Last week, I talked about the new vertical NFL. This week, though, is throw-back week as we will spend a few minutes with the New Orleans Saints during their convincing 30-10 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (gamebook).
Nine weeks into the NFL season, Drew Brees sits (statistically) among the elite quarterbacks of the league. He currently ranks first in completion percentage (71.6), third in passes completed (197) and passer rating (105.0), and fifth in passing yards (2214) and yards per pass attempt (8.05). Yet, he is doing all of this without an “elite” receiver. In Ted Ginn, Drew does have a receiver who can provide a vertical threat – but not in the way that the elite guys like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown can provide it. Michael Thomas is probably underrated in the NFL world at large. He has caught 50 passes already this season. But nobody speaks of either of these receivers in reverential tones.
In an increasingly vertical NFL, Brees and the Saints are still among the very best at the horizontal passing game.
Tough Days in Tampa Bay
Opposing them last Sunday – perhaps better said – offered up to the Saints last Sunday were the tilting Buccaneers. Their 2-1 start now just a distant memory, the Bucs walked the plank for the fifth consecutive time Sunday. Injuries, youth and the frustration of their season slipping away from them have all taken their toll. In addition to being outgained 217-88 in the first half, allowing the Saints to control the clock for 17:08 of the second half, watching their three top pass catchers (Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and DeSean Jackson) held without a catch in the second half, and seeing top running back Doug Martin held to 7 yards on 8 carries for the game; Tampa Bay also saw their starting quarterback Jameis Winston leave at the half with a re-injury to his shoulder, saw a blocked punt turn into a touchdown, and watched Evans ignite and altercation when he came off the sideline to blindside Marshon Lattimore.
In short, the wheels are starting to come off just a little in Tampa Bay.
In their current condition, these Bucs were no match for the peaking Saints. In the vertical NFL discussion, I pointed out that the driver for all of this was the shutdown corner. Tampa Bay is still looking for that guy. Now minus veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, they opposed New Orleans Sunday with four rookies or first-year players and one second year player seeing significant playing time in the Tampa Bay back seven. With so much youth, the Bucs were limited to simple coverages – two deep zones and safe man coverages, with cornerbacks lining up eight yards off of the receivers and back-peddling at the snap.
Saints Taking Advantage
With volumes of underneath room, Brees and the Saints took everything the Bucs gave them. And took and took and took. Drew threw the ball over 20 yards only three times all day – completing just one. He also threw (and completed) one 19 yard route and one 11-yard route. Everything else was thrown within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.
Twenty-two times Brees threw short routes – including 6 screen passes. He completed 19 of these throws for a total of 190 yards – 148 of those yards coming after the catch. These include 14 passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Thirteen of the fourteen were completed for 111 yards – 113 of the 111 yards coming after the catch. For the game, 155 of Brees’ 263 passing yards came after the catch.
Drew mostly picked on Grimes’ replacement. First year player Ryan Smith, making his third career start at right corner, gave plenty of room and got plenty of attention. Of Drew’s 29 passes, 16 went to the offensive left side. Brees was 12 of 16 for 145 yards throwing to his left – even though Robert McClain, on the other side, was giving just as much room.
The struggling secondary was further exposed by a mostly non-existent pass rush. Brees was sacked once and hit – I think – only one other time on a blitz. Tampa Bay sits last in the NFL with only 8 quarterback sacks this season.
Perhaps the day on defense could be summed up by the afternoon of rookie safety Justin Evans. Making just his fourth career start, Justin was at the focal point of the two worst moments of Tampa Bay’s day.
There was only 1:06 left in the second quarter. New Orleans, ahead only 9-3 at this point, faced first-and-10 at Tampa Bay’s 33-yard line. Brees dumped a screen pass into the hands of Alvin Kamara – one of the NFL’s impact rookies – and the screen pass broke big.
Catching up to him at about the 15-yard line, Evans tried to wrap his arms around the shifty Kamara, only to be spun about like last week’s laundry and left sitting on the turf while Kamara finished a weaving 33-yard touchdown run.
Now there is 9:46 left in the third quarter – the Saints leading 23-6. They have the ball on the Buc 36-yard line, first-and-10. It is perhaps understandable – given that the Saint passing game had consisted almost entirely of short tosses – that Evans might have expected more intermediate passing. Even so, he was standing flatfooted looking into the backfield as Ginn sped past him. Seconds later, Ted pulled in Brees’ perfectly thrown strike for the 36-yard touchdown that iced the contest – New Orleans’ only completed long pass of the game.
Next For the Saints
While Tampa Bay seems headed for a “growth” year, New Orleans increasingly looks like a team to be contended with. After Brees threw for 185 yards in the first half, the Saints opened up their running game for 112 yards in 20 rushing attempts in the second half alone. They now rank fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards in the NFL. Defensively, they still rank fifteenth, but that’s a little deceptive. After allowing 470 yards in their first game and 555 in their second, New Orleans hasn’t allowed more than 347 in any game since. They are averaging 264.7 yards allowed per game over their last six. It’s a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.
Their winning streak – now at six games – has already included three road wins (in Carolina, Miami and Green Bay). Now they will journey to Buffalo – a different sort of team with a unique offensive and defensive style. In the week-to-week NFL, it will be interesting to see how they adjust.