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

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

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.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

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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ScottC543
6 months ago

Beating the Aints tonight will be one of the Bucs sweetest victories, right up there with the win in Philly our SB year.

Spitfire
Reply to  ScottC543
6 months ago

100%

fredster
6 months ago

Great article and info. I think Saints are in for a rude awakening on defense if we protect Brady and no big errors with Stinnie.
On Bucs defense, I really hope Bowls is thinking like you are about less zone and not doing same things that didn’t work before. If he goes into this game with same plan you really have to wonder either he’s not very good or he truly believes Bucs secondary is incapable of playing man and zone gives us best chance. The Bucs are horrible in zone! I just hope SMB and Dean come to play!

Last edited 6 months ago by fredster
Dave
6 months ago

What are you doing Jon. You’re not allowed to make sense. Mentioning that the Bucs defense was already getting shredded to the tune of a 21-0 deficit, just a few minutes into the 2nd quarter, before Brady started throwing picks(in an extremely obvious and predictable game script), doesn’t jive with the Brady haters claim that it’s Brady’s fault the Bucs lose in big games. Can’t possibly be a collective team loss. Nope. It’s Brady’s fault. Just as it was Brady’s fault that Bowles waited until the 2nd quarter to double Tyreke Hill(which was too late at that point), in a… Read more »

BigSombrero
Reply to  Dave
6 months ago

So, did he throw the interceptions or not?

Also, what about the first matchup when he threw interceptions early? What about the other 6 times he played the Saints?

I’m sure your excuses will be enlightening.

Thankfully the Saints will be without Hill and Murray. That should help the Bucs defense tremendously. Brady should hand the ball off over and over and not try to do too much. Save that History Channel arm of his.

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  BigSombrero
6 months ago

BS give it a rest will ya? How many playoff wins did Winston get us to? Also, Bradys arm is SUPER live if we’re comparing it to Brees. You were wrong about everything all season, including the rookies. STFU!!! Lmao

BigSombrero
Reply to  NaplesFan2.0
6 months ago

Wrong about Wirfs for sure.

However Jonathan Taylor was the leading rookie RB in the NFL over CEH, Dobbins, Swift, Akers and every one else. Injuries factor as durability matters. Colts rookies all outperformed Bucs rookies at RB, S, and WR. Period.

Also, who has Brady beaten? The 6 win WFT? The Lions backups? Chargers backups? Panthers rookies?

Time to put up or shut up. He better hope the defense has his back today.

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  BigSombrero
6 months ago

Or how about Winfield the injury prone shrimp? How about Brady being 3rd in passing yards, 2nd in TDs in the entire NFL, while only having 12 picks? Washington had 7 wins btw. Is it your contention that we still should have drafted Taylor, when Wirfs had the best rookie season of any tackle? How different was Taylor’s season than Rojos? That would have been a wasted pick. Strength of schedule arguments are so lame. Everyone plays cupcakes in the NFL, but those cupcakes are all still either first rounders or super athletic. If the Bucs win tonight, we will… Read more »

BigSombrero
Reply to  NaplesFan2.0
6 months ago

Taylor had 300+ yards over RoJo. Taylor had the highest catch rate of all receivers in the entire NFL, not just RBs. Taylor was a 3 down back. RoJo had plenty of drops and had injuries again this season. That said, I am proud of the job RoJo did fighting off challengers, even if Fournette, Vaughn and McCoy were massive underperformers most of the season. Admittedly, I simply didn’t like Brady, especially at this stage of his ending career. Admittedly, his arm has been live and much more accurate (at times) versus what it looked like the last 2 years… Read more »

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  BigSombrero
6 months ago

There was almost no difference in the season between Rojo and Taylor as he missed 2 games and had a higher ypc. To argue anything otherwise is biased. If we drafted Taylor, we still would have a giant hole at a big position of need, and Brady wouldn’t have had the same season. The case could be made that Rojo would have had a better season, behind a better Indianapolis line. I’m not saying our line is any slouch, as they’ve performed admirably, but they’re not Indianapolis.

BigSombrero
Reply to  NaplesFan2.0
6 months ago

Tampa’s line was rated higher than Indianapolis by every major publication. Indianapolis’s line struggled with backups at both tackle spots and at center on and off all season.

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  BigSombrero
6 months ago

All the same publications that didn’t vote the 3rd leading passer (2nd in tds) to a lowly Pro Bowl? They were rated similarly by pff btw, with Indianapolis being the better run blocking line.

NaplesFan2.0
Reply to  BigSombrero
6 months ago

Also ESPN rates the Colts as a better run blocking team. On another note, the guy im most impressed with on the entire team, is Will Gholston. The guy was 5th in the NFL in pass rush win rate for DTs.

Randy H.
6 months ago

I’ve never figured out, if Bowles was the DC in the last two drafts, why did they draft press corners knowing that they weren’t going to be used to their strengths that way? Was that just Leicht wielding his power or did they think that there wouldn’t be an issue having them play off?

TBChucky
6 months ago

I have a feeling we’ll see a different game plan on both sides of the ball tonight. They have to if they want a chance to win this!

Spitfire
6 months ago

What if… What if the plan was to play shitty basic bitch zone Defense as much as is single all year while still winning just so that when we hit these big games in the post season we flip it to man just to wreck the opponents game plan? Would be silly obviously but what if? 😂