Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

by Ned Macey

The Saints were the class of the NFC South in 2006, and most everyone assumed they would be the class of the division in 2007. One oddball system seemed to think the Saints would struggle -- ours. Our DVOA projections had the Saints in last place in the NFC South and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in first. After Sunday's thumping of the Saints in Tampa Bay, this wacky projection suddenly appears right on target. When the Week 2 DVOA ratings come out later today, the New Orleans Saints will rank in last place.

The Katrina-stricken season of 2005 obviously had too much weight in these projections, and all the writers at Football Outsiders rejected the system's numbers. Of the 16 people making predictions, 15 predicted the Saints would win the division, with the lone dissenter choosing the Panthers. Not one person had the temerity to pick the Buccaneers to even earn a Wild Card in the inept NFC. (Meanwhile 11 FO staffers, including yours truly, jumped at the overly-optimistic Jaguars prediction and put them in the playoffs in the ultra-competitive AFC.)

Still, as the first two weeks showed, the projection system was not off merely because of an over-reliance on 2005 data. First and foremost was the Saints' aberrant performance on third down a season ago. Their third-down offensive DVOA ranked third in the league at 30.1%. Their overall offensive DVOA ranked fifth at 13.4%. So far this season, they have converted a not-so-special 14 of 33 third down opportunities. Failure to convert on third down not only stalls those drives but prevents the Saints from developing any offensive rhythm.

Secondly, the successful 2006 Saints were also not a complete team. Their defense was mediocre and prone to allowing big plays. One weakness the Saints tried to address in the off-season was their weak secondary. The Saints lured restricted free agent Jason David from Indianapolis to replace the charred remains of Fred Thomas. After two games, David has made Thomas appear medium rare. In truth, however, Sunday's debacle was hardly David's fault. This loss exposed the weakness of the Saints' safeties.

The lack of quality safety play is another glaring problem that was not properly addressed in the off-season. Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper both appear more comfortable near the line of scrimmage than deep in coverage. The Saints' solution to this problem was adding Kevin Kaesviharn, who hardly dominated while a member of the Bengals. The results have been disastrous for the Saints. Jeff Garcia only completed 10 passes against New Orleans, but five went for at least 24 yards. Joey Galloway exploited Bullocks on his second touchdown and beat Harper for a 41-yard reception.

Allowing the big play is not a new phenomenon for New Orleans. The problem is that now the Saints fail to counter them with big plays of their own. Drew Brees averaged a completion of at least 20 yards once every nine attempts in 2006. This year he has only three such completions in 85 attempts. All three have come when the Saints were already trailing by at least 20 points.

The obvious common denominator between the Saints' two opponents, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, is the Tampa-2 defense. Add in last year's debacle in the NFC Championship game against Chicago, and you start to see a trend. This development is not entirely new. The Buccaneers frustrated the Saints in their first meeting a season ago. Brees had no 20-yard completions, but the Saints stole the game with a Reggie Bush punt return.

The Buccaneers learned the importance of holding the passing game in check during the teams' second encounter. Deuce McAllister ran wild in the first game, so Tampa Bay eliminated him in the second match-up. The tradeoff, however, was a pair of touchdowns over 40 yards to Devery Henderson in a 31-14 romp. The two-deep zone effectively eliminates the speedy Henderson from the game. Still not a refined route runner, Henderson has caught only three passes through two games this season for a total of 34 yards. A season ago, Henderson averaged 23.3 yards per catch.

Henderson's failure to provide a reliable second option opposite Marques Colston raises questions about the decision to part with long-time receiver Joe Horn. The aging wideout battled injuries last season and was released in the off-season. The Saints were actually a better offense last year in the games Horn missed.

Nonetheless, another reliable receiver would be extremely helpful. Without Horn, the Saints' second most reliable wide receiver becomes David Patten, who has not caught more than 44 balls since 2002. Presumably Bush fills the de facto role of second receiver, but teams always play nickel when he is on the field, negating the massive advantage he has on linebackers.

Of course the solution for a team to overcome a two-deep zone is a heavy dose of power running. The Saints have a power runner in McAllister, but due to early deficits and his time-share arrangement with Bush, he has only 20 carries through two games. In those 20 carries, however, he has 87 yards. Bush in 22 carries has only 65 yards. Sadly, Bush has reverted to his early 2006 form of dancing in the backfield.

While New Orleans' struggles are generating all the headlines, the other side of the coin was the prediction that Tampa Bay would win the division. Crucial to that prediction of improvement was an experienced quarterback in Jeff Garcia. The veteran probably received too much praise for his play in Philadelphia a year ago, but he actually is an ideal fit for Tampa Bay.

