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NFL: NOV 08 Saints at Buccaneers

Three crucial questions the Bucs must answer during the Divisional Round of the playoffs

A familiar foe awaits the Bucs in Round 2 of the postseason.

It’s Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees for the third time this season.
| Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to beat the Washington Football Team last weekend, culminating in the Bucs’ first playoff win since the 2002 season.

While that’s good and all, the Bucs will face a completely different opponent this week in the Saints. Overall, the Bucs were good enough against Washington, but they’re going to need to be better if they want to beat the Saints.

Can the Bucs avoid the mistakes that plagued them during Super Wild Card Weekend?

Overall, the Bucs played pretty well. But there were some glaring mistakes that really set them back in a few areas.

It’s impossible to start anywhere else other than Chris Godwin. One could certainly make a case that this was one of his worst games as a pro, even if he finished with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. Per Pro Football Focus, Godwin had six drops over the course of four years and 342 targets coming into the game. PFF marked him with five drops in the Washington matchup on 11 targets, alone. That’s a 1.8% drop rate over four years compared to a 45% drop rate in one game.

Wild Card Weekend featured an obviously uncharacteristic performance from Godwin, who has some of the best hands in the entire NFL. It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong from this standpoint. Some of the drops put the Bucs in bad spots, too. One drop forced the Bucs to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown (to be fair, Ronald Darby did have good coverage, but still) and another was on a 2nd and 7 that put the Bucs in a 3rd and 7. Mike Evans was able to bail the offense out on said third down, but that’s not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s fumble was another crucial mistake. Not only do want you to avoid turning the ball over in the playoffs, but Washington was able to make the Bucs pay by scoring a touchdown on the subsequent drive. The Bucs can’t afford to give out free points in the playoffs, especially to a team like the Saints.

And then let’s not forget about the busted coverages, either. Carlton Davis III blew his assignment on Cam Sim’s 36-yard reception that helped Washington convert a 3rd and 6. Sims could’ve had about a 34-yard reception on Washington’s first drive of the game thanks to a blown coverage by Jordan Whitehead, but he couldn’t hang on to the ball.

Trust me, I get it. This is the game of football and nothing is perfect. If you’re looking for week-in/week-out perfection then you’re just setting yourself up for trouble. But you can’t make these type of mistakes in the playoffs, where inches equal miles. And you certainly can’t make these type of mistakes against a team like the Saints.

The overwhelming majority of Tampa Bay’s roster had zero postseason experience before last week’s game. There’s a good chance a lot of this could have been nerves, but that’s obviously speculation.

Regardless of cause, Tampa Bay needs to limit the bad decisions and mistakes this weekend or else you can bet money that the Bucs’ 2020 season will end in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Can the secondary hold up its end of the bargain?

This will be the key to the game, I assure you.

In Week 1, the Bucs held Drew Brees to a season-low 189 passing yards, his second-lowest completion rate, and third-lowest touchdown mark on the year. These numbers exclude the 49ers game, where he played less than 50% of the team’s offensive snaps due to the rib injury he suffered in the game.

Things were a lot different for the Saints passing game in Week 9. Brees went off, completing 81% of his passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns.

Brees carved the Bucs up and that’s because Todd Bowles decided to run a zone-heavy scheme in Week 9. Per Sports Info Solutions, Bowles ran either Cover 0, Cover 1, or Cover 2 Man on 47% of Brees’ dropbacks compared to running either Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, Cover 6, or Tampa 2 on 31% of his dropbacks in Week 1. 30% of Brees’ dropbacks against zone coverage also came up during 3rd and 7+ situations, which makes sense. On 3rd and long, you want to keep everything in front of you and Brees doesn’t really have the arm to beat you deep on a regular basis, so there’s not too much of a threat in that regard.

But in Week 9, Bowles ran either C2, C3, C4, C6, or Tampa 2 on 70% of Brees’ dropbacks. On the other hand, the Bucs were in C0, C1, or C2 Man just 24% of the time.

As a result, Brees went from averaging -0.14 EPA/att and a 35.5% positive play rate in Week 1 to a 0.08 EPA/att and 57.6% positive play rate in Week 9.

“The game plan today was to try to play more zone and get our front four home,” Bruce Arians said after the Week 9 loss to the Saints. As a whole, Brees averages 0.1 EPA/att and a 51% positive play rate when facing C0, C1, and Man C2 compared to 0.2 EPA/att and a 53.9% positive play rate when facing C2, C3, C4, C6, or Tampa 2.

It’s pretty clear that man coverage is more effective against Brees and the Saints offense. A lot of that is because their offense depends on timing and rhythm to be effective. Man coverage usually means a more physical style of coverage, which can disrupt said timing and rhythm. Whether or not you have the horses to run man is a completely different conversation, though, and is certainly part of the equation when it comes to what coverage a defensive coordinator wants to deploy.

One would think the Bucs learned from their mistakes in Week 9. Arians even alluded to how the Saints ate up the Bears’ zone coverage during their Wild Card matchup earlier in the week, so you’d think the Bucs will be more inclined to run more man coverage this weekend.

NFL: AUG 23 Preseason - Browns at Buccaneers
Todd Bowles needs to mix it up on Sunday night.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“You can get your hands up and maybe bat some balls around, but I thought the Bears did a really good job of containing him [Brees] other than that first drive where they played all that zone,” Arians told reporters on Monday.

But whether the Bucs decide to run more man or more zone, it doesn’t really matter as long as the secondary doesn’t execute, which is something I discussed in the first section of this post. At the end of the day, Davis and co. are going to have to be up to the challenge of stopping Brees and the Saints passing attack.

Can the offensive line hold up without Alex Cappa in the starting lineup?

Cappa showed tremendous growth in his third year, but his first half against Washington was not very good. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to make up for it because a fractured ankle late in the second quarter forced him out of the game and the rest of the playoffs.

Per PFF, the Bucs right guard allowed two pressures in the first half after averaging just 1.68 per game throughout the regular season. He was given a 38.7 grade in pass protection and a 49.7 grade in run blocking. The former was 2020’s second-lowest grade in that regard while the latter registered as his fourth-lowest mark of 2020 in that regard.

Despite Cappa’s struggles, the Bucs still managed to score 18 first half points and averaged 7.4 yards per play against a Washington defense that allowed the second-lowest yards per play (4.9) during the regular season. Per Football Outsiders, Tampa Bay’s offense registered an offensive DVOA mark of 17.7%, which would have represented the fifth-best offense and the sixth-best weighted offense during the regular season. In other words, the Bucs offense played to the equivalent of a top-5 offense in the first half.

The second half was even better for the Bucs offense. They registered an offensive DVOA mark of 22.2%, which would’ve represented the fourth-best offense and the fifth-best weighted offense during the regular season.

But these high marks don’t happen without Brady at quarterback, which is why the Bucs need to limit the hits on him as much as possible. That didn’t happen in the second half. Washington hit Brady six times and registered two sacks in the second half compared to just one sack and one hit in the first half.

That will be the question this week: Was the second half a sign of things to come without Cappa in the lineup or was Ted Larsen —his replacement— not suited to do the job, which is why Aaron Stinnie will start this week?

The Bucs can’t let Brady get beat up in this game. Not only would it limit the offense, but it also presents the obvious potential for injury, which no one wants to see.

Whatever the answer is, the Bucs better figure it out quick and make sure it’s a viable one because this Saints front seven can be just as good as Washington’s.

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