Any Given Sunday: Saints Over Buccaneers
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:
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:
Trey Hendrickson szn pic.twitter.com/iFX9VlGceE
— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) November 10, 2020
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
|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:
By the (D)VOA
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|
|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|
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.