Almost all of Garcia's success has been in a version in the West Coast offense which Jon Gruden still runs. Equally importantly, the Buccaneers had abysmal quarterback play a season ago. Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski were among the five least productive quarterbacks in football. Even when Garcia was surrounded by mediocre talent in Cleveland and Detroit, he never approached those levels of futility, and adding mere competence to the position provides Tampa Bay with a boost.

Equally important for the offense has been Gruden's decision to use the shotgun formation. Garcia has always preferred the shotgun and excelled out of the quarterback-friendly formation on Sunday. Garcia completed four of seven passes for 131 yards out of the shotgun. Increased time in the pocket is particularly important when your best receiver is Joey Galloway. The 35-year-old receiver remains an excellent deep threat and somehow dominated the Saints while making only four catches.

The Tampa Bay offense still has limitations. Ike Hilliard, the "young" starting receiver, is hardly a reliable second option at this stage in his career, and the young offensive line was getting little push on Sunday. If the Buccaneers are going to make a run at the NFC South, they will need a defense as productive as the one that took the field on Sunday. The Buccaneers defense was below-average for the first time in the DVOA era last season but was still a top-10 unit as recently as 2005.

Many of the big names are gone, but the Buccaneers still have talent and an excellent coordinator in Monte Kiffin. The Buccaneers are working in young players along a deep defensive line rotation, but the strength on Sunday was the linebackers. Barrett Ruud has emerged as an excellent run stuffer at middle linebacker, and the venerable Derrick Brooks still has gas in his tank.

Most surprising on Sunday was the quality play of Cato June and Phillip Buchanon. Both players have often been whipping boys of writers at Football Outsiders. In Tampa Bay, however, they are allowed to play to their strengths. June is one of the top coverage linebackers in football. The Bucs funnel running plays toward Ruud and Brooks and let June do what he does best, play coverage. He rewarded them with an interception on Sunday. Buchanon has been abused in man-to-man coverage over the years, but he played well in zone coverage Sunday, exhibiting excellent closing speed.

After the win, the Bucs' projection suddenly does not seem so startling. They have a long history of above-average defenses, and Garcia could spearhead a slightly below-average offense. That spells an average team, which in the NFC can add up to nine wins in a heartbeat. Tampa Bay is still unlikely to be "good" in the conventional sense, but they may be in the playoff hunt well into December, something only a computer could have predicted.

For New Orleans, the good news is that the rest of their division has serious question marks. Perhaps Carolina is the cream of the crop, but the whipping at the hand of the Texans and an uneven history the past few seasons make them far from certain. Our super-optimistic projection of Tampa Bay has them winning about nine games. And after two weeks of the Bobby Petrino era, the Falcons appear much more likely to be in the Brian Brohm sweepstakes than the playoffs.

The Saints have a number of quality players on offense and the defensive line and are arguably still the favorites in the division after the horrendous start. The new coaching regime surprised opposing teams a season ago, but they need to respond to opposing teams' adjustments. They have only one member of the secondary who can reliably cover opposing wide receivers, yet they rarely play safe zones. Their offense relies far too often on the big play when they also have the personnel for a power-running game.

Sean Payton deservedly won the NFL Coach of the Year award last season. If he cannot straighten out this offense, however, he will join an illustrious list of one-year wonder coaches who also won the award. We're talking coaching luminaries such as Dick Jauron, Jim Haslett, Dom Capers, Ray Rhodes, and Lindy Infante. Everything broke Payton's way a season ago, and this year, he will need to coax further improvement out of a talented offense and shore up a porous defense to return to the playoffs.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.


37 comments, Last at 20 Sep 2007, 2:27pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

New Orleans is looking very much like a Cinderella season...I was stupid to go against DVOA in our Football Pool when I picked a Saints victory over the Bay team.

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Brees is overthrowing his receivers - consistently. I sat through this dismal game and couldn't work out why. The line still gives him some time. It's always hard to see on tv, but the receivers don't look to have been shut down completely. Sure, they miss Horn, and the TE spot is still a question mark, but as you say teams stay in the nickel and the Saints don't seem to adapt.

I hardly saw them last year but they had all the makings of a one-year wonder and I'm shocked at how few pundits looked elsewhere in this admittedly gruesome division.

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Tampa (uncertain at QB beyond this season) beats New Orleans (presumably set at QB beyond this season)? The Brian Brohm to Atlanta Committee approves this win.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

I wanted to get the opinion of commenters and FO staff, if possible, on the following question:

-Which QB has the better chance of turning it around this season, after 2 awful games (for both): Drew Brees or Donovan McNabb?

