There was no point this season where stock in the New Orleans Saints was higher than after their 38-3 trouncing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday Night Football in Week 9. It was a dominant performance in every way, and it suddenly looked like the Saints were the team to beat not just in the NFC South, but in the NFC.
Then people started to talk, and Tom Brady listened.
You can put as much stock as you want in the talk about Brady playing with a chip on his shoulder, but there are certain things you can’t deny. In that game, Brady went 22 of 38 for 209 yards and three picks. Since then, Brady is 197 of 304 (65 percent passing) for 2,616 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five picks (including the Buccaneers’ Wild Card win over the Washington Football Team). With Antonio Brown in tow, the Buccaneer offense looks really good.
Enter the Saints, whose defense is also playing very well of late. They’ll need to turn in another incredible performance to contain the talented Buccaneer offense. Lucky for them, they have the tools to do it.
The X-factor for the Saints defense? Unsurprisingly, it’s C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
To look at how the Saints could try to cover a team like the Buccaneers, the best comparison would be the Kansas Chiefs, who also have a ridiculous amount of depth with their offensive weapons.
If you’re deep enough in the secondary, you get get away with some wild stuff. With the Chiefs in 3rd and 13, they come out with trips up top. Mecole Hardman is in the slot, matched up against Gardner-Johnson. Ostensibly, P.J. Williams is supposed to be helping out over the top.
Williams is the one circled above. At the top of Hardman’s route, he breaks in to help on the in route underneath, leaving the back of the field wide open. This play also illustrates the ridiculous decision making of Patrick Mahomes, who is cocking back to heave it to Hardman as Williams is making the choice.
Mahomes puts a dime on Hardman, but Gardner-Johnson makes a ridiculous play to punch the ball out. He showcases both recovery speed and physicality on this play, as he gets beat but is able to make an outstanding play to punch the ball out at the last moment and save a big play for the Saints.
These are the kinds of plays you need when you’re covering Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. You won’t hold them in check forever, so eventually you need to make a big play to contain them.
Another example came against the Vikings, with Gardner-Johnson squared up on Irv Smith Jr. Smith tries to get inside of Gardner-Johnson, but Gardner-Johnson makes a great wraparound play on the ball to break up the pass. These are the types of plays they need to rely on him for.
Gardner-Johnson took 65 snaps in the slot against the Chiefs, so expect those numbers to be more or less the same this week. Against the Chiefs, he gave up just four catches on 11 targets. Marshon Lattimore will likely be occupied with Evans this week, and while Janoris Jenkins undoubtedly won’t be following Godwin, he should be spending most of his time on him.
That leaves Gardner-Johnson to deal with the likes of Brown and Rob Gronkowski. Malcolm Jenkins and Demario Davis will share the role on Gronkowski, but Brown should get a lot of reps against Gardner-Johnson. That’s a tough matchup, especially as Brown has gelled with Brady. In the last game of the regular season against the Falcons, he caught 11 passes for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Just two weeks prior, it was five catches for 93 yards. He may not be who he was on the Steelers, but he’s finding his way in this offense.
Gardner-Johnson may not be end-all be-all, but he is a key component of this game for the Saints. If he doesn’t play well, they could end up in trouble. If he plays like he did against the Chiefs, however, this defense has a good shot at a repeat performance, no matter how formidable the Buccaneer offense has looked the past few weeks.