The Tampa Bay Buccaneers get a third crack at the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night when they visit the Louisiana Superdome for an NFC Divisional Round playoff game. The Saints won both meetings during the regular season and gave Tampa Bay its only two losses by more than three points this year. How can the Bucs reverse their 2020 fortunes against the New Orleans? Let's take a look at how the Buccaneers' offense matches up with the Saints' defense. Later in the week, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali will examine the matchup between the Saints' offense and Tampa Bay's defense.
In those two regular-season meetings, the Saints allowed the Bucs an average of 13.0 points per game and, in Week Nine, held Tampa Bay's offense to just 194 yards, the team's lowest total of the season and one of just two times it failed to crack 300 yards. The Bucs' per-play averages of 4.8 yards in Week One and 4.2 yards in Week Nine were easily their two lowest marks of the season. New Orleans' defense accounted for six of the 21 sacks suffered by Tom Brady and five of the 12 interceptions he threw.
Indeed, the Saints' defense was good against almost all of its opponents in 2020, ranking fourth in yards allowed, tied for fifth in points allowed, fourth in interception rate and sixth in interceptions. Is that daunting for the Buccaneers as they prepare for Round Three. Well, consider that they just hung 507 yards and 31 points on a Washington defense that ranked higher than New Orleans in all those categories except interception rate, where it was one spot behind the Saints. The Buccaneers offense clearly demonstrated that it could put up big numbers against a stingy defense led by a ferocious pass rush. Now they just need to show they can do so against this defense.
The Buccaneers were red hot in the final month of the season on offense and didn't slow down in Washington, with the exception of some unexpected red zone struggles. Since returning from its Week 13 bye, and including the game in Washington, the Buccaneers have averaged 35.8 points and an incredible 459.8 yards per game. Since their disappointing 38-3 Sunday night loss to the Saints, he Bucs have not been held below 24 points.
At the center of all this is Tom Brady, the most accomplished postseason quarterback of all time. Brady's first playoff game as a Buccaneer – and his 42nd overall – was just what the franchise was hoping to see when they made the incredibly bold move to sign him as a free agent in March. He threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns and was not intercepted as the Bucs beat the Football Team, 31-23. Since the bye week, Brady has completed 65.9% of his passes for 1,714 yards, 14 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 121.7. At times, he and the Buccaneers' offense has appeared unstoppable down the stretch; 25 of the last 35 drives engineered by Brady have resulted in scores, and three of the other 10 were kneel-downs to end a game.
What do the Buccaneers need to do to approach that level of success against a Saints' defense that has had its number? Well, it starts up front, just like it did last week. The Bucs did allow three sacks against Washington's star-studded defensive front but gave Brady good protection on the majority of his 43 drop-backs. The Saints, meanwhile, only sacked mobile Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky once and hit him three times in their Wild Card win over Chicago. That was after they racked up 44 sacks during the regular season and ranked sixth in sacks-per-pass-attempt (8.08%).
The Saints' pass rush can come at opponents in waves, with five different players who had at least 4.0 sacks in 2020. However, their lower output against Chicago might have had something to do with the absence of 2020 breakout star Trey Hendrickson, who was out with a neck injury. Hendrickson led the team with 13.5 sacks, tying Aaron Donald for second in the NFL in that category. Three of those 13.5 sacks came against the Buccaneers.
Each side of the trenches has an injury issue coming into Sunday's game. Obviously, the Saints hope to have Hendrickson back in action to give them that complementary force opposite superstar Cameron Jordan. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are likely to be without right guard Alex Cappa, the third-year player who quietly had an outstanding season on a line that was playing its best football in the season's final month. Cappa suffered a fractured ankle in Washington and will be replaced by Aaron Stinnie, who will be making his first NFL start.
The best part of this matchup between the two lines for the Buccaneers may be at right tackle, where rookie Tristan Wirfs stepped right in and played at a Pro Bowl level the entire season. Wirfs was credited with allowing just one sack during the entire regular season, and it wasn't by Jordan, who did not have a sack in either game against the Buccaneers. Jordan primarily lines up on the left end of the Saints' front, which would make him Wirfs' responsibility on a lot of snaps. If Hendrickson can play, he would see a lot of left tackle Donovan Smith, who did a very good job of keeping NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young at bay on Saturday.