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Very insightful and interesting.

Question for your DVOA stat guys:

Do you have a statistic or way to evaluate the relationship between the number of third down plays (successful or not) and the yardage or points scored on a given drive?

In other words, you rely on the inconsistency of third down efficiency in your calculations. Have you tried tying the degree (or lack thereof) of third down plays and points scored?

For example:

New England's first drive of its Sunday Night game had only one third down, and that was the TD pass to Watson.

How many third downs it takes to get a score would by definition not always be a great indicator (after all, if you are winning late you play to take more time than gain more yards) but I still think it would be an interesting statistic.

Notably, do teams that use less third down plays per scoring (or yardage-eating) drives generally have better offenses, more points, and more wins, year in year out, or not?

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Payton simply needs to pound the ball. He's the new Martz, trying to 'prove' what a genius he is on close to every offensive play-call.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

6: Yes, teams that face a low percentage of third downs per play, IE, teams that convert a lot of first and second downs into first downs or touchdowns generally have very good offenses.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Which QB has the better chance of turning it around this season, after 2 awful games (for both): Drew Brees or Donovan McNabb?

McNabb, for two reasons:

1. The Eagles are a better team overall, especially on defense.

2. McNabb looks as if his delivery is still affected by last season's leg injury. (Specifically, he's missing his throws high. His usual M.O. is to throw the ball a bit low, to minimize interception chances.) That has a better chance to improve that Brees's trouble, which is pressure right up the middle on him.

10 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

It was painful watching the Saints game. (I was flipping to it when Colts/Titans was on commercial.)

Every time I changed the channel, either Tampa Bay was abusing Bush, or Brees was overthrowing his receivers on third down. U-G-L-Y.

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Re: 4/9

I tend to agree with #9. As I mentioned in the Quick Reads thread, I think McNabb may be following the Carson Palmer road to recovery. As I remember it Palmer had some fairly weak (for him) games at the start of last year after a similar injury.

This doesn't support my thinking (of course there's much more involved in winning/losing than QB play), but I saw it during my morning browsing and thought it interesting.

"McNabb has lost six of his last seven starts and is 9-12 since the Eagles lost the Super Bowl to New England in January 2005."

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Put Garcia and Galloway on the Vikings, and you are looking at an 11 to 12 win team. Childress' failure to get Garcia when he left the Lions, and stick with Brad Johnson, may end up being the mistake that ends his head coaching career.

13 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Watching the game, it seemed more often than not that Brees was having uncharacteristic problems, and not that it was anything the Bucs defense was doing in particular. Perhaps a little premature, but have any QBs had a career path of being really bad to start, then turned in a few relatively great years, and then regressing closer to their earlier career? Jake Plummer comes to mind, though his "getting better" phase directly coincided with switching teams, so I don't know.

I was just thinking about how bad Brees used to be, and was wondering: I know some bad QBs never get good, and don't last long in the league or become career backups, but historically has there been any QBs who got better but couldn't continue playing at that level? Or do all good QBs make that first step, and then continue to develop and progress from there until the tail end of their careers?

Again, it's only two games, so it could be something completely different (like the cover-2 defense) that's causing it, but thought I'd bring it up here.

14 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

One important factor that went unmentioned here was that June often replaced Brooks on third down. This accounts for both playing to June's strengths and keeping Brooks fresh.

15 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Also of note is that New Orleans troubles with cover two are a recent development. The Saints have traditionally owned Tampa. They even swept them the year they won the Super Bowl.

18 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Childress’ failure to get Garcia when he left the Lions, and stick with Brad Johnson, may end up being the mistake that ends his head coaching career.

Will, did anybody really think that Garcia had anything left in the tank at that point, though? At that point, there really wasn't anything to indicate that Garcia was any better than Johnson, and I really can't see him doing anything in MN with the receivers they have now. (Also, would Tampa have let Galloway go?)

19 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints


How has Michael Clayton been performing this season for the Bucs? Still give them a chance to win SB XLII?

Go EAGLES!!!!!!!!!

20 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Also of note is that New Orleans troubles with cover two are a recent development. The Saints have traditionally owned Tampa. They even swept them the year they won the Super Bowl.

I think the point is that their matchup problems seems to be a characteristic of Payton's offense.

21 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

I still have to question their first round draft decision. Maybe Meacham was the best player available, I don't know. But for a team that was hoping to contend this year and had serious defensive issues, I really can't rationalize taking a receiver in the first round. It's obvious they need a legit #2 option, but Meacham won't be that for at least another year.

