Tag Archives: Drew Brees

Not the Same Team

There is 1:42 left in the third quarter of a 20-20 game. New Orleans faces a third-and-four on their own 31-yard line. The Saints flank three wide receivers out to the left. Widest to that side was Emmanuel Sanders, with Jared Cook about four yards inside of him. The narrowest split belonged to Michael Thomas, the innermost receiver, who was just a step on the outside of the hash-marks.

In spite of the fact that New Orleans saw relentless man coverage from Tampa Bay, they didn’t run a whole lot of man beating routes. This would be one. The outer receivers (Sanders and Cook) would run curls inside, with Thomas looping around them up the sideline. The congestion of the receivers with their defenders was supposed to divide Buc cornerback Ross Cockrell from Thomas – the man he was assigned to cover.

The design worked, with Thomas briefly springing open up the sideline, and Mike Edwards – the safety to that side – closing fast. Quarterback Drew Brees delivered the ball on time, but over Thomas’ outside shoulder – to keep him away from Edwards. But Michael had turned to the inside, and had to execute an awkward reverse spin to position himself to attempt the catch, losing a step while he was turning.

Even though this left him far enough from the ball that he had to lunge for it, Michael Thomas – one of football’s elite receivers – still had the ball momentarily in both hands before it slipped through his fingers just before Cockrell and Edwards converged on him.

Not the Same Team

From the moment that Tampa Bay had qualified for the Divisional Round, they began anticipating their third confrontation with the New Orleans Saints – a team that had beaten them handily twice already. Like a mantra, from head coach Bruce Arians on down, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chanted in near unison, “We’re not the same team.”

There was ample evidence of the veracity of that pronouncement in their 30-20 conquest of their former nemesis (gamebook) (summary). But while the Bucs have, indeed, made significant growth, the mantra more exactly fits the team they beat. In many critical ways, the Saints were not the same team at all.

Drew is Probably Done

The performance from future Hall-of-Fame Quarterback Drew Brees has rarely been worse. Drew finished a sobering 19-for-34 for but 134 yards, his lone touchdown pass offset by three crucial interceptions. In the post-game interview, Drew was less than chatty – consistently refusing to talk in any detail about his upcoming decision. But he had the look of someone who had played his last football game.

Just Thursday, his wife tweeted for the world to know the litany of damage that Drew had persevered through. We already knew about the 11 broken ribs and cartilage issues. We didn’t know that he was also playing through a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot.

If he comes back, now, he is looking at some significant re-hab – a lot to ask of a 42-year-old who has missed significant time to injuries in each of the last two years. In fact, the question of whether he had any business playing last Sunday is a good one to ask. Do you put you playoff fate in the hands of a compromised quarterback?

With Drew as the headliner, the health of the team in general faded greatly since the last time they beat Tampa Bay. Out for this game were middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, and two significant pieces of the offense – Latavius Murray and Taysom Hill – with electrifying receiver/punt returner Deonte Harris following them after playing just five snaps. Additionally, sack leader Trey Hendrickson was just back after missing the Chicago game due to a neck injury, running back Alvin Kamara was just back from the COVID list, and Thomas missed nine games (including the last three of the regular season) to a lingering ankle problem.

So the team was nicked up a bit. The big question, though, revolved around the quarterback. Over the two playoff games the Saints played this year, Brees threw 73 passes. Only one of them was to a receiver more than twenty yards downfield. That pass occurred in the Chicago game. None of his 34 passes against Tampa Bay was directed more than 19 yards away, and he had no completions on a pass deeper than 17 yards.

In the broadcast booth, Troy Aikman voiced the question that was on everyone’s mind. Could Drew Brees, in fact, still throw a ball twenty yards in the air?

For their part, the Buccaneers played him like he couldn’t. Adopting the game plan that I predicted last week, Tampa Bay blitzed Drew heavily (52.9% of his drop-backs) and played smothering, press man coverage in an attempt to take away his short passes. The game plan met with exceptional success. After rolling up 1315 yards over the previous 3 games (an average of 438.3 per), the Saints left the field with only 294 yards to show for their efforts against Tampa Bay.

