Any Given Sunday: Saints Over Buccaneers

New Orleans Saints DT Malcolm Brown
New Orleans Saints DT Malcolm Brown
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Sunday Night Football was supposed to be a showcase of two of the best teams in the NFL. Instead, it was a colossal ass-kicking. The Bucs ran the ball just five times in the game -- one of them a Blaine Gabbert kneeldown -- because they became eternally soaked in negative game scripts. Brady has climbed out of that situation before in his career, and he has also adjusted to things mid-game. The most impressive things New Orleans did on Sunday night were besting his offensive line and staying a step ahead of his adjustments.

New Orleans had both a good game plan for Brady and did a good job of holding his main targets down, and I think the most instructive way to talk about this is to use Next Gen Stats' expected yards after catch metric for receivers. On his targets, Mike Evans was expected to average 4.5 yards after the catch. That's already real low … but he actually averaged 3.2 yards after the catch, which is even worse. Antonio Brown was expected to average 2.0 yards after the catch. Rob Gronkowski? 1.8. Chris Godwin? 1.6. Among all qualified receivers in Week 9, Evans had the 28th-highest expected YAC. Each of the other three main receivers for Tampa Bay was in the bottom 17 qualified receivers of Week 9 in that metric. Then you combine that with a pocket that looked like this:

Image 1

When you combine no deep throws with a bunch of covered underneath receivers and pressure, you have a game plan that is hard for any quarterback to beat, let alone one who almost qualifies for AARP. Brady took only three sacks, but his nine quarterback hits are instructive of how he was often having to get deep into his progressions. Tampa Bay clearly missed Ali Marpet, who sat out the game with a concussion. They also clearly have a weakness at left tackle in Donovan Smith, who has always been more tools than production and was gotten a couple of times in this game, including in the midst of this three-sacks-in-a-row sequence:

This was pure four-on-five, nothing fancy, just get run right over by Trey Hendrickson. The Tampa Bay offensive line has been very good relative to expectations this year, but it's probably not a surprise that in their losses to Chicago and New Orleans, the line has not held up well in pass protection.

Ultimately, as Sean Payton told Peter King after the game: "You hope you're on the plus side of those a few times in your career. We respect them; they're a good team. But man, this was a good win for us." This felt more like a game that spiraled out of control as a result of a good game plan and a few advantages from injuries than any kind of repudiation of what the Bucs have done this year.

Where the Game Swung

Image 2

Where the Game Swung
Event Time NO GWC Before NO GWC After Difference
D.Brees to T.Smith TD 9:34 Q1 53.6% 62.6% +9.0%
J.Cook fumble in red zone 3:46 Q1 75.8% 67.4% -8.4%

This game swung so fast that there just aren't very many plays worth listing. I am legally allowed to make this joke once per Any Given Sunday season:

Image 3

By the (D)VOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
NO 49.0% -86.4% 7.3% 142.7%
TB -82.8% 19.8% -7.1% -109.7%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
NO 28.7% -81.9% 7.3% 117.9%
TB -93.6% 28.2% -7.1% -128.9%

So this game did a number on our "Tampa Bay No. 1 in DVOA" stat -- in fact, it was the biggest single-week drop we've ever recorded for a No. 1 team in Week 8 or later. Here's the company this Bucs team keeps:

Biggest Drop in DVOA from No. 1 Team, Week 8 or Later
Year Week Team W-L DVOA
Before
Rk DVOA
After
Rk Drop Game
2020 9 TB 6-3 39.3% 1 27.6% 2 -11.8% L 38-3 vs NO
2004 8 NE 6-1 38.6% 1 27.4% 4 -11.3% L 34-20 at PIT
1990 12 CHI 9-2 42.3% 1 31.0% 3 -11.2% L 41-13 at MIN
2006 9 CHI 7-1 44.3% 1 33.6% 2 -10.7% L 31-13 vs MIA
2014 9 DEN 6-2 47.6% 1 36.9% 1 -10.7% L 43-21 at NE
2019 8 NE 8-0 54.6% 1 44.4% 2 -10.2% W 27-13 vs CLE
2010 10 NYG 6-3 30.9% 1 20.9% 6 -10.0% L 33-20 vs DAL
2006 11 PHI 5-5 38.8% 1 29.2% 3 -9.7% L 31-13 vs TEN
1997 14 SF 11-2 40.4% 1 30.8% 2 -9.6% L 44-9 at KC
2007 13 NE 12-0 71.9% 1 62.5% 1 -9.5% W 27-24 at BAL

This turns out to not exactly be much of a referendum on how good these teams are. The 2004 Patriots won the Super Bowl. The 2006 Bears made the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots made the Super Bowl. The teams that did lose earlier in the playoffs than you'd like ran into Lawrence Taylor, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre in their primes. The only team on this list that missed the playoffs is the 2010 Giants, and they still finished 10-6 and lost a three-team tiebreaker to the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers.

The Saints, Our Priors, and the Little That Can Be Unknown

Before the season, it was widely expected that the Saints would be the best team in NFC, if not the NFL. We had them with the highest projected DVOA, and second in both projected offensive DVOA and projected defensive DVOA.

Life has not shaken out exactly that way for a few reasons, one of which was the lingering absence of No. 1 wide receiver Michael Thomas, who missed half the season with a high-ankle sprain, a hamstring injury, and a case of feelings gone wrong in practice. The Saints are sixth in offensive DVOA and seventh in defensive DVOA. But the funny thing is, if you look just at the raw numbers rather than the rankings, we have pretty much nailed the Saints. We projected a 16.7% offensive DVOA; the Saints are at 13.4%. We projected a -5.4% defensive DVOA; they're at -13.4%. It rolls into the team being roughly 5.0% total DVOA off on those two sections of the team this season.