I am a huge Devery fan because I just love to watch him down the field, but it was apparent in the Colts game he just disappears in games if counted on every passing situation. Even already, they have to be eyeing the waiver wire and potential trade options already for a veteran receiver. In the meantime, maybe it's time to line up Bush at receiver more often. That seemed to jumpstart him last year when he was having trouble running the ball.

22 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

15 - "owned" is a little strong. The Bucs lost 2 last year, swept the Saints in '05, split in '04, and '03, lost 2 in 2002, but beat them in 1999 and 2001.

23 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

re: 15, again. In fact, the only time in the Tampa-2 era Bucs, that I can recall the Saints O thriving (prior to last year in Ray-Jay) was the opener in 2002, where the Bucs D didn't wake up until late in the game.

Aaron Brooks sometimes had some big throws against the Bucs D, but more than made up for it by getting sacked and throwing picks constantly.

24 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

George, I wasn't trying to say that Galloway was available, but only that a receiver who is not seen as elite, but is still a good professional, would make a huge difference for the Vikings. It was meant to be more of a commentary on just how horrible the Vikings wrs are. Regarding Garcia, yes, hindsight is 20-20, and I certainly was not advocating that Johnson be dumped for Garcia at the time, but there is no doubt that Garcia was seen as much more mobile than Johnson, which is a pretty important element to the offense that Childress favors, and there certainly was no reason to favor Johnson on the basis of arm strength. I guess I mostly meant that the difference between 6 or 7 wins, and 11 or 12, can rest on some pretty small differences in personnel. It wasn't like I was suggesting that the Vikings only needed to have Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

25 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

I wonder if they won't move Bush to WR full time at some point. He's a guy who needs to play 'in space,' and you get a lot more space to work with playing WR then at RB. His RB skillset leaves a lot to be desired

27 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

The Saints are suffering from a couple of things right now.

1) Horn being gone leaves Colston up against the better cover corner on every down. This was not the case last year.

2) There is no second receiver on the squad that is as good as Colston was last year.

3)They still haven't realized that Reggie Bush is a slot receiver and not an NFL running back. Judging by what I have seen that USCs Offensive line does to opposing defensive lines, Aaron Stecker could have put up numbers like Reggie's in college.

4) The left side of the line really isn't playing as well as they should at the moment. I can't remember which one, but, one of them missed the entire preseason with an injury and still seems to be getting over it.

5) Devery Henderson has poor hands. He has ever since he made it to the NFL. He wasn't exactly stellar at LSU either. His advantage has always been his speed after the catch, but, if he can't catch it, he can't run at all with it.

On the defensive side of things, it just seems to be more of the same. Zero adjustments for what happens during the game. Not much penetration into the offensive backfield. Corners getting burned. Safeties that might as well not even be there.

I was hoping that the Saints would have at least some hope for this season, but, it just doesn't look good at this point. Its not Notre Dame or anything, yet, but, it sure smells like it.

Next week against the Titans is going to be painful to watch in every way.

28 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

To the fan who said TB didnt do anything different on D.
They were. After the game Monte Kiffin even stated he adjusted the look of the cover 2 and it did confuse Brees.
Just like the Indy game if you change the look of the C2 it will drive Qbs bonkers. Also the Bucs were really deivering some bigtime hits in that game. They got NO attention real quick with some early hitting.

29 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

But for a team that was hoping to contend this year and had serious defensive issues, I really can’t rationalize taking a receiver in the first round.

That sentence would apply perfectly to the Indianapolis Colts, but nobody really criticized their decision. Not saying I disagree with you, but there are other teams that do stuff like that and still contend.

30 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

#29: The Saints offense is not the Colts offense. Not even close.

The Colts offense is unprecedented - the Saints were the #1 offense by yards last year, but not if you look at it on a drive-by-drive basis - Colts opponents shortened the game massively (mostly due to the porous run defense), and so it deflated the cumulative numbers.

Attempting to sustain probably the best offense in NFL history at the cost of the defense is probably not a bad idea. Attempting to sustain a very good offense at the expense of the defense is not nearly as good.

Short answer: "yes, but the Saints don't have Peyton Manning."

31 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

The Saints offense is not the Colts offense. Not even close.

I know, that's why I said that I didn't disagree with him. Still, on the flip side, the Colts defense is not the Saints defense. The Colts were 27th last year, while the Saints were 19th. Obviously it's not such a huge gap as that between their offenses, but still.

The Colts offense is unprecedented
Short answer: “yes, but the Saints don’t have Peyton Manning.�

True, but maybe the Saints figured they could eventually build an offense with a similar strength, or at least get their defense up to average, and have a similarly strong team. I don't think that that's a particularly good idea, but it might have been their reasoning.