"He's a talented, talented guy," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of his veteran left tackle. "I thought he blocked Chase Young as good as anybody's blocked him all year. We need that same level of intensity out of him this week."
Roaming behind the Saints' front is rangy off-ball linebacker Demario Davis. Davis broke out with an All-Pro season in 2019 and then basically duplicated his output in 2020, but without the same recognition. Davis had 111 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and nine QB hits last year, then came back with 119 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 12 QB hits this season. Of his 119 tackles, 71 came on running plays and he is a key cog in the Saints' fourth-ranked run defense.
The Buccaneers will likely try much harder to get their run game going against Davis and company after they had to abandon it very early in the Week Nine loss. They may have to do so once again without lead back Ronald Jones, who sat out in Washington after aggravating a quad injury. As the Divisional Round week began, Arians was not yet sure if Jones would be ready by Sunday. In that case, the Buccaneers will once again lean on Leonard Fournette, who had 132 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in Washington. Finding more balance and protecting the football is the key to performing better in Round Three against the Saints, according to Arians.
"It's mostly been the turnovers," he said. "The turnover margin has been lopsided in their favor. We've got to protect the football much better. If you stay balanced – the game here we left the running game early – just stay balanced and don't turn the ball over. I keep going back to the turnovers, but when we've played them these last two years we've turned the ball over too many times and given them too many opportunities. If we don't turn the ball over it's a different ballgame."
The Bucs ran for 142 yards in Washington, which was their third-highest total of the season and their best since Week 10. They won't necessarily hit that mark again in New Orleans but Arians often stresses that the important thing is having an effective running game. The Buccaneers are clearly a passing team loaded with receiving talent, and a good ground game only serves to unlock that more. Brady hit seven passes of 20 or more yards in Washington, as an example.
The Saints' secondary benefits from the frequent pressure applied by the front but also holds up its end of the complementary rush-and-coverage bargain. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins made a triumphant return to New Orleans in 2020 after years in Philadelphia and racked up 2.5 sacks and three interceptions to go with his 91 tackles. Jenkins' wealth of experience makes him hard for opposing quarterback to fool and it also allows the Saints' staff to move him all over the field. His pre-snap location heat map by NFL Next Gen Stats show an incredible variety of positioning, though he has clearly spent a lot of time very close to the line of scrimmage.
As always, the individual matchup between Mike Evans and Saints corner Marshon Lattimore will be spotlighted. The Bucs didn't do much of anything on offense in Week Nine but Evans did have 64 yards on four catches. He was held to one catch for a two-yard touchdown in the season opener. Both Lattimore and Evans have their share of wins in the rivalry, with Evans most notably going for 233 yards and a touchdown in the two meetings in 2018.
Where the Bucs' offense matches up a little differently with the Saints defense than it did two months ago is in its three-receiver packages and overall wideout depth. Antonio Brown had just joined the Buccaneers days earlier when the Saints came to town in Week Nine, and he was limited to three catches for 31 yards. Brown has steadily regained the form that made him one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers during the last decade, and he's now much more involved in the offense. Brown has scored five touchdowns in the Bucs' last four games.
"He's back up to his normal playing speed," said Arians. "He's making plays. He's a different threat for us."
Both teams are different than they were two months ago – the Saints, for instance, now have Michael Thomas back – but they are also very familiar with each other. Arians said the success of the Bucs' offense against a strong Saints defense will come down to some of the same individual battles we've seen before.
"I think it depends when you play them," said Arians of a team trying to beat another team three times in a season. "If it's September and October, a lot of things change in a season. Players are in, players are out, injuries, all those types of things. The familiarity with the players – Marshon Lattimore knows Mike Evans. Who's going to win that battle? The same thing with Tristan Wirfs and Cam Jordan – it comes down to one-on-one battles of guys that know each other. Whose going to make the game-changing plays in this game?"