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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Silencing the Saints: What the Bucs can do to beat New Orleans in the Divisional Round

If there’s one team that has the Buccaneers’ number, it’s the Saints. Can this team finally overcome their largest hurdle, or will they continue to stumble?

New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman (82) catches a touchdown pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
| Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a playoff game! Normally, I would be more excited, but it came against a team they had no business losing to. In fact, if they lost, It would’ve simply been embarrassing.

Now they’re headed to the Big Easy to face off against their bitter “rivals”. I put rivals in quotes because for it to be a rivalry, it has to be competitive and it just hasn’t been as the Saints have won handily in their last five matchups.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, if the Bucs play like they did last week against the Washington Football Team, they’re going to lose horribly.

While the Buccaneers were able to put together some incredibly impressive offensive drives against one of the top defenses in the NFL, their defense looked lackluster at best against a third string quarterback.

I hate to break it to you folks, but this defense just hasn’t been very good lately. In fact, they’ve looked pretty bad. Allowing Taylor Heinicke to do what he did is inexcusable and it really raises some questions about the stubbornness of Todd Bowles.

Sure, execution is a huge part of the game, but you don’t give up the fourth highest completion percentage in the NFL through the regular season simply because of bad execution. This is a schematic issue and the only time it changed, was when the Bucs held the Packers to 10 points.

I’m really hoping that Bowles has something up his sleeve, because if he doesn’t, Sean Payton will outcoach him once again and the Bucs will need to score 40 points to come out with a win.

Now I’m not going to be all doom and gloom throughout this article, because this Buccaneers team has all the pieces in place to take down the Saints. Yet, it’s going to take a complete performance with limited mistakes to pull out a win.

Let’s dive right in to take a look at what the Bucs can do to overcome their Week Nine dud and move forward in the right direction against this Saints team.

Offense

Protect Brady

This is a pretty easy one to list here as a major key to victory, primarily because the four man pressure that the Saints got in Week Nine was a main reason for the offense’s lack of success.

Brady was under duress all day and it led to three interceptions, three sacks, numerous quarterback hits, and an overall sense of discombobulation. If Brady wasn’t Brady, the Saints would’ve picked up more than three sacks in that game too.

The entire offense was out of sorts as they couldn’t buy points in that game. I don’t think I’ve seen a team that thoroughly defeated since the Bucs lost 56-14 against Atlanta back in 2014.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that this will most likely be a shootout based on how the Bucs have been playing offensively, but if they can’t protect Brady, we’re going to see the same things we saw in Week Nine.

Like this:

I don’t care how good you are, having 1.5 seconds to throw isn’t going to allow you to do anything. That’s how long Brady has here as Joe Haeg gets absolutely obliterated by Trey Hendrickson.

Now you might be saying, “Haeg won’t play on Sunday.” To that I say, watch this:

Again, very limited time to throw because Hendrickson successfully bull-rushes Donovan Smith all the way to Pluto and swats the ball out of Brady’s hands. Luckily for the Bucs, there was holding in the secondary so this play didn’t count. Unluckily, Hendrickson had two consecutive sacks after this play which completely derailed this drive.

With Alex Cappa being out for the remainder of the season due to a fractured ankle, Aaron Stinnie will be taking his place and should be a better replacement than Haeg. However, the rest of the guys on this offensive line needs to show up like they did against Washington last week to have a chance.

While Ted Larsen was seen as a weak link once Cappa exited the field, the remainder of the line demonstrated that they have what it takes to silence one of the better defensive fronts in the league.

In the two matchups against the Saints this year, they didn’t show any of that. So we better see some come to Jesus moment when they step onto the field.

In addition to the players just needing to execute better, the shorter-intermediate passing game should help to alleviate some of the pressure and help to get the ball out faster. Yet, only time will tell how this line stands up to the fierce front four of the Saints.

Be better on third down

The Buccaneers will be coming into this game with the 11th best third down conversion rate in the league with 43.4% of their third downs being converted. However against the Saints this year, the Bucs have converted a paltry 27.3% of their third down attempts.

In their last few games, they’ve been a little better on third down. But we have to keep in mind that the teams they’ve faced have been some of the worst in the league defensively, with the exception of Washington.

What exactly has it been that has helped them on third down as of late? Well, aside from the competition, they’ve been drawing up a lot of shorter routes that end up at the sticks, instead of 15 yards beyond.

Here’s a look at that from last week:

This is a third down and three play that the Bucs scheme up pretty well. I mean, just look at all these crossing routes!

The Bucs send three receivers short over the middle, hoping that some of the middle defenders can be picked off by the other crossers. Despite none of these coming wide open until Evans reaches the numbers on the other side of the field, there is also a built in check-down option that ended up being open enough to get the first down.

