Any Given Sunday

The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Buccaneers over Saints

by Rivers McCown

Regression analysis is at the heart of a lot of what we do at Football Outsiders. So when a defense jumps from 31st in defensive DVOA to eighth, the year after that you can generally expect a bit of a step back. We've certainly spent a lot of the offseason defending the projection system's aggressive regression for the Jaguars, one of its most controversial calls in the eyes of football observers.

However, the DVOA projections didn't see much of a slip-up coming from the Saints. They ranked ninth in defense in the projections we ran before the season. The 2017 Saints defense had a lot going right for it. Marcus Lattimore delivered one of the most-acclaimed defensive rookie seasons of all-time. Cameron Jordan was named first-team All-Pro. They also, as we detailed in FOA 2018, had the lowest missed tackle percentage in the NFL. There were reasons to believe that the Saints were snake-bit by fumble luck (they recovered just 33 percent of all fumbles last season), and given that New Orleans also had the second-youngest defense in the NFL, a lot of the underlying figures pointed to stabilization rather than regression.

It is, again, somewhat instructive to look back at Scott Kacsmar's chapter in the book and realize that the Saints did a lot of their best defensive work in an eight-game winning streak from Weeks 3 to 10. The best quarterbacks they faced during that stretch were Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton. Also appearing were Jay Cutler, Brett Hundley, the John Fox version of Mitch Trubisky, half a game each of Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and half a game each of Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman. Freed from that stretch, the Saints were a bit more topsy-turvy as a defense in the second half of the season. From Weeks 3 to 10, the Saints had an average game score of -26.5% DVOA. From Week 11 on, that dipped to -2.4%.

From a defensive standpoint, the main thing that stood out about New Orleans in their first game of 2018 was their inability to get much pressure on Fizpatrick, and the fact that when they did create some, it usually wound up as a negative play.

The New Orleans defense leaned heavily towards man coverage -- sometimes aggressively so, as we'll talk about more in a bit. When they brought pressure towards Fitzpatrick, they failed to account for him as a runner. While Fitzpatrick's rushing touchdown came on a read-option play (!!!), for the most part, his runs were undesigned. Take the play on which Tampa Bay closed the game out.

via Gfycat

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You can see Tampa Bay's Sheldon Rankins (98) elevate the right guard right out of his way, so Fitzpatrick scrambled to his left to buy some time, and then realized that ... there was nothing but green space in front of him. Third-and-11 and the Bucs were able to close out the game because New Orleans ignored Fitzpatrick's legs.

The Saints didn't really bother spying Fitz, so he was able to make some positive plays in this regard. Combine that with the zero sacks that Fitzpatrick took as compared to two roughing the passer penalties, and the New Orleans pass rush as a whole was adding almost nothing to this game. The Saints had just two quarterback hits. Neither defense really played all that well, but Tampa Bay's defense found two fumbles. The only negative plays New Orleans were able to add as a defense were two tackles for loss in the running game.

Coaching was really at the forefront of this result. This isn't to say that the Saints don't have issues, but a lot of them were somewhat exacerbated by the aggressive game plan of the staff. Putting Ken Crawley on an island against a good wide receiver wasn't the correct answer, and the Saints never seemed to adjust once the Bucs discovered this. By the time the offense hit full stride in catch-up mode, the Saints were down 41-24 and it was a little too late.

Where the Game Swung

Per EdjSports' Game Winning Chance%, these were the three biggest plays of the game:

1) +17.3% (69.4% to 87.7%) -- Justin Evans' fumble return for a touchdown with 4:38 left in the second quarter.

2) +12.3% (27.7% to 39%) -- Ryan Fitzpatrick's opening touchdown to DeSean Jackson with 9:41 left in the first quarter.

3) +7.4% (58.8% to 66.2%) -- Ryan Fitzpatrick's touchdown pass to Chris Godwin with 4:47 left in the second quarter.

The Bucs started the fourth quarter with a GWC of 98.9%, and it never dropped below 95.1%. I'll save the Fitzmagic touchdowns for a second. The scoop score by Tampa Bay safety Justin Evans, who came up with a Jonathan Williams miscue and returned it to the house, took the score from 24-17 to 31-17, setting the Saints up for a negative game script for the rest of the quarter and, ultimately, contest.

By the VOA

TEAM TOT OFF DEF ST
NO -10.4% 48.5% 55.7% -3.2%
TB -16.1% 51.0% 59.0% -8.1%

Neither team played all that well in our estimation, as you can see. The major differentiation came from two New Orleans turnovers to zero from Tampa Bay.

Otherwise, mostly even, mostly what the score would tell you. Neither team could play defense or add anything on special teams.

Ryan Fitzpatrick Makes Hay Of His Advantages

The year was 2015, and the New York Jets were the toast of the NFL. OK, OK, probably not. But they were also not a laughingstock. They went a surprising 10-6 with Fitzpatrick at quarterback, narrowly missing the playoffs. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker provided the path forward for Fitzpatrick, giving him a wide catch radius and big bodies to aim for. The Jets finished 10th in passing DVOA.

If this setup sounds a little familiar, it's because this is almost exactly the scenario Fitzpatrick has with the Bucs. Tampa Bay's skill-position talent is enviable, and this season they're adding more of FO Top Prospect Chris Godwin to the mix. Between Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Godwin, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay has an entire offense worth of weapons that fit Fitzpatrick's preferred weapon: the back-shoulder ball. Fitzpatrick has never been afraid to let his receiver go get it. That happened time and time again against the Saints on Sunday.

Here's Fitzpatrick to Evans.

via Gfycat

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Here's Fitzpatrick to Godwin for a touchdown. Given how the Saints left their corners on an island, there wasn't much to be done about either of these passes. As long as the receivers have this kind of edge in fighting for a ball, it's hard to stop.

via Gfycat

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And then, sometimes, you get a case where one of these great receivers simply dominates a cornerback. Such as Evans' touchdown catch right over Lattimore who, keep in mind, held Evans to 68 yards on 19 targets last season:

via Gfycat

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I also want to compliment Fitzpatrick's quarterback play on one particular touchdown in this game:

via Gfycat

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Notice that he freezes the safety with the head tilt, and that the corner in Cover-3 (I believe) plays the underneath out route. This gives Jackson one of the easiest scores an NFL game can have. The throw didn't even have to be good.

Fitzpatrick quietly did much the same for the Bucs last season as he did for the Jets in 2015. In three starts last season, he had a 17.3% passing DVOA. No, I didn't forget a negative sign in there.

While I think the talk of Jameis Winston losing his job is overblown, it's hard to be anything but complimentary of the fit that Jason Licht found for his talented skill-position group. The Bucs have not always kept their quarterbacks as clean as Fitzpatrick was in this game, and that may be an issue other teams can exploit going forward. But given a clean pocket and these receivers, there's not much of a reason to expect Fitzpatrick to get in this offense's way.

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