The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New Orleans in an NFC Divisional Playoff match on Sunday, 30-20, and if it does prove to be the last game for Saints quarterback Drew Brees it will be far from the most productive of his sublime career. The Buccaneers held Brees to 134 yards and one touchdown on 19-of-34 passing and gave him his first three-interception game since 2016.
The Buccaneers started the game in a nickel package with cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting on the field, and in fact stayed in the nickel for 41 of the 60 plays on defense. Both Murphy-Bunting and Dean would miss some time during the game due to injuries, with fourth corner Ross Cockrell filling in more than ably, but it was that young trio of 2018 and 2019 Day Two draft picks that were the key in keeping Brees in check.
Murphy-Bunting, of course, had the game's first interception, which he returned to the Saints' three-yard line in the second quarter to set up a touchdown and the Bucs' first lead of the game. He was credited with two passes defensed in the game, while Davis and Dean got one pass break-up each. More importantly, they were stingy in coverage all day.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, all three of those young corners allowed 16 or fewer receiving yards on the evening when the player they were covering was targeted by Brees. Here's how Next Gen broke it down for each corner:
· Carlton Davis, a second-round draft pick in 2018, allowed one reception for 16 yards. The average separation from the players he was covering when they were targeted was 1.1 yards.
· Jamel Dean, a third-round pick in 2019, allowed two receptions for 17 yards. The average separation from the players he was covering when they were targeted was 1.7 yards.
· Sean Murphy-Bunting, a second-round pick in 2019, allowed three receptions for seven yards and had an interception. The average separation from the players he was covering when they were targeted was 2.1 yards.
That combination of coverage from the Bucs' top corners helped hold Saints wideout Michael Thomas to zero catches for the first time in 70 career NFL games, postseason included. Emmanuel Sanders caught six passes but averaged just 8.0 yards per reception. The Saints' only completion of more than 20 yards was a 56-yard Jameis Winston-to-Tre'Quan Smith touchdown on a trick play that got Smith wide open with no defenders within 10 yards of him. Otherwise, a 16-yard catch by Sanders was the longest play for the Saints' passing attack on Sunday.
View some of the most crucial moments from the Buccaneers-Saints Divisional Round matchup in picture form.
Speaking of Buccaneer defensive backs, safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., who was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team on Tuesday, turned in perhaps the single biggest play of the game for the eventual victors. With five minutes left in the third quarter, the Saints had a 20-13 lead and the ball near midfield. On third-and-two, Brees completed an eight-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook over the middle. Winfield came up to make the tackle and in the process punched at the ball, knocking it out of Cook's grasp. Inside linebacker Devin White caught it on a bounce and returned it to the Saints' 40, setting up a game-tying touchdown drive for the Bucs.
According to the Next Gen Stats win probability chart, the takeaway came at a very important time. Prior to that play, the Buccaneers had a 20% chance of winning the game, which was the lowest odds they hit in the entire game. Immediately after it, the Bucs' odds jumped all the way up to 34%, and by the time Leonard Fournette caught a six-yard touchdown pass to finish the ensuing drive, it was at 48%. The Buccaneers wouldn't get over 50% for good until rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson made an incredible spinning catch for 15 yards on third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter, but Winfield's timely strip set the comeback in motion.