When comparing the above play to this:

it’s almost night and day. This is the kind of third down play that the Bucs were running prior to the bye week. This is a third and three, yet we only see one receiver anywhere near the sticks.

While I am all for the big play, who cares about that if you can’t even pick up a first down? Combine this with the level of pressure that we saw the Saints bring and it makes even less sense.

By drawing up better third down plays that can help to pick up easy first downs, the Bucs should be much better on third down which can only result in positive things for this offense.

I am pinning all of hopes on the offense, as I just don’t see this defense limiting the Saints to less than 30 points. With better third down play-calling, I think we should see some more sustained drives, longer time of possession, and a heck of a lot more points.

Defense

Stop watching these receivers catch the ball

Alright here we go. I don’t think I’ve said one good thing about this defense so far, and that’s for good reason. They’ve ultimately regressed from their early season success and I haven’t seen them go anywhere but down since then.

While the loss of Vita Vea has really hurt them, Todd Bowles just refuses to adjust his play-calling to better suit the players left on the field.

In the Week Nine matchup, Bowles dialed up three man rushes with eight guys dropping into coverage and Brees just picked it apart play after play. You’d think we’d see some adjustments, right? Not in this game.

Just look:

What is the purpose of this? We all know that Brees is going to find an option within seconds of the snap, especially seeing as his average time to throw is about 2.6 seconds according to NFL NexGenStats.

The Saints find themselves in a second and eight in the red zone and the Bucs decide to drop into a Cover 4 look with four underneath defenders based on the three man rush. Not only will there be no pressure on Brees, but there’s going to be wide open gaps, especially seeing as Devin White has struggled all season in these zone coverages.

Even with White struggling, Brees is just better against zone coverage in general. Look at this stat from Jenna Laine:

These statistics are available to the coaching staff as well, and they have to be aware and know that Brees will pick them apart once again if they continue sitting eight yards off the ball.

Not only do we have the statistics, but we have the tape as well. Look at the Bears covering a third down against Drew Brees last week:

The Bears look to be in Cover 1 man here with the two linebackers picking up any routes that come over the middle. By the time that Brees reaches his average throw time of 2.6 seconds (where I paused it), no one is open and the pass rush starts to make an impact.

From this point on Brees is in scramble mode, which is exactly where you want an older quarterback with a weak arm to be as you know it’s going to be a lot tougher for him to Mahomes his way out of it.

While this only resulted in an incomplete pass, it did happen on a third down which ended up taking the Saints off the field. While the Bears did nothing with it, that’s no fault of the defense.

I’ve talked all season about this sit back and watch zone that Bowles loves to run...with these press man corners...and nothing has ever been done about it, so I’m going to keep talking about it until something moves in the right direction.

In terms of this soft coverage, it’s pretty apparent from the first play in this section that it doesn’t matter where they are on the field, they’re still going to run it. Red zone, middle of the field, opponent’s 20 yard line, it doesn’t matter.

Allowing Drew Brees to complete 74.6% of his passes is a recipe for disaster, especially when you get closer to the end zone. Look at the Bears falling into this trap last week:

The Bears drop into a shallow zone here, but Barkevious Mingo (50) doesn’t drop deep enough and it leaves a wide open gap for Michael Thomas to catch it and run his way into the end zone.

Right when he makes the catch, there are four defenders around him, yet not one is in position to make the play. My guess is that they were caught off guard when he didn’t run a slant.

In any case, the Bucs have to do a better job at playing to the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent rather than running whatever they want to, hoping that it’ll work. Opposing quarterbacks have completed an average of 69% of their throws on this defense, and that number is just going to go up if they don’t find a way to slow Brees and this short passing game down.

Conclusion

For the Buccaneers, this is a game where they should come in fired up and ready to silence anyone and everyone who doubted that they could go toe to toe with the New Orleans Saints (including me who doubts that they can go toe to toe with the Saints).

For the Saints, they’ll just be looking to shut up their little brother who they have beaten over and over again.

While motivation plays a factor in a player’s psyche, a “we can beat them” mindset isn’t going to get the job done. It’s going to take this, combined with a stout defensive scheme that includes pressure, man coverage, and disguises.

On offense, keeping Brady upright is the top priority. If they can do that, not only will the third downs come more easily, but they’ll actually be able to move the ball.

This is the playoffs, it’s win or go home time. Let’s see if the Bucs can show us that they’re tired of getting beat by the same team over and over and over again. It’s time to wake up from this Groundhog Day nightmare and advance to the NFC Championship.

If not, see you next season.

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