Not an Accurate Representation

All of this paints a picture of an offense that was hamstrung by the limitations of its quarterback. Even though that was probably true, it’s not an accurate representation of what happened on the field Sunday evening. Drew Brees never threw the ball down the field, not because he couldn’t (although he probably couldn’t). He didn’t throw the ball down the field because none of his receivers could get open down the field. For that matter, they couldn’t get open for short passes, either.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have come under criticism – including by me – for their weakness in pass coverage. And when they are in zone coverage – and for some reason they always revert back to their zone coverages – this is still true. I believe that every time they went to zone against New Orleans there was a significant gain to be had. But this team could always play man defense – and last Sunday they inhaled the New Orleans receivers.

The foundation was cornerback Carlton Davis. His ability to remove Michael Thomas from the equation (and Davis was a major factor in holding Thomas to no catches), combined with the Saints’ early loss of Harris, left New Orleans without a major weapon to challenge the man coverage they would get from the rest of Tampa’s defensive backs. So Brees’ afternoon was a frustrating exercise in running from the Buccaneer blitz in the mostly futile hope of finding an open receiver. Drew’s first interception was representative of the way his day went.

With Jordan Whitehead as the single high safety, the Bucs brought Devin White on the blitz. Devin sprang into the “A” gap between center Erik McCoy and right guard Cesar Ruiz. With down-lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches occupying Ruiz, McCoy was obliged to pick up White’s blitz, turning to his outside shoulder for the block. At the same time, Jason Pierre-Paul looped from his defensive end position around McCoy’s other shoulder. Caught in a bind, Erik effectively blocked neither, and both White and Pierre-Paul invaded the backfield and flushed Drew from the pocket.

Scrambling away from trouble, Drew had no place to go with the ball. According to Next Gen Stats, at the time Brees actually unloaded the ball, scanning from his left to his right, Jared Cook had a half-yard of separation from Antoine Winfield Jr., Emmanuel Sanders had a yard on Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting was 0.8 yards away from Michael Thomas, and, up the right sideline, Tre’Quan Smith and Carlton Davis were separated by a scant 1.6 yards.

In retrospect, I’m sure Drew would say that he should have thrown this one away and tried something else on third down. In the post-game, Brees owned to the fact that he tried to force a couple of passes. This would be one. Trying to loft the ball over Murphy-Bunting’s head to Thomas, Drew didn’t get quite enough air underneath the ball. Sean’s subsequent interception and 36-yard return set up the first touchdown of the day.

As I mentioned before, this was not a singular event. Repeatedly throughout the game the Buccaneer defenders presented Brees with smothering coverage. And more than once, the pass rush came to the rescue when the secondary did occasionally let a receiver escape. On this play, Sanders was actually pulling away from Dean. If Brees had had time to wait another half-second, this could have been a game-changing play the other way.

Assuming, of course, that Drew could have thrown it that far.

Uncharacteristically Ragged

On top of all of this, when there were the occasional opportunities to make a play, Drew was frequently let down by his receivers, who played an uncharacteristically ragged game. Attention here is specifically drawn to Cook, whose fumble led to another Tampa Bay touchdown and whose failure to catch – or at least knock down – Brees’ final pass led to the final interception. But Jared wasn’t the only one who has had better games.

With 1:04 left in the third quarter, Sanders found himself inside of Dean on a crossing pattern. But instead of continuing across and maintaining his separation, Emmanuel turned his route up-field, allowing Jamel to get underneath him and deflect the pass.

With 4:07 left in the first half, New Orleans set up a nice little screen pass. Seeing linebacker Shaquil Barrett lined up to blitz off the offensive right side, Brees called tight end Josh Hill over from the other side of the formation to set him directly in front of Barrett – presumably to block him. Hill failed, as Barrett blew easily past him – only to find that he had been had, as Brees tossed the ball over Barrett’s head to Hill, who had a couple of blockers in front of him.

New Orleans had caught the Bucs in another zone defense, and tight end Adam Trautman’s vertical route to that side had pulled both the corner and the safety deep and securely out of the play. The only defender on that sideline who could have prevented this from being about a 15-yard gain was underneath corner Murphy-Bunting.

But Hill ran away from his blocking. Instead of tucking in behind them, he veered out to the sideline, the only place he could go where Sean could make a play on him. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk made a valiant effort to get over there quick enough to lay a block on Murphy-Bunting, but all the attempt earned him was a close up view of Sean dropping Hill for a three-yard loss. So went the day.

