Unfortunately, during the 2019 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell short on two occasions versus their NFC south rival, the New Orleans Saints. While the score of the first game looked quite close, neither game really was.
It seemed as if the Buccaneers just couldn’t figure out how to attack the incredibly aggressive Saints defense, nor could they stop their potent passing attack.
However, looking towards Week 1 of the 2020 season, the Buccaneers could definitely do a few things on both sides of the ball that would make a significant difference. In fact, by taking advantage of the Saints’ weaknesses on offense and defense, they would really have a chance of pulling a win out this week.
Since the Bucs play the Saints twice every year, I will be taking a look back at the film from last season (primarily Week 11 as Brees played in that game) to see exactly what weaknesses the Bucs can exploit.
In two games against this stout Saints defense, the Bucs put up 41 points combined. Seeing as the Saints’ defense gave up 21.6 points per game last season, this total is nothing to be impressed with. So, what exactly can the Bucs put together in order to increase this total?
Well, they can start by limiting mistakes. One of the biggest issues with Tampa Bay’s offense last season was mistakes, which was evident from the 4 interceptions that Jameis Winston threw in the second game. But what else can they do? Mistakes do happen after all.
Upon watching the film, it seemed as if some of the play-calling in the first half of the second game left a bit to be desired.
Let’s see what I mean by that:
Here’s a 3rd and 4 in the first half. If you’ll notice the bottom of the screen, the shallowest route was about 8-9 yards. While this is not necessarily egregious, it is necessary to note that the Saints were playing a deep Cover 2 most of the game, which really stifled the deeper routes that the Arians-led Bucs love to run.
Since the defense was essentially shutting down the Bucs deeper routes, they should’ve started running shallower route progressions early, especially on third and short, which would have sustained their drives.
In the second half, they really started to pick up on this and ran much shorter route combinations, however, they were already down 20-7 at this point.
Let’s take a look at a play from the second half that really would’ve led to a huge gain, if only the ball were thrown better:
So the Saints are in Cover 2 and the Bucs have trips to the left. Since Cover 2 has the two safeties deep, the perfect route to run is anything that goes above the underneath coverage, but splits the deep safeties.
This skinny post by Scotty Miller is absolutely perfect against this defense, and this is a route that they should really try to exploit in this upcoming week. Notice how Miller gets over the underneath coverage, and ends up wide open around the 25-yard line between the safeties.
If Winston is able to get this ball at the hash, as opposed to three yards inside of it, this would’ve easily led to a 20-yard gain, and if he was able to look off the safety on the right side of the screen, this could’ve led to a touchdown. When you’re coming back from a major deficit, a 20-yard gain isn’t something to take for granted.
Finally, let’s take a look at something else that the Bucs should use against the Saints in Week 1, and something that really worked for them in Week 11 of last year:
The Saints defense was quite aggressive against the Bucs. Winston was under duress most of the game in Week 11 as the Saints sent blitz after blitz. However, when you have linebackers blitzing in the middle of the field, they really vacate a lot of space.
When the Saints blitzed, they left a lot of space smack dab in the middle of the field. This opens up TONS of room for any receiver running a crossing route/slant, as Mike Evans does here.
It looks like the Saints are in Cover 1 which means that there is one deep safety, and everyone else is in man coverage. Based on the corner’s off alignment, it looks as he wasn’t expecting Evans to run a slant/cross. He probably expected him to go deep. Additionally, even if he was pressing him, the two inside receivers would act as a pick to really free Evans up.
One quarter earlier, the same type of blitz/coverage is run and Chris Godwin ran the same kind of route which led to a 30 yard touchdown. If the Bucs can recognize this sort of blitz and check into this route combination (2 deep with 1 crossing underneath), they should be able to replicate plays just like the one above.
Now let’s take a look at the defensive side of the ball. In both games, the Saints had one huge advantage that really led to their offense being so successful. This advantage’s name is Michael Thomas.
Say what you will about the man, he is a very good football player. In fact, in the first game against the Bucs, he put up 11 catches for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the second game, he caught 8 passes for 114 yards and 1 touchdown.
While the game to game success was lessened, the result was the same. One thing that Thomas excels at is short routes. He is incredibly adept at taking a five-yard route and taking it for 20 yards with his run-after-catch ability. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they missed quite a few tackles in open space that freed up Thomas to gain a lot of yards after the catch.
