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.
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.