I guess it just shows how dominant Peyton Manning is:

His team can draft a WR with a first round pick despite having a bottom 5 defense that lost a bunch of starters, and an offense that's already stacked with first round talent, and nobody even blinks.

32 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

For some reason, there is nothing, but nothing in the world which trips my schadenfreude receptors like Reggie Bush doing badly. If it turns out that the Saints used the #2 pick on the second coming of Antwaan Randle El while everyone and his dog slated the Texans for passing on him, I will laugh. Hard.

As to the Saints vs. Colts defense, I think this illustrates the dangers of looking at only a 1-year trend. Sure, the Saints were better in 2006, but in 2005 they ranked 25th and Indy 8th, and in 2004 the figures were 27th and 19th. It was always likely that the 2007 versions would rebound towards pre-2006 performance from that outlier year, and the projection system presumably knew this.

33 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

#31: I guess it just shows how dominant Peyton Manning is:

Yes, exactly. Very much so. The Colts defense was bad, but it wasn't unprecedentedly bad, so "ungodly amazing + bad = great". Even adding in the below average special teams wasn't enough to make them that bad.

I mean, yeah, maybe they thought they could make another Indy, but that idea is simply crazy. Manning makes Indy go. Brees isn't Manning. Therefore you can't clone Indy. Period.

34 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

#29-#33 I was thinking the same thing, but Indy has been doing that shit for years--back when they drafted Reggie Wayne (6 yrs ago?) and Dallas Clark. Then they trade out of the 1st round in two years to pick Doss and Sanders for the D in the 2nd rounds. Was there no Defensive 1st round talent available? I guess none that fit. Rob Morris, Freeney, and Marlin Jackson have been their only D 1st round picks in the last decade-plus, and they have "needed" D help in most people's eyes every year. I criticized the Wayne pick way back when and questioned the Clark pick (as did most pundits I suspect) but it has worked so well that everybody praised the Gonzalez pick. Success buys you a little slack.

(and for the record, they traded away next year's #1 for a #2 this year to pick Ugoh, so make that at least 11 years and maybe more that they only took 3 defensive 1st rounders.

Hell, let me see if I can do this by memory starting in 1996, Colt's 1st round picks with DEFENSE in caps: Harrison, Glenn, Manning, James, MORRIS, Wayne, FREENEY, Clark, blank, JACKSON, blank, Gonzalez. I could dig farther back, but you get the idea. They made a committment to building around Ryan Leaf and making him, er, I mean, that Manning fellow, and giving him what he needed. I suspect the comments above are right in that he's a once-in-a-generation (or lifetime) talent, making it impossible to clone the system. I think Palmer/Cincy could probably mimic this and pull it off with Rudi and Chad and their supporting cast, except their D ends up in jail instead of ranked #32.

35 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Round 1 defensive talent, or those prospects masquerading as such, went out early last spring. There were 9 straight D-picks from 13 thru 21. Lynch, Quinn and Bowe were the only O-picks between 10 and 26; that's 3 of 17.

The Saints drafted 27th. There were 4 D-picks in the next 19; of those (Branch, Poz, Weddle and Houston), only Poz would bring immediate help. LB Woodley, Harris and Durant went together in the mid-40s; CB Wright and Wilson in the 50s.

The Saints coulda/shoulda moved back but, again, with the exception of Poz and Wright it's doubtful they could have gotten any immediate help. Rookie starters are not abundant at 1.27, especially scarce in a year when most saw 19, 20 R1 worthy prospects.

Better to judge their pick, Meachum, a couple seasons out. IMO, the prime mistake the Saints' braintrust made was mistaking Jason David for a NFL quality starting CB. FA, not the draft, is the place to find plug-in starters.


As noted above, Indy has as 2 homegrown R1 picks starting on D; same is so for New Orleans, Grant and Smith. Add here: that defensive powerhouse Pittsburgh, Hampton and Polamalu.

36 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

Not to hijack the thread, but since you mentioned Pittsburgh and defense --

True enough that you may need to sign the occasional UFA or RFA to find starters on defense, and the Steelers have two of those (Farrior and Clark) to go along with the two first-rounders mentioned above (Polamalu and Hampton).

But the real way to build lasting depth and groom starters on defense is by drafting well and letting players grow and develop in the system. The other 7 starters on this year's Steeler defense include 6 second-day Steeler draft picks and 1 former street free agent in James Harrison.

37 Re: Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

I projected the Saints to loose their 1st 2 but come back due to the weak division. Of course that was based in part on Jeff Garcia not being able to stay healthy for 33 games in a row.
I'll stand by that - for now