If the Bucs defense plans to have ANY success against the Saints in Week 1, their number one priority needs to be stopping Michael Thomas.
Let’s take a look at a play that I saw from Week 11, where the Bucs could’ve altered a coverage slightly to stop the man from scoring an easy touchdown:
Thomas scores one of the easiest touchdowns of his career on this play. If the Bucs were to implement some switch coverage (or a box coverage like “Zeke”) on the pick routes seen above, then there is the potential that Tampa Bay would have been able to stop Thomas from such an easy score here.
If you’ll look at the lines I have so crudely drawn, you’ll see the paths they would have taken if they were running a coverage switch.
When Sean Murphy-Bunting is screened on this play, he is way too late to get back to the coverage, which leads to Thomas being so wide open. Just a slight tweak in the coverage scheme could really help this team, especially as they were left exposed on similar plays all throughout the season.
Ultimately, no matter how they do it, they need to slow down Michael Thomas. One such method, is through doubling him.
The next play shown, is yet another easy 10-yard gain from Thomas that could’ve been prevented with a double team:
If you’ll notice here, Sean Murphy-Bunting starts with an outside leverage, I can only assume because he is afraid of a route coming over the top. However, the best slant runner in the league took advantage of this and picked up an easy first down.
On plays like this one, SMB can take an inside leverage, if only he has the comfort of a safety taking any plays that come over the top. Thus, the beauty of a double team. If a safety is there to remove any deep routes, SMB has free reign on anything coming inside. This would essentially take everything in the route tree away, leaving the Saints to rely on other men not named Michael Thomas.
Since the Saints primary weapon is Thomas, and the man has single-handedly beat the Bucs in recent years, this may be something the Bucs want to take advantage of. Leaving guys like newly-acquired receiver Marquise Goodwin one on one may be scary, however, Thomas constantly picking up third down conversions (and touchdowns) is even scarier.
Finally, the Bucs can really take advantage of the shorter routes that the Saints offense likes to run. With Brees no longer having the arm that he used to, Sean Payton will most likely be leaving the longer throws to Taysom Hill as he did last season.
Seeing as Brees no longer has the big arm, the Bucs can start to bring their coverages up a few yards. Here is what I mean by that:
In years past, every Bucs fan has been accustomed to the far off coverages that lead to easy first downs. Even last year, there were many occasions in which a Bucs corner played too far off a receiver and gave up an easy first.
On this play in particular, the same can be said. This was a 3rd and 7, but Carlton Davis III begins this play at the 25, which is beyond where the Saints have to reach to gain a first down here.
Davis III knows that only seven yards separate Thomas from picking up a first down, but instead he gives Thomas eight. This looks like “Stubbie”, which is a form of box coverage. If it is in fact “Stubbie”, then Davis is actually supposed to press his assignment at the line of scrimmage. But, Bowles could’ve told him to line up off of Thomas —we don’t know for sure. Regardless, if the Bucs corners are able to recognize these sorts of scenarios and are able bring their coverage a bit closer then it will be a lot harder to convert in these situations.
This is definitely something that the Bucs could take advantage of this upcoming week, and something that they can definitely take advantage of all season long. By playing routes shorter, there is a lot less room to pick up easy firsts with curls and hooks.
When it comes down to it, the Bucs will have to play almost mistake free to beat a fantastic Saints team. Their offense will have to adjust quickly to whatever coverage the Saints throw at them, and I do mean quicker than waiting until the second half.
Their defense will have to slow down Thomas, and they will most definitely have to play routes much closer, no matter who is running them.
All in all, the Saints won’t drop deep bombs on Tampa Bay all game long, meaning that the Bucs will have to defend the underneath routes just as well as they do deep.
On offense, if they are able to take advantage of the deep coverage by running comeback routes, curls, crosses, and safety-splitting posts, they may be able to muster up a few deep completions, which would only lead to good things for their offense.
Additionally, if they are able to adjust their coverages slightly, they should be able to at least slow down the great Michael Thomas and stop the consistent third down conversions.
Only time will tell how they play this Sunday, but by doing some of the things I have shown here, they have a good chance to slow down this potent Saints offense, and end the weekend at 1-0.