As far as defensive coverage philosophies go, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles couldn’t be more different this season. The New Orleans secondary, which features four Top 45 picks, has spent the vast majority of the year locking down opposing offenses in man coverage, while the Bucs have been shockingly zone heavy despite the amount of resources spent on their secondary on Day 2 of recent drafts.
The Bucs have been predominantly a zone coverage team in 2020, spending about 60 percent of their snaps in either Cover 2, Cover 3 or quarters coverage. They lead the league in the percentage of snaps played in quarters, a 4-deep, 3-under coverage that would spell certain doom for the Bucs against the Saints’ short passing attack. Even Cover 3 – the Bucs’ most oft-deployed coverage scheme – leaves a lot of responsibility in underneath zones for the team’s worst two zone defenders in Sean Murphy-Bunting and Devin White.
Bucs OLB Shaquil Barrett and Saints QB Drew Brees – Photo by: USA Today
In fact, any spot-dropping zone coverage is simply too easy for Drew Brees, who wants to throw with anticipation to space as soon as his back foot hits the ground in his drop. He’s simply too adept at reading the field and too accurate for the Bucs to expect to have success against zone coverage. Brees also won’t make that one critical mistake that Bowles is waiting for in zone coverage, as the quarterback has shown consistently throughout his career.
Every Bucs fan knows it, so I won’t belabor the point, but I believe the path to success against New Orleans comes from altering tendencies and playing more press man coverage. The Bucs almost never play Cover 2-man (zero snaps in Cover 2 man in Week 9 against Brees), but throwing it in as a change-up wouldn’t hurt. But even an increase in the team’s more familiar Cover 1 deployment could be an advantage in this game. Get physical with New Orleans’ receivers off the line of scrimmage and force Brees to throw into tighter windows or move through progressions more often than he’d like.
Now, more man coverage is going to open up opportunities for New Orleans’ extensive screen game, so the Bucs can’t live in any single alignment or scheme. Versatility is key, but I still believe the best chance at success comes when Brees is less comfortable with his throwing windows. He knows his arm strength and deep ball ability are more limited than they used to be, and if the Bucs are consistently asking him to make higher degree of difficulty throws, my guess is that he’ll eventually run out of answers.
As for the Saints defense, they’ve taken the exact opposite approach to their secondary this season, playing predominantly man coverage from either a two or single-high safety alignment. While the Bucs are predominantly a Cover 3 team, the Saints spend very little time in 3-deep, 4-under coverage, just 12.8 percent of their defensive snaps in fact.
In Week 9 the Saints’ man-coverage philosophy paid off, but I would argue it had almost more to do with the lack of protection for Brady, the lack of cohesiveness between quarterback and receivers and the predictability of the Bucs offense at that point in the season. Fast-forward to the divisional round of the playoffs, and a vastly different unit awaits the New Orleans defense.
According to USA Today Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar, Tom Brady has been lights out against man coverage this season, which sets up an enticing match-up with a Saints defense that has played almost 55 percent of its snaps in man. Farrar wrote the following in his insightful match-up piece preceding Sunday night’s game between New Orleans and Tampa Bay:
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“The Saints play a ton of man coverage, and they’re not that bad in coverage when they do it, but Brady has absolutely ripped man coverage to bits this season — 128 completions in 211 attempts for 1,591 yards, 1,019 air yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a Total QBR of 119.4. More notably, only one of Brady’s five picks against the Saints this season came in man coverage — the other four were against zone.”
Keep in mind that Brady’s three interceptions in Week 9 came after the team was already down three scores. That allowed the Saints to relax their coverages and played more deep zones, so the interception numbers themselves might be a bit misleading. But the rest of the information is critical to understanding why this battle between Bruce Arians/Brady and Allen is so intriguing. Tampa Bay’s offense has rectified many of the issues that plagued it in Week 9, including more man-beater concepts, more play-action, less miscommunication between quarterback and receivers and the return of their best offensive lineman, left guard Ali Marpet, into the lineup.
I don’t think the Saints should totally deviate from a man coverage approach, especially considering the Bucs’ lack of a formidable screen game or a running quarterback. But Tampa Bay isn’t the “chuck-it-deep-or-bust” team that Arians’ squads have been in the past. They’ve proven over the last month-and-a-half to be fully capable of also beating teams with a short-intermediate passing game, which will leave the Saints with decisions to make from two-high safety alignments. Their secondary is good, but good enough to match up snap-to-snap with a receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate when the game has more than 12 neutral situation offensive snaps, unlike in Week 9?
In order to have the type of success they’ve come to expect against past Bucs’ offenses, the Saints will need their front four to get home and impact Brady. If the Tampa Bay offensive line wins that match-up, Tampa Bay could start rolling on offense. The Saints will undoubtedly rotate their safeties post-snap in an attempt to confuse Brady, but also to confuse the Bucs receivers, who run a ton of option routes in this offense based on the post-snap alignment of the safeties. If the Saints can vary their safety alignments a good bit throughout the game, they could still have enough success to derail the Bucs offense without abandoning their man coverage roots.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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