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Magic Number Seven

Posted Nov 2, 2011

Wednesday Notes: Tampa Bay’s defense knows it is tough to contain Drew Brees’ passing yardage, but they aim to hold him under seven yards per attempt


Fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers remember fondly their team’s 2009 trip to the Superdome, which resulted in an upset of epic proportions.  The Buccaneers, 2-12 before that game, defeated the 13-1 Saints, 20-17, on a 47-yard Connor Barth field goal in overtime.

 

What many may not remember about that afternoon, however, is that the Saints came within a few feet of winning the game in regulation.  Kicker Garrett Hartley lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt with nine seconds left, but his line drive kick veered left about halfway to its destination and ended up curving just outside the left upright.

Had Hartley hit that kick from just a few yards closer, it would have gone in despite its late turn.  One play earlier, quarterback Drew Brees had put Hartley in comfortable range by hitting wide receiver Robert Meachem over the middle for a 19-yard gain down to the 19.  Would the Bucs still have won if Meachem had gotten down to, say, the 14-yard line?

 

Perhaps not, and for a couple of reasons.  According to Jimmy Lake’s favorite stat indicator when it comes to the Saints and their ridiculously prolific quarterback, a few more yards would have tipped the balance in the home team’s favor.  As it was, Brees racked up 258 yards on 37 passes, which works out to an average of 6.97 yards per pass.  Sure, one could round that up to a clean seven yards per pass (and those aforementioned extra five yards would have put it over seven), but perhaps it was symbolically important that Brees fell just short.

 

According to Lake, it’s not how many yards Brees throws for overall that should worry his opponents, but how many yards he gets per throw.

 

“Really, we have to look at the average per pass because he probably is going to throw for 300 yards,” said Lake of Brees, who rather incredibly has thrown for 295 yards per game during his six years in New Orleans.  “But if his average per pass is below seven, then that’s okay.  If it’s above that, then we’ve got issues.  They put the ball up in the air so many times that he’s bound to get his yards.  At the end of the day, hopefully the New Orleans Saints have fewer points than we do.  That’s really the only stat that matters.”

 

The seven-yards-per-pass threshold isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; it doesn’t hold up for every outcome between the Bucs and Saints since Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006.  In fact, Brees threw for 8.5 yards per pass just three weeks ago in the Bucs’ 26-20 win at Raymond James Stadium.  But it has held for a majority of the meetings.

 

For instance, Tampa Bay allowed Brees 8.2 yards per toss in a Saints win in Tampa in 2010, but just 5.2 per throw in a Bucs win in New Orleans later in the year.  In 2008, Brees guided the Saints to a 24-20 win in the Superdome to start the season, picking up 10.7 yards per pass, but was held to 6.3 later in the  year in Tampa and the Bucs won, 23-20.  The Bucs did win a 2007 game in which they allowed Brees to pick up 7.8 yards per throw, but they held him to 5.9 in sweeping the series later that season in New Orleans.

 

Lake is following the lead of his head coach when focusing on yards per attempt with Brees.  Morris said repeatedly before the first Bucs-Saints game of 2011 that he fully expected the New Orleans passer to end up with more than 300 passing yards.  In fact, Brees got 383 to set an NFL record with his fourth straight game of 350 or more.  He crossed the seven-yards-per-pass threshold against the Bucs but, importantly, was also picked off four times.

 

“The secret is to get turnovers,” said Morris, though of course that’s not really a secret and he knows it. “You have to get those. Anytime we’ve even gotten close to winning or had a competitive game with them, we’ve had a couple of turnovers. But when he’s rolling, he’s rolling, and when he’s hot, he’s hot. I told you guys, he’s going to throw for 300 yards. The Rams did a great job last week of stopping them. I don’t know how. You can look at tape all you want and try to mimic that, but that’ll be hard to do again against Drew Brees. He’s a great player, and it’s less likely that he’ll throw for 200 and 300. When you throw that many times, as many times as he does…you’re going to have some picks, but he’s certainly less afraid of throwing picks, and he’s more concerned with getting wins because that’s the kind of guy he is.”

 

Winless coming into last Sunday’s game in St. Louis, the Rams surprised the Saints with a 31-21 upset win.  The Rams’ defense picked Brees off twice but they were also the first team this year to hold him to fewer than seven yards per pass attempt (6.1).  Each of the last four times Brees has been held below that threshold, dating back to early in 2010, the Saints have lost.  In his entire career, which includes five seasons in San Diego, Brees’ teams are 55-24 when he throws for seven yards or more per attempt, and 29-38 when he is below that mark.

 

Of course, knowing the goal and meeting it are two different things.  Again, the Bucs did not hold Brees to the prescribed mark three weeks ago, but still came away with the win thanks to a heavy turnover advantage.  They will likely have to succeed in one or both of those categories again in order to get the season sweep and take over first place in the division on Sunday.  Lake knows that Brees isn’t going to make it easy on them.

 

“They’re going to want revenge a little bit, I would think,” said Lake.  “Drew Brees probably didn’t think he played his best game, so I’m sure they’re going to come out with maybe a little bit different game plan and try to defeat what we did to them. And we’ll do a lot of the similar things we did but we’ll also have some new wrinkles for these guys.  They’re going to have some game plan where they’re going to try to cut our throat so we always have to come up with new things to try to change it up for them.”

