Part of what makes the NFL great is how much one week can change things. A week ago, it looked like the Saints would run away with the NFC South. They were riding a four game winning streak, while the Falcons were below .500 and the Buccaneers were coming off an embarrassing loss to the 49ers. Now Tampa Bay sits atop looking down at their divisional rivals with a smug sense of satisfaction having already beaten both teams they’re trying to overtake in their quest to be divisional champs.
This game served as a reminder of how important turnovers can be. The first New Orleans turnover led to the Buccaneers putting the first points on the board, and a first half interception led to Tampa Bay getting a double digit lead. In a game of such small margins, that was always likely to come back to haunt a Sean Payton-less Saints.
Ultimately, while the Bucs walked away victors, you can’t ignore the fact that these two teams are both good football teams, and will likely be in the mix come playoff time. That said, they’ll need to improve in certain areas, and try to get even more out of some of their strengths. Those areas and strengths, well we’ll discuss them now.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Getting Run Over
Prior to this game, the Saints biggest weakness was their run defense. That continued to be true in this one, as they allowed Earnest Graham to average 6.4 yards per run. The only member of the starting front seven with a positive run defense rating was Cameron Jordan (+2.2), with the rookie defensive end getting the better of Jeremy Trueblood on more than one occasion. Outside of their seven total missed tackles on run plays, the New Orleans defenders were consistently easily blocked to the inside for the Buccaneers to run to the outside. If the Saints don’t find a way to fix this, then some team will take advantage in the playoffs and ruin their chances of returning to the Super Bowl.
Why the Saints typically overcome this at times shoddy defense to win is Drew Brees (+1.5 passing). Prior to this week, his worst rating was +5.0 passing in a game, but eventually all hot streaks come to an end, and this was it for him. His biggest problem came as he simply forced too many balls into coverages where the window was too small. Two of his three interceptions came from him not giving the coverage the respect it deserved, while another four passes were deflected as he was overly aggressive against an active Bucs coverage unit. The Saints franchise QB is so often excellent under pressure (a +6.0 rating on the season), however in this game he had just four completions on 13 drop backs with two interceptions. A rare off day or the start of a slump? The Saints season could depend on it.
Only one other time in our four years of grading players have we seen a tight end have a receiving rating higher than +1.0 in five consecutive games. Right now Jimmy Graham (+1.4 receiving) is making fans forget the name Jeremy Shockey (if they hadn’t already), as he had another 100 receiving yard performance. He ended up with seven catches for 124 yards, and forced two missed tackles. His biggest play came while the Saints were running the one minute drill to end the half, and he made a 43 yard catch despite three Buccaneers being within five yards of him, setting up a field goal. His 2.73 yards per pass route run gives him a nice lead for all tight ends.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Earning His Starts
The Buccaneers defensive line has gone through a youth movement in recent years. Typically the starting lineup consists of a 2010 1st round pick, a 2010 2nd round pick, and a 2011 1st round pick. Taking the other spot is defensive end Michael Bennett (+5.4), despite being a backup his first two years after not being drafted, and having a -6.7 rating in his two starts last year. In this game he was able to bring pressure on five plays (although one was called back due to a penalty), plays which led to two completions, two incompletions, and an interception. In the run game he had a tackle for one yard in the first quarter, and a tackle for no gain in the fourth, while being a constant menace around the line of scrimmage. His most impressive play was in the fourth quarter where he pushed John Gilmore into the backfield, and single handedly ended Mark Ingram’s run for a five yard loss. This season he’s proved he is deserving of the starting job, with some truly breathtaking performances.
Unexpected Run Game
While it was surprising that Earnest Graham (+3.1) had such a good performance, it was even more surprising the players who helped him get there. Fullback Erik Lorig (+2.6) had his best game of his sophomore season, with five plays where Lorig made clear blocks on either Jonathan Vilma or Scott Shanle to open up a hole for Earnest Graham. On these five plays, Tampa Bay gained 7, 34, 5, 19 and 13 yards for a total of 78, and while you have to temper expectations he’ll do it again given the allergic reaction Vilma and Shanle have to being blocked, it worked wonders in this game.
On three of those plays, it was backup left guard Ted Larsen (+1.9 run block) that pushed defensive tackles out of the way so Lorig could get to the linebackers. He came in after a Jeff Faine injury, and with his play in this game he may warrant a second chance in the starting lineup. A nice day for the unheralded Bucs.
The NFC South is known for their quarterbacks, but you couldn’t tell from this game. Quarterback Josh Freeman (0.0 passing) continued his recent disappointing play. You could point the blame to a lot of areas, as he had a number of passes underthrown, overthrown and forced, with his primary struggles coming on passes between 10 and 20 yards where he completed just four of 13. Looking again at the plays he was under pressure (14 of them), he had just three completions for 24 yards. Not really good enough, and while it’s not a problem with the Bucs winning, it’s something to monitor if the win-loss record goes south.
– On five plays, the Saints lined up with defensive ends Will Smith and Junior Galette standing up next to four linebackers near the line of scrimmage, and five defensive backs.
– There were no sacks and just three hits in this game total.
– Michael Koenen (+4.3) of the Buccaneers had a good game. His kickoffs led to the Falcons starting at the 20 yard line on average, had a punt kicked out of bounds at the two yard line, and another punt for 58 yards.
PFF Game Ball
Tampa Bay’s utility backup for a long time, Earnest Graham got a chance to show that once upon a time he was a pretty handy feature back for them. He was a big part in this win.
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