And Then, There Was Thomas

Of all of the bizarre transpirings of this very strange day, none was more bizarre than Michael Thomas’ no-catch game. I began this post with the details of one catch that got away. There was a potentially game-changing one much earlier in the contest.

After Tampa Bay went three-and-out on their first possession, Deonte Harris set New Orleans up on the Bucco 21-yard line with an electric 54-yard punt return (did I mention what an important loss Harris was to this team?) Five plays later, the Saints faced a third-and-goal from the five. Here Tampa Bay sent six rushers, leaving Davis on Thomas – split wide right with no safety help. After taking him straight up-field for a couple of yards, Thomas broke toward the sideline and Brees threw him the ball.

But Michael didn’t go all the way to the sideline. He stayed about two steps to the inside. If Brees had thrown the ball just over Davis’ head where he was standing next to Thomas, Michael could have out-leapt him for the touchdown. If Thomas had actually gone to the sideline, he would have been in perfect position to pull the ball in and tap his toes along the sideline for the touchdown.

But after years of uncanny chemistry between them, on this day Brees and Thomas were on different pages. Michael still caught the ball, but having to lunge to do it, he had no chance to keep in bounds while making the catch. This is, in fact, the strangest factoid of the game in my mind. Thrown to five times, Thomas had his hands on the ball almost every single time. The only one he didn’t have both his hands on was the Murphy-Bunting interception we looked at earlier.

None of them would have been necessarily easy catches, as every ball thrown to him was heavily contested. But these are the catches that we’ve seen him make almost routinely throughout his career. So much so, that it’s the kind of thing we take for granted. But now, Brees misses a few weeks, Thomas is out of the line-up for a while to heal his ankle – perhaps doesn’t go through all of the reps in practice that he otherwise might, and all of a sudden things that before were all but automatic are just off enough.

And when that happens to you in the playoffs, you almost always end up watching the rest of the games on television.

As For the Bucs

Yesterday, in writing about Green Bay, I suggested that the Packers hadn’t been really tested and that I wasn’t entirely sure who they are. In a lot of ways, I feel the same thing about Tampa Bay. Until Sunday, the only other team with a winning record that this Buccaneer team had a victory over was, ironically, the Green Bay Packers – the conference’s top seed and their opponent tomorrow. On the heels of a regular season that saw them finish 1-3 against winning teams, 1-1 against teams that finished at .500, and 9-1 against losing teams, Tampa Bay has qualified for the Championship Game after nearly losing to a 7-9 Washington team that was starting a third-string quarterback, and, now beating a New Orleans team whose quarterback was probably not healthy enough to be on the field.

What to make of this team?

After watching them all year – and I may well have written more about Tampa Bay than any other team this year – here are the things that I believe ( and don’t believe) about this team.

First, their pass protection has gotten much better. In back-to-back playoff games, they have faced two of the better pass rushes (in Washington and New Orleans) and have kept their quarterback almost untouched. They have committed more people to pass protection from time to time. Rob Gronkowski has one catch in two post-season games because he has been asked to do more pass blocking than usual.

This may cost the Bucs a few receivers out on the route, but the benefit to the passing game has been measurable. I maintain that about 75% of this team’s early offensive struggles stemmed from the fact that Tom Brady was getting driven to the ground about a dozen times a game. Having cleaned that up, most everything else has fallen into place.

Second, I believe that coach Bruce Arians has made peace with the running game. During the regular season, Tampa Bay ran the ball fewer times than any other winning football team. As recently as Week 15 they ran only 18 times against Atlanta. In their four games since then – the last two in the playoffs – Tampa Bay has run the ball 26, 22, 29 and 35 times. I actually think Coach Arians has grown fond of seeing the ball in Leonard Fournette’s hands. This also has benefited the offense. A healthy and productive running game keeps defenses in base personnel and out of exotic schemes.

In fact, one of the principle ways this is “not the same team” is that the offense has started to do many of the things that Brady’s New England offenses did – running the football and throwing the ball underneath. Against the Saints, in addition to the 35 running plays, Brady threw 18 of his 33 passes less than 10 yards from scrimmage. He completed 13 of them for 110 yards and both of his touchdowns. He was only 5 of 15 for 89 yards on throws of ten yards or more.

