Why is it harder for quarterbacks to perform in the red zone than between the 20’s? Because the field is condensed. The defense has less space to cover. Defenders in coverage don’t have to worry as much about getting beat over the top. This means they can sit on routes. It means they can play man coverage more aggressively. In the Divisional Playoffs against the Buccaneers, Drew Brees’ inability to throw the ball downfield created an almost identical effect for the Saints’ passing game.
We wrote about how concerning Drew Brees’ inability to attack downfield was last week. If we could notice this, you can bet that Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles would be all over it. And he was.
Heading into this game, we thought Bowles would call more zone coverages and have his defenders sit on short-to-intermediate routes, dismissing the deep ball. Our thought process was that they could limit the effectiveness of the Saints’ passing game without risking a defender falling down or getting picked in coverage and giving up any cheap big plays.
While the Buccaneers did play some zone, Bowles more or less went with the no-risk-it-no-biscuit approach. He smothered Saints receivers with aggressive and tight man coverage. In fact, Tampa played man coverage on 21 of Drew Brees’ 34 pass attempts. Was Bowles worried about putting extra help defenders in coverage? Nope. He rushed 5 or more on 16 of those 21 plays (76.2%). That’s putting trust in your defensive backs to consistently win 1-on-1’s.
The approach clearly worked. Against man coverage, Brees completed 10 of 21 passes for just 87 yards (4.14 yards per attempt), a touchdown, and 2 interceptions. His first interception seemed to change the direction of the game.
Here, you can see that the Buccaneers were playing man-free coverage. Their DBs were in press-man position across the board.
At the moment right before Brees released the ball (3 seconds into the play) all 4 Saints receivers were still smothered by Buccaneers DBs, including intended receiver Michael Thomas.
The Buccaneers were physical with Saints receivers at the line, and this disrupted their ability to create quick separation. Also notice that the deep middle safety, Jordan Whitehead, did not gain any depth at the snap. He aligned at 16 yards from the line of scrimmage and never dropped deeper. Again, they weren’t afraid of the deep ball. Tampa was also able to get just enough pressure on this play to force Brees to throw from an off-balanced position, which only added to the diminished velocity and accuracy on his pass. The result was a game-changing play.
When it was all said and done, not one of Brees’ 34 pass attempts traveled more than 18 yards from the line of scrimmage. 26 of his 34 passes (76.5%) traveled 10 yards or less from the line of scrimmage. 21 of 34 passes (61.8%) traveled 5 yards or less from the line of scrimmage. As long as Jameis Winston wasn’t on the field, the Buccaneers Defense knew they did not have to worry about getting beat with passes over the top. The Saints were left with a condensed and ineffective passing game. This resulted in a lot of contested throws, short completions, limited yards after the catch, and 4 turnovers.
Sean Payton tried to use smoke and mirrors to manufacture plays downfield for Brees. The below play was designed to attack Tampa’s man coverage using lots of pre-snap motion. The Buccaneers were all over it, though.
First, focus on the formation. The Saints had 3 tight ends aligned in a tight bunch formation to the right, and running back Alvin Kamara to the left. Linebacker Devin White aligned over Kamara initially, an indicator of man coverage. Then Kamara motioned to the backfield.
With Kamara now aligned to the 3-receiver side, Tampa was put into a dilemma. Kamara was the furthest inside receiver. If he was planning on running a wheel route to the outside (which he was), Devin White would have a difficult time fighting through traffic to stay with him.
On the outside, it looked like, cornerback Carlton Davis was responsible for tight end Jared Cook and safety Jordan Whitehead was responsible for Josh Hill, the #2 inside tight end.
So linebacker Lavonte David appeared to make an adjustment after Kamara’s motion. He and White would play the releases of Kamara and the inside #3 tight end, Adam Trautman. David would take the outside release, and White would take the inside release.
But then Payton had Hill (Whitehead’s man initially) motion back to the other side of the formation. This again forced the Buccaneers to adjust their assignments. I’m guessing that Payton was hoping Whitehead would go with Hill, forcing a linebacker to stay with Kamara. But instead of Whitehead following his man across the formation (which he looked to do at first), Lavonte David called for Devin White to kick out and take Hill.
Now, it was David and Whitehead who would play the inside and outside releases of Kamara and tight end Adam Trautman.
If you’re keeping track, that’s 3 different ways the Buccaneers were forced to match up with Kamara in the span of a few seconds pre-snap (White, White/David, David/Whitehead). The Saints were hoping for a mismatch on a linebacker, a miscommunication, or general confusion to generate a big play. The Buccaneers, once again, were all over it and accounted for the routes beautifully.
Kamara’s wheel was taken away by Whitehead, and Tampa’s 5-man pressure got home quick enough to force Brees to throw the ball away. That’s great execution by the Buccaneers Defense, but it also took tremendous communication. The ability to adjust on the fly like that is a credit to Lavonte David, who was making all of the calls, and Todd Bowles for the way he clearly had this defense prepared.
The Buccaneers didn’t get any sacks on Drew Brees, but as you could see on the two plays above, they did get enough pressure to make him uncomfortable and force some key mistakes. Brees’ 2nd INT of the day all but won the game for the Buccaneers, and it was the pass rush that saved the day for Tampa on this play.
The Bucs were in quarters coverage here. The route combination of the two tight ends at the top of the screen was designed to split the cornerback and safety, which it did. This left an opening for Alvin Kamara down the seam.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, Kamara was a bit held up in the backfield. The pass rush also made Brees uncomfortable enough that he had to get rid of the ball a hair earlier than he wanted to. You can see that this play had touchdown written all over it if Brees put that throw over the top.
Maybe if Kamara was able to get out of the backfield cleaner and quicker, the type of throw Brees needed to make would have been defined earlier. Instead, Brees was caught in between and tried to force a quick, hard throw that Devin White was able to pick off.
From the end zone angle, you can see the inside pressure created by William Gholston (#92) and Ndamukong Suh (#93) that was closing on Brees. That seemed to make him rush his decision-making and the throw itself.
Four plays later, Tampa had a 2-possession lead and the game was all but over.
Yes, the Saints were impacted by injuries and absences up and down their offensive lineup. But the Buccaneers had a great approach. Considering Tampa’s offense could not generate any touchdowns on drives that started in their own territory, it’s a tribute to Todd Bowles’ unit that the Buccaneers were able to advance. Their task will be much tougher this week, though, against a balanced Packers Offense and a quarterback who can attack all areas of the field.