 

**

 

Eco, Logical

 

When the Buccaneers got word during the spring that Andrew Economos had ruptured an Achilles tendon during an off-site workout with several teammates, they knew they had work to do.  Once the NFL’s work stoppage ended in July, they set about finding a new player to handle their long-snapping duties, something “Eco” had done for them so well since 2007.

 

What the Bucs did not do is look for a long-term replacement.  The new collective bargaining agreement was struck in July, about a week before the start of training camp, and that gave Tampa Bay’s medical staff its first chance to get a look at Economos’ injured heel.  The team quickly realized that Economos would not be lost for the entire 2011 season, and they planned accordingly.

 

The Buccaneers signed rookie long-snapper Christian Yount out of UCLA and put Economos on the reserve/physically unable to perform list to start the season.  A player who starts the season on the PUP list must sit out at least the first six weeks of the season, after which his team gets a 21-day window in which to observe him on the practice field before choosing whether or not to add him back to the 53-man roster.

 

The Buccaneers are seven games into their season, and the 21 days began ticking on Economos during the team’s trip to London.  Last week, as Buc players enjoyed their bye week, Yount was released, making it clear that Economos would be resuming his role as the long-snapper.  He had not yet been activated from the exempt list as of Wednesday, but that is obviously expected before the team’s trip to New Orleans this weekend.

 

According to Economos, that was the plan all along, and he is grateful for how straightforward and trusting the team has been in its execution of that plan.

 

“I can’t say enough about that,” said the Georgia Tech product.  “They never once let me think that I was not going to be here.  Once they could talk to me, [after] the lockout, and they figured out what was going on and how I was doing…when I came back I was a lot better off than they might have thought.  So we talked about it, got together and planned it, and here we are.”

 

Economos suffered his injury during a simple shuffling drill.  As is often the case – and as the Bucs unfortunately witnessed two weeks ago with Earnest Graham – it happened without any contact.  Rather, the tendon tore on a simple plant and go.  Fortunately for Economos, it ruptured almost exactly at the tendon’s midway point, which is the best-case scenario for this injury.  Tears nearer to the heel or calf muscle are more difficult to repair.  With Kevlar sutures and a hamstring tendon intertwined with his own Achilles like a rope, that part of his body is actually sturdier than ever.

 

“It’s going to be three times stronger than the other one,” said Economos with a chuckle.  “It feels great.  I’m just happy to be back.”

 

The switch from Economos to Yount is an indication of how strongly the Buccaneers believe in the skills of their incumbent long-snapper.  Yount performed quite well, handling all punt and placekick snaps for seven games without any incident, and may very well have a lengthy NFL career of his own.  Economos was impressed with his younger teammate, but he’s obviously pleased to have recovered his job.  Given the seriousness of his injury and the fact that it happened during the work stoppage, the whole process could hardly have gone more smoothly.

 

“I feel like we’ve had a great relationship since I’ve been here,” said Economos of his time with the Buccaneers, which actually began with a three-game stint in 2006.  “I guess it’s a trust thing.  Christian did an amazing job – I can’t say enough about his attitude about the whole thing.  He and I got along real well.  They let him know from Day One what the situation was, so they handled it well in that case.  I think it’s just a trust thing.  They know what I bring to the table.”

 

**

 

Off to a Good Start

 

Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn leads the Buccaneers with 3.0 sacks through the first seven games of the season, and his team-high 14 QB pressures indicate that he’s been close to several more.  At the moment, Clayborn ranks fourth among NFL rookies in the league’s sack table.  Here are the top five:

 

Player

Pos.

Team

Sacks

1. Aldon Smith

LB

San Francisco

6.5

2. Von Miller

LB

Denver

6.0

3. Marcell Dareus

DT

Buffalo

3.5

4t. Adrian Clayborn

DE

Tampa Bay

3.0

4t. Karl Klug

DT

Tennessee

3.0

 

Smith and Miller both play linebacker, the former in a 3-4 front in San Fran and the latter in Denver’s 4-3.  Dareus and Klug are defensive tackles; Dareus is listed in some spots as an end but he plays inside in Buffalo’s 3-4 and was recently moved to nose tackle.  Thus, Clayborn leads all rookie defensive ends in sacks so far.

 

“The rush has been going pretty good,” said the former Iowa star who went 20th overall to the Buccaneers back in April.  “I think every game’s been going a little bit better, just getting more comfortable with playing.  As each game goes on I kind of relax and just play out there and have fun, instead of worrying about things like my technique.  I can just go out there and play because I’m comfortable in the defense.”

 

Clayborn was one of 12 defensive linemen taken in the opening round in April, as the 2011 class was considered particularly strong at that position.  Obviously, many of those players are being used in manners different than Clayborn’s specific role as a 4-3 defensive end, so straight-up comparisons can be a bit difficult.  Still, it’s clear that the Bucs’ rookie is among the early standouts in that class, and he thinks that will continue throughout the 2011 campaign.

 

“The season is going well for me but I set high expectations for myself,” said Clayborn.  “I have nine games left, plus hopefully more, to get better.”

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