Which brings me to my third belief. I believe that Tampa Bay – for all of its growth in other aspects of play – is still overly dependent on the big play. In their conquest of New Orleans, they put together 3 drives of 10 plays or more. All of those ended up in field goals. Their only touchdowns came on short fields after turnovers. All three of their touchdown drives added together totaled 63 yards – less than two of their three field goal drives.

I believe that if Green Bay can keep Brady and his receivers from striking for the big play, and they don’t turn the ball over to make things easy for them, that the Buccaneers will struggle to sustain offense and put points on the board.

One thing I don’t believe is that their defense – picked on by the better passing attacks all year – is miraculously fixed. Their zone defenses are still a bit of a mess, with someone almost always wandering away from their coverage responsibility for some reason or another, and I still believe that their pass rush is a hit-and-miss affair unless they bring the blitz. I expect that Tampa Bay will approach Green Bay with the same basic approach that they played against New Orleans – not because there is a strategic advantage to blitzing and playing man defense, but because if they do anything else, Aaron Rodgers will skin them alive.

This time, though, they won’t be facing a wounded quarterback whose effective range is about 15 yards. In Rodgers, they will be up against a guy who – with a flick of his wrist – can send precisely guided football missiles forty-plus yards downfield. Aaron, by the way, has seen a blitz or two in his time and won’t necessarily be undone by them.

Man coverage is what Tampa Bay does – and, yes, they do it very well. Whether they can do it well enough to keep the Packers at bay for a full 60 minutes is the question that will largely determine which of these teams will play in the season’s final game.

Come playoff time, Green Bay is an uncomfortable road game – especially if you are a warm weather team from, say, Florida. Sprinkle moderately with snow, and the Buccaneers level of discomfort rises accordingly.

I don’t honestly know how good Green Bay is, but I strongly suspect that they are better rounded than Tampa Bay. Tomorrow, we’ll find out.

These Old Guys Don’t Go Down Easy

Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been doing this for a long time.

They are a combined 84 years old, with Brees turning 42 during the playoffs.  They have combined for 41 seasons (counting this one) and 581 starts at the most critical position in their sport.  They have thrown a combined 21,023 passes, completing 13,831 of them (65.8%) for 158,303 yards and 1,141 touchdowns.

They went back and forth for a while this season for the all-time lead in touchdown passes.  With Brees missing the last four weeks with some broken ribs, Tom has earned himself a little separation from Drew.  Brady’s lead in all-time touchdown passes currently sites at 573-568.

These, by the way, are just regular season numbers.  The playoffs are worthy of a chapter of their own.

And then, last Sunday, both of these all-time greats trailed at one point in their games by a combined 31-0.  The games, of course, didn’t end that way.

Brees and His Near Comback

The decision to activate and then start Brees was made rather late in the week.  Up until Wednesday, or so, everyone was expecting another Taysom Hill start.  After missing four weeks, Drew was going to be a little rusty, anyway (and, perhaps, limited reps in practice might have amplified that).  Under the best of circumstances, Kansas City is a difficult team to line up against.

While the offense gets all the ink, Kansas City’s defense has been much more than on-lookers – especially the pass defense.  They might, in fact, be the best defense in the NFL that nobody talks about.  The Chiefs entered the game allowing completions on only 62.4% of the passes thrown against them – football’s third-best figure.  Moreover, they came into the game having made 15 interceptions, and restricting opposing passers to just an 84.2 rating.  This was the fourth best defensive rating in the NFL.

It would be unfair to attribute New Orleans’ slow start completely to rust on Brees’ part.  The Chief defense played very well.  But whatever the balance between rust and tight defense, the game couldn’t have started much worse for Drew and the Saints.  He started off missing on his first 6 passes (including an interception), and New Orleans went three-and-out on its first four possessions (if you include the possession that ended with the interception – which was thrown on third down).

The interception led to a short field (setting up one touchdown), and KC put together an 11-play, 80-yard, 5 minute and 1 second drive for a second touchdown.  In the early moments of the second quarter the Chiefs were ahead 14-0 and looking like they would leave New Orleans in the dust.

