3TFO: Buccaneers @ Saints, Week 15
The Saints likely saw what little shot they had at a wild-card spot go down the drain against the Giants in what was a total team loss. In all three phases, though most surprisingly special teams, they were unable to put anything together and stop the bleeding of a rough stretch in what’s been a disastrous season. Now sitting at 5-8, New Orleans is playing for pride at this point.
On the other side, the Buccaneers are 6-7 — the 11th-best record in the NFC with three games to go — after a brutal loss against the Eagles. They’re not mathematically eliminated, but considering their position in the competitive NFC, Tampa also looks to be playing for mostly pride in this game.
Drew Brees vs. Expectations
If you’ve watched the Saints’ quarterback in recent weeks there’s little doubt that he’s having a down season. Whether his struggles are attributable to factors such as his offseason holdout, poor receiver play, blocking up front, or the absence of Sean Payton is debatable, though each of those reasons certainly has some merit. He’s completing roughly 7% less of his aimed passes this season and, perhaps more telling, a much higher percentage of his attempts have been of the ‘non-aimed’ variety. Brees has thrown away 24 passes through 13 games, up from just nine in 17 games last season, and has close to doubled his 2011 batted pass total, with 11. Add that to 39 drops — the second-highest figure in the league and seven more than last season — as well as just flat out missing throws and you have a recipe for a struggling passing game, at least relative to recent years.
Looking further into the numbers, Brees has faced pressure on only 29% of snaps, about 4% more often than last season, but has taken quite a step back in terms of handling the rush. After finishing as arguably the league’s top quarterback under pressure in 2011, when he completed 58.3% of his passes with a 6.9 YPA, he’s down to a 44.8