Among the matchups that looked good for the home team heading into Tampa Bay's game against New Orleans on Sunday night was the Buccaneers' offensive line against the Saints' defensive front. The Buccaneers came into the weekend with the NFL's best rate of sacks allowed per pass play (3.02%), while the Saints' pass rush was down at 19th in the same category on defense (6.32%). The Saints have some very talented defensive linemen but the pass rush results hadn't been as good as the year before, in part due to a rash of injuries up front.
In the end, however, that matchup tilted in favor of the visiting Saints and that was one of the reasons they were able to leave Raymond James Stadium with a shocking 9-0 whitewash of their division rivals. To say a shutout on Sunday night was unexpected is an understatement; the Buccaneers came into the game leading in the NFL in scoring and Tom Brady hadn't personally played in a shutout loss since 2006.
New Orleans pulled it off with suffocating defense, largely man-to-man, and that was aided immensely by the fact that the Saints didn't have to send extra pass-rushers in order to put pressure on Brady.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Saints only brought extra pass-rushers on six of Brady's 52 dropbacks Sunday night. On five of those snaps, they only employed three pass-rushers, leaving 41 dropbacks on which the Bucs' blockers faced exactly four players trying to get to Brady. Of those 41 four-man rushes, 11 resulted in pressure on Brady and four resulted in sacks. All four of those sacks came on third downs, thus ending Buccaneer drives.
Those 11 pressures resulted in a pressure rate of 26.8%, easily the highest rate any opposing defense has been able to generate against the Buccaneers on four-man rushes this season. In none of the other 13 games did the opposition even exceed a 20.0% pressure rate under those circumstances, and no other team had gotten more than two sacks on non-blitzes against Tampa Bay all season.
Those four sacks weren't the only bad outcomes for Brady and the Buccaneers on those non-blitz pass rushes. Brady only completed 18 of the 37 passes that he got off against them (48.6%) for 154 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. That produces a passer rating of 48.7, which is by far Brady's worst against any team on four-man rushes all season. His previous low was 64.0 in a Week Four win at New Orleans; in six of those other 13 games his passer rating in that situation was above 100.
Obviously, there were other factors on Sunday night that led to the Buccaneers' offensive shutdown, most notably the rapid-fire losses of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette to injuries. Godwin, in particular, was the Bucs' most effective weapon before he sustained a torn ACL early in the second quarter, with six catches for 49 yards in that brief amount of playing time. The Bucs' young replacement receivers had difficulty getting separation on their routes which forced Brady to hold onto the ball a bit longer than usual. That particular effect wasn't outrageous; Brady's average time to throw against the Saints was 2.55 seconds, which was his third-highest such mark in any game but was only a bit higher than his full-season average of 2.50.
But the pressure definitely made a difference. Overall, Brady was pressured on 25.0% of his dropbacks on Sunday night. Only the Miami Dolphins, in a Week Five Bucs win, got to him more often with a 30.2% pressure rate. Overall this season, Brady has only been pressured on 15.6% of his dropbacks. But again, crucially, the Saints did this without blitzing. New Orleans only brought extra rushers 11.5% of the time, which is the second-lowest blitz figure for any of the Bucs' opposing defenses this year. Working hand in hand was that aforementioned Saints coverage, which was stellar throughout the night and forced Brady to try some very difficult throws. Of his 48 passes against the Saints, 25.0% were deemed to be thrown into "tight windows." That's the second-highest tight-window percentage for Brady in any game this season and close to double his overall percentage of 14.0% on the year.
When coaches say that rush and coverage go hand in hand, this is what they mean. And when the first half of that equation can be achieved with only four pass-rushers, the second half is going to have a much easier time providing that blanket coverage. It certainly worked for New Orleans on Sunday night.