sack.— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) January 12, 2021
-Hicks shows B gap pressure, attacks down
-McCoy recognizes, Ruiz doesn't https://t.co/P3v7NfUrse pic.twitter.com/xdatyRhhhg
On that second one, Ruiz just has to process quicker that when Hicks goes inside, he can give him a shove to pass him off to Erik McCoy and get ready for the looping defender from the other side of the line.
Hopefully, this is something that was heavily stressed by the coaching staff in practice this week.
Because if they’re this bad again, pressures from stunts could cause an errant pass or a turnover that ends up costing them the game.
What are some things you’ll be looking out for come game time on Sunday? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.