Photos of the Saints' starters via team depth chart.
Drew Brees's first season as a starter in the NFL was 2002, and the ninth game he played that season for the San Diego Chargers was against the St. Louis Rams. That was also Lovie Smith's second season as the Rams' defensive coordinator.
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St. Louis, coming off a Super Bowl appearance but in the midst of a 7-9 campaign in '02, won the game, 28-24, as Brees completed 12 of 20 passes for 139 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Brees wouldn't face another Lovie Smith defense for four more years, and by that time he was in New Orleans and in the process of putting together a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The next such meeting came in the 2006 NFC Championship Game in Chicago, with Smith now the Bears' head coach. Chicago won, 39-14, though Brees threw for 254 yards and two scores against one interception. New Orleans would have to wait a few more years before their own (successful) shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
In all, Brees has faced a team for which Smith was either the defensive coordinator or head coach on seven occasions, including the playoffs. He lost the first four but has won the last three, including both meetings between the Saints and Smith's Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. He has thrown for over 300 yards in three of those games and recorded at least two touchdown passes in five of them, but he's also been picked off at least twice in five of the seven games. His totals in those seven games include 1,967 yards (281.0 per game), 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 75.6 passer rating.
In the course of 15 seasons and more than 7,500 passes, Brees has seen just about everything the NFL has to offer, and he's certainly seen enough of Lovie Smith's defenses to know what to expect. One thing he knows better than the average fan is that it's far too simplistic to call the Buccaneers' defense a "Cover Two."
"If you broke it down statistically it ends up being about one-third, one-third – one-third Tampa-2, one-third single-high safety zone and a third man-to-man," said Brees on Wednesday, as his Saints prepared for a Week Two visit by the Bucs to the Superdome. "I'm sure they self-scout and they try to keep it even. They try to disguise it at times and do different things, all of the good defense do."
The Bucs' still do identify as a Cover Two team, perhaps most importantly in the philosophy of trying to limit big plays, a difficult but necessary thing to do against Brees. Smith's defenses have also been very good at forcing turnovers through the years (2001-03 in St. Louis, 2004-12 in Chicago, 2014-15 in Tampa), an area in which they excelled against the Saints last year. In each of those two games, both narrow New Orleans victories, Brees was picked off three times.
Tampa Bay's defense got off to a rocky start against Tennessee in Week One, allowing five touchdowns (a sixth was scored by the Titans defense) and recording just one takeaway. Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota tossed four touchdown passes, and as that would suggest, there were some breakdowns in coverage. But Brees is not expecting the Bucs to make it easy for him on Sunday.
"I know this, I feel like I've been going up against Lovie Smith defenses for a long time and they are always very, very well-coached, very well-disciplined," he said. "Some of the things you know he's teaching very, very well. They pretty much invented the Tampa Two defense 'back when,' and their ability to take the ball away and do certain things has always been a great strength of the defense."
The Cover Two defense is sometimes labeled as simple, but that's misleading, particularly because the traditional two-safety set for which the defense is named is only part of what the Buccaneers do. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton knows as well as Brees does that you can't go into a game against Tampa Bay with a game plan designed only to beat the Cover Two. Sometimes you need a bit of time within the game to diagnose what the defense is doing and adjust accordingly.
"Typically good defenses have certain things they want to do and do well," said Payton. "The key offensively is quickly understanding the defense, how to handle the force patterns, how to handle the movement. Dating back to when Lovie was at St. Louis, they were playing [Tampa Two defense] as well as anyone. And I think the one thing oftentimes that goes undiscussed with it is how much single-safety defense, man and zone, that a team like Tampa, for instance, plays. [Tampa Two] is the preferred coverage of choice, but there are so many things that go into it. They do a great job with their technique."
The Bucs' lone takeaway on opening weekend was a forced fumble in the fourth quarter. After recovering just 11 fumbles in 2014, Smith's first year at the helm in Tampa, the team is emphasizing ways to increase that number in 2015. Payton knows Smith's track record in that regard and is thus emphasizing the same thing to his offensive players.
"We read to the team today, I think that in Lovie's however many years as a head coach, his teams have caused 180-some forced fumbles," said Payton. "It's a little more than one a game. They do a great job of disrupting the ball from the ball carrier, the receiver or the runner."
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Of course, the Saints have done a great job of just about everything on offense since Brees arrived in 2006. He routinely pushes 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a season and his TD numbers have more than doubled his interception totals during his career. The Buccaneers go into a matchup with the Saints understanding that Brees is going to get his yards but hoping to maintain control of the scoreboard through takeaways and stinginess in the red zone.
That latter point was a trouble area for both teams on opening day. The Saints settled for field goals in three of their four red-zone trips in Arizona and lost by 12 points. The Buccaneers allowed Mariota's Titans to turn all four of their red-zone incursions into touchdowns. Whichever team does the better job of addressing that shortcoming in Week Two will likely have the upper hand.
"We've got to be more efficient," said Payton. "We had the one touchdown early on and then settled for a number of field goals. Now, the good news on that is we had a rookie kicker that stepped up and on the road did a nice job. For us, offensively, we've got to be better. There's a handful of things you come away from the game [with]. You identify those Monday when you come in as a team, then, come Wednesday, you're on to game planning and your practice versus the opponent."
The other good news for Payton is that he has about as much experience and ability as one could hope for at quarterback. Lovie Smith's defenses may have done a reasonably good job of containing Brees and forcing turnovers in the past, but it's the quarterback who is currently riding a winning streak in the head-to-head competition.