How Should the Buccaneers Defense Approach the Saints This Time?

Todd Bowles’ natural inclination is to play man coverage and blitz on every down. But in Week 9 against the Saints, he chose to play it a little differently. The Buccaneers played zone on 19 of Drew Brees’ 23 first-half passes. The results were disastrous. Brees carved Tampa Bay up, going 16-19 for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns against zone on the way to a 31-point first half. But do those Week 9 results mean Bowles should take an entirely different approach in the Divisional round this weekend?

It’s understandable that Bowles hasn’t been too crazy about wanting to play lots of man coverage against the Saints. Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders, and some of New Orleans’ lesser-known weapons are not easy to match up to. So where does that leave Tampa’s defense as it braces for its third matchup of the season against the Saints? It’s not like Drew Brees can’t perform against zone coverage. Tampa learned this lesson in Week 9.

However, the zip missing on Brees’ fastball is a very real thing. It was already declining before he broke multiple ribs. Since returning, he has struggled to get velocity on his throws. This has limited the Saints’ ability to attack at the intermediate and deep levels against zone, as we wrote the other day.

Still, in the first half of their last game vs. Tampa (when it was actually still a game), Brees was able to complete 7 of 8 passes for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns on balls thrown 10 yards or more from the line of scrimmage against zone. One large reason for this was that Tampa’s defenders at the third level honored the deep ball a little too much, especially given Brees’ inability to push the ball downfield. This created huge windows at the intermediate level.

The below plays are great examples. Focus on the deep middle safety, Antoine Winfield, Jr. (playing cover-3).

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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That’s a little too much cushion, and Winfield was a bit too slow to react. This is especially true given that the Saints had 2 tight ends, Taysom Hill, and a running back on the field. That’s not exactly a personnel grouping likely to attack over the top.

Below is another example. Again, focus on Winfield, who was playing quarters coverage. He started 14 yards from the line of scrimmage at the snap and dropped to 20 before breaking on Michael Thomas’s 14-yard dig route.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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Again, that’s a little too much cushion. Contrast that with Bears Safety Tashaun Gipson in last week’s Wild Card game against the Saints. On the below example, Gipson was playing quarters coverage against an in-breaking route from Thomas, similar to the play above. Only Gipson started 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and dropped to 16 before breaking on Thomas’s route.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

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Not only was Gipson playing shallower, but you can see in his body language that he was not worried about gaining depth. Instead, he was waiting to break on Thomas’s route. A few yards and a half second less time to close can make a huge difference.

I’m not saying that Winfield necessarily played it wrong on the two examples above. I am saying that he and the rest of the Buccaneers secondary should play it differently against a compromised Drew Brees. They should play flatter and be ready to jump any of those intermediate routes.

The Saints will, of course, have a trick or two up their sleeve. They’ll find a way to try and manufacture some shots downfield. In fact, that’s predominantly when Drew Brees goes downfield these days. In that first half of their last matchup, he only attempted one throw of more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. That came on a designed shot – a fake WR screen where Tampa defenders jumped the screen, leaving a wide-open receiver in the back of the end zone.

The Buccaneers should not be afraid to play lots of zone against the Saints on Sunday. They are a fast defense that should be able to limit yards after the catch. But they can’t be too protective of deep passes and allow Brees to take advantage at the intermediate level. They need to condense the defense, sit on routes, and even take a few chances jumping routes. Otherwise, round 3 of this matchup will look a lot like the first two.

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