Tom Brady's first game as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer came in the Superdome against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, in Week One of the 2020 season. The NFL almost certainly set the Buccaneers' schedule that way to kick the season off with the marquee 40-something matchup of the NFL's two all-time leading passers.
Brees has since moved on to the broadcast booth and the Saints' offense has a different look with former Buccaneer Jameis Winston under center. What hasn't changed, however, is a New Orleans defense that was responsible for five of Brady's 12 interceptions in 2020 and still the worst loss he has experienced in red and pewter, a 38-3 drubbing in Week Nine. If anything, the Saints' defense – currently ranked third in the NFL in points allowed and interceptions – is playing at an even higher level in 2021.
The Saints' two wins over Tampa Bay in the regular season were the difference in the NFC South title race, with New Orleans finishing at 12-4 and a game ahead of the Bucs. Obviously, Brady and company got the last laugh with a Divisional Playoff win at the Superdome in January and eventually a victory over Kansas City in Super Bowl LV. But 2021 is a different season, as Bruce Arians has been chanting since March, and division supremacy is back up for grabs. The 6-1 Bucs currently have a slight lead on the 4-2 Saints but they'll have to put that lead to the test this Sunday in New Orleans. It will not be an easy test, particularly for the Buccaneers' offense.
"I think they make it very difficult on you to continue to move the ball effectively and efficiently," said Brady. "They have a lot of continuity in their secondary. Their linebackers are very athletic; they draft very athletic linebackers, they sign very athletic linebackers. They have a very big defensive line. And they have, obviously, really good coaches, really good coordinator, so everything is a challenge."
After winning the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers famously managed to keep the band together, returning virtually every key player from their championship roster. At the same time, the Saints were trying to navigate their own offseason challenges with a precarious salary cap situation. A number of players were released, traded or not pursued in free agency, including defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who led the Saints with 13.5 sacks last year and then left for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Yet, somehow the Saints' defense came out on the other end looking very familiar. It is very much an experienced group, with long-established stars at every level, from defensive end Cameron Jordan to linebacker Demario Davis to cornerback Marshon Lattimore to safety Malcolm Jenkins. That leaves even very good opposing offenses, such as the Bucs' third-ranked scoring attack, little margin for error from play to play.
"They have a lot of veteran players," said Brady. "Sometimes you feel like when you play less-experienced guys there's things you can get away with, but not these guys. You really have to be on everything. They have some very challenging packages on third downs, especially. So we just study everything and try to be prepared for everything and understand there'll probably be a few new things. We've got to just go play a really sound football game.
" This is a good football team. They've been playing well for a long time; they're having a great season this year. They had a great season last year and a good season the year before. They're one of the best football teams in the NFL, so we're going to have to go out there and play really great, top to bottom."
Like most good teams, the Saints emphasize and excel at the situational football. That's one of the reasons the Saints are giving up just 16.8 points per game despite ranking eighth in total yards allowed and 20th in passing yards allowed. New Orleans is coming off a waterlogged 13-10 Monday Night Football win in Seattle in which, among other things, they allowed the Seahawks to convert just three of 13 combined third and fourth downs.
"They are one of the best defenses in the NFL right now," said Brady. "They held Seattle to 10 points last game at home – that's tough to do. One of them was like an 85-yard touchdown. So they just don't give up a lot of points, they're very good in the red area, they have a good third-down package. I've played them now three times in however many games, so I feel like I'm pretty familiar with them, but ultimately we're going to have to go play great football to beat them."
Brady's scouting report is accurate. The Saints actually have the NFL's best red zone defense so far this season, allowing touchdowns on just 35.7% of opposing drives inside their 20. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 37.5 in the red zone; the NFL average is 98.7. That's a stunning difference. The Saints also have the league's seventh-best third-down defense, allowing a conversion rate of 33.7%. The Buccaneers' offense will need to do well on first and second down to keep the sticks moving because the Saints are only allowing a 19.4% conversion rate when it's third-and-seven or longer.
Brady noted that he's now pretty familiar with the Buccaneers' division rivals, having faced them in three of his 27 games with Tampa Bay so far. But he also said the Saints can be unpredictable on defense and hit you with some things you might not be expecting. That's when good communication becomes critical.
"I think they have a lot of guys who can do different things, certainly guys that can win with speed, certainly a lot of guys that can win with power, guys that win with effort," said Brady. "It's a collective group. The linebackers blitz a lot, the safeties can blitz. They tried a corner blitz on us last year. So they have a good scheme that kind of always keeps you guessing. Anytime you have a team like that, we've got to make sure we're communicating about what we see and how we're going to deal with it, understanding they do a good job at what they do. Our line has done a great job all year. We'll obviously know the situations that they'll try to use some of their exotic stuff in, but it's really one play at a time about execution and us all being on the same page and seeing things the same way. That's the only way to deal with it."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.