Even when Brees did begin to complete some passes, what evolved was a very different New Orleans game plan than we are used to seeing.  Instead of the precision, sideline-to-sideline short passing game, Drew’s attack was decidedly vertical.  Six of his 33 passes (one of his 34 passes was a throw-away) travelled more than 20 air-yards from scrimmage, and 4 others were more than ten yards.  Of his 15 completions, 4 were more than 15 yards upfield.

Accounting for the Change

Drew began the week running the second shortest passing game in the NFL – his average target being just 5.4 yards from the line.  On Sunday, his average target was 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (the NFL average is 7.81).  Why the difference?  It could be a combination of several factors.

In his post-game press conference, Drew blamed himself for not taking check-downs, so some of it was due – perhaps – to rusty decision making.  I believe, though, that there was more to it.  Psychologically, when you fall behind 14-0 to a team as dangerous as Kansas City, there must be some anxiety to score quickly to get back into the game .  I also think – especially with Michael Thomas out of the lineup in order to heal for the playoffs – that there was some focus by Kansas City on the short routes, almost as though the Chiefs might dare Brees to beat them over the top.

Whatever the underlying causes, the results were quite uncharacteristic.  Drew finished with an uncharacteristically low completion percentage (44.1 on 15 of 34) and an uncharacteristically low passer rating (84.7).  On the other hand, he also finished with an uncharacteristically high 15.6 yards per completion.  He finished with a very characteristic 3 touchdown passes.

He needed, perhaps, one more possession to bring New Orleans all the way back.  As it was, they fell in a thriller to the Chiefs, 32-29 (gamebook) (summary).

Saints’ Defense Better than the Score Indicates

Kansas City’s final offensive tallies included the 32 points, 411 yards of offense and 34 first downs.  Not the kind of numbers to suggest that the defense played all that well.  In this case, the numbers are less than descriptive of how the game played out.  The New Orleans defense came into the game with significant credentials as well.  At the start of the week, they ranked second in overall defense, second against the run and fourth against the pass.

Cognizant that even they couldn’t deny everything to the KC offense, New Orleans chose to allow the run in an effort to mitigate the aerial light show that quarterback Patrick Mahomes usually conducts with his quiver of speedy receivers.  So Kansas City’s running numbers were gaudy – 179 yards on 41 attempts.  But the elite passing attack was controlled (to a great degree).

As you might expect, Mahomes entered the game ranked in the top five in almost every passing category – including passer rating, where his 112.3 ranked second in all of football.  In that context, Patrick’s 26 for 47, 254 yard performance seemed pedestrian, indeed.  He competed just 55.3% of his passes (13.1% lower than his season average), averaged just 5.4 yards per pass attempt (3.07 below his season average) and 9.77 yards per completion (2.63 below his average).  He recorded no completions of longer than 23 yards, which he managed just twice, for his only passing plays of twenty-or-more yards.

His 92.0 passer rating was 20.3 points below his season average, and he only managed that because – being Patrick Mahomes – he still managed to toss three touchdown passes without having one intercepted.

The prescriptions for containing both of these skilled passing attacks were virtually identical: Heavy pass rush pressure from the front four, and tight coverage in the secondary.  Neither team blitzed much at all.  Mahomes saw an extra rusher just 7 times, and the Chiefs sent extra men at Brees only 5 times.  But the pressure from the down linemen and the coverage were impressive by both sides. 

Patrick was sacked 4 times as part of being hit 11 times while having 8 passes batted away by a defender.  Drew took only one sack, but was also hit 7 times while having 9 passes defended.  Brees’ wide receivers and tight ends managed an average of just 1.99 yards of separation (according to Next Gen stats) – a number which speaks to the impact that losing Thomas has on the rest of the team.

In fact, if there was one number that most expressed the difference between these two teams last Sunday, it might be the third-down tallies.

With their running game keeping them in manageable third downs, Kansas City finished 9-for-18 in those opportunities.  With their running game mostly abandoned (and New Orleans ran the ball only 17 times) and Drew’s passes falling incomplete much of the time, the Saints spent the afternoon in a lot of third and longs.  They finished 1-for-11 on that down.