But at the same time, it sure doesn't feel like the Saints are this kind of dominant team, right? I think that kind of goes hand-and-hand with our priors on them. It's well known that Drew Brees has been declining as far as arm strength goes. With Thomas out and Emmanuel Sanders both catching COVID-19 and getting acclimated to the team, this offense eventually became Alvin Kamara for several weeks. Kamara has been targeted 72 times this season. There are only a handful of backs with even half of that target total, and Kamara has turned them into 168 DYAR and a 29.0% DVOA while the rest of those backs have struggled to do much with the work.

So ultimately, even as they kick around the Bucs with a bunch of good sight-adjustments and a balanced full-field passing game, what I come up with from studying the Saints is that there's not a lot that has changed so far. Maybe having Kamara and Thomas and Sanders together will make it harder for defenses to key in and disrupt the main focal point of their passing game. Here's our first look at how that turned out:

New Orleans Receiving Stats in Week 9 vs. Tampa Bay
Name DYAR DVOA Tgts Yds Catch%
Adam Trautman 23 107.6% 3 39 100%
Emmanuel Sanders 22 42.5% 5 38 80%
Deonte Harris 20 238.4% 1 40 100%
Michael Thomas 14 15.5% 6 51 83%
Josh Hill 13 72.1% 2 14 100%
Tre'Quan Smith 11 68.1% 2 14 50%
Taysom Hill 8 202.0% 1 21 100%
Michael Burton 7 119.2% 1 12 100%
Marquez Callaway -1 -16.9% 2 11 100%
Jared Cook -9 -53.5% 3 30 67%
Latavius Murray -11 -86.1% 2 3 100%
Alvin Kamara -14 -67.7% 6 9 83%

Kamara was mostly held in check -- not totally a surprise because the Bucs have one of the best middle linebacker combinations in the NFL -- and the added attention on Thomas helped the bit players, while Sanders was a first-down machine.

The hope for the Saints is that between those three players, they're able to attract enough eyeballs to either win decisively with their role players or be able to attack the weaknesses underneath. We know what happens when Brees is forced to try to go to one-on-one deep balls. We also know that it is a big reason why the Saints have come up short on their quest to add to their Super Bowl tally the last few seasons. What we have only begun to see is what happens when a healthy Thomas, Sanders, and Kamara are all on the field at the same time.

Comments

17 comments, Last at 11 Nov 2020, 2:20pm

1 Correction needed - the…

Correction needed - the Saints didn't have a bye last week, so they had no more preparation time than normal.

3 Agreed

They beat CHI in the late-game time slot in OT, while the Bucs played on MNF. Does the extra day make a big difference? The Saints were even on the road for both games, so that didn't help them either.

11 Yes, but...

In reply to by Joseph

Yes, but it was the Bears* they were playing. So the Defense basically did have an extra week to prepare for Brady and the Bucs.

 

*I say this as a Bears fan

4 ah yes, 2006

One of those "DVOA inexplicably loves the Eagles" seasons.  We had our suspicions that Tanier hacked the code, IIRC.  

6 2006 DVOA leaders

Not only that, but both were NFC teams that lost by identical scores to AFC teams.

The Bears, obviously, were in the throes of Good/Bad Rex. Not sure what was up with the Eagles.

5 Patriots wins

I see the Pats were the only team to make this list in spite of winning their games, and they managed to do so twice.

The 2007 game was relatively famous.  The Ravens were one of the few teams to really put up a fight against the Pats that season.  The only had three regular season games where they won be less than 7 points: the big game vs. the Colts, this game vs. Baltimore, and the surprising season-ending game versus the Giants.  Of course their DVOA was so high at the time that an ordinary win could cause a big drop in DVOA.

The 2019 game was more recent.  Last year the Pats were cruising along with a great DVOA for defense, but the Browns were a bad team and I guess they were supposed to shut them out.  

 

7 Pats wins dropping their DVOA

In reply to by RickD

Also, looking at the chart, they had the highest DVOA of the teams that dropped by so much. Esp. in the 2007 year, they were probably going to come back to earth just a little bit because playing that much better than everyone else is so hard to do for every game all season long.

 

14 AJ Feeley

In reply to by RickD

You're forgetting one other close game for the 2007 Pats - the week before the Monday Night win over Baltimore they beat Philly, with AJ Feeley starting, 31-28.

So weird to think the Pats nearly escaped losing two weeks in a row to back-up QBs.

9 Everybody has been desperate…

Everybody has been desperate to stick a fork in Drew Brees, but he's now up to 3rd in DYAR and 4th in DVOA. And that's without Michael Thomas. Ho hum. 

12 Eye Test

I think that's a fallacy of the eye test. I think people underestimate how effective an efficient offense is. It won't look sexy but if you gain 4 yards every play you're basically unbeatable. Stay ahead of the sticks and just keep the ball moving.

16 Efficient offense

In reply to by Neffarias_Bredd

I will say this as a lifetime Saints fan--my concern with the offense is the over-reliance on consistently gaining those 4-5 yards. It's nice to have long drives to tire out the opposing defense, and give the Saints' D a rest. But you have to account for an offensive penalty, sack, TFL, etc. Those negative plays tend to doom drives--a good offense overcomes them more often than a bad offense does (duh). My hope is that those medium length passes (10-20 air yards) come back more now that Thomas and Sanders are both healthy. Brees is really good at them, and IMO, those gains have big YAC potential--the receiver should already be behind the LB's/underneath defenders. My other opinion is that opposing defenses this year have not needed to focus on anybody deep, since they seem to be clear-out routes for other plays underneath. But if you have Thomas running medium depth routes, the defense has to account for him that it opens other things up for everyone else.