This led to Kansas City running 92 plays and controlling the ball for 41:14 of the game.  The Saints just couldn’t stay on the field.  Their longest possession of the afternoon lasted just 2:40, and they finished with 7 three-and-outs (again, including the interception possession).

Encouragement in Defeat

Of all the teams that have lost to Kansas City this year (and that has been almost all of them), I believe that New Orleans can be most encouraged by their near miss.  They were playing with a quarterback rusty from the IR, playing without their best pass receiver, falling behind early by two touchdowns, and playing all of the fourth quarter without their best defensive lineman (Cameron Jordan got himself ejected).  And, for all of that, fell just one possession short.

Given the chance for a re-match (which could only happen in the Super Bowl), New Orleans must be convinced that they can play with this team.  Whether they can overcome the Mahomes magic, though, is another question.

That is the question that ultimately bedevils the entire league.

Brady’s Day

Tom Brady’s afternoon in Atlanta could have hardly started worse.  The downtrodden Atlanta Falcons hit them with a perfect half.  They converted 6 of 10 third downs, committed no penalties, no turnovers and suffered no sacks.  They rolled up a 261-60 advantage in total yards, a 16-5 advantage in first downs and took a 17-0 lead into the locker room at the half.

As opposed to the defenses in the Saint-Chief game, the word of the day for both defenses in this game was blitz and blitz some more.  Both teams blitzed at almost exactly the same rate.  Atlanta came after Brady 43.8% of the time (21 of 48 drop-backs), and Tampa Bay responded by sending extra rushers after Matt Ryan 43.4% of the time (23 blitzes in 53 drop backs).

In the first half, the story was Brady under siege and Atlanta keeping the rush away from Ryan.  In the second half, some protection adjustments gave Tom more time in the pocket, and allowed him to fully exploit the coverage difficulties that the Falcons have suffered with the entire season.

In the second half alone, Brady completed 21 of 29 passes (72.4%) for 320 yards.  Think for a moment about throwing for 320 yards in one half.

Brady average 11.03 yards per pass attempt in that half, and 15.24 per pass completion.  He also tossed a couple of touchdown passes as he conjured a few memories (bitter for the Falcon fans, to be sure) of the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss to New England.  The Patriots (er, I mean Buccaneers) came all the way back for a 31-27 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playoff Consequences

Two surprising Week 15 upsets juggled the playoff situations a bit.  The Rams’ loss to the Jets caused some minor movement in the NFC.  That loss by LA, gives Tampa Bay an open opportunity to claim the fifth seed, dropping the Rams to sixth.  The two teams currently hold identical 9-5 records, with the Rams holding the head-to-head tie breaker.

But Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is Detroit and Atlanta again (very winnable games), the Rams finish with Seattle and Arizona.  If the Bucs win out and LA stubs its toe just once, the two teams will switch positions.

More Upheaval in the AFC

The other big upset was Cincinnati eclipsing Pittsburgh.  In absorbing their third loss in a row, the onetime presumptive first seed In the conference will now likely fall to third.  Pittsburgh and Buffalo now hold identical 11-3 records, with the Bills holding the tie breaker by virtue of their win over the Steelers last week.

And, finally, the Cleveland Browns got that one win that they needed to put themselves in the playoff driver’s seat when they beat the Giants on Sunday night.  Cleveland is now 10-4, Baltimore is 9-5 and Miami is also 9-5.  The Ravens hold the tie-breaker with the Browns (season sweep), and close with an easy schedule (they finish with the Giants and Bengals.)  Cleveland would have to win both of their games to stay ahead of the Ravens.  This week they have the Jets (who will come in enthused off their victory) and they finish with Pittsburgh, so I still think it likely that Baltimore will finish ahead of Cleveland (they will get the fifth seed).

So the Cleveland win now makes the Dolphins vulnerable. The Dolphins are a game behind the Browns and finish on the road in Las Vegas and Buffalo.  Miami’s playoff fate may depend on whether Buffalo needs to win that final game or not – and from the looks of things right now, I will guess that they will need that game.

If Cleveland does, in fact, get in, they will probably claim the sixth seed.  They have an earlier victory over Indianapolis, so the Colts could very well finish 11-5 this season and be relegated to the seventh seed.

Throw-Back Saints Keep Throwing

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.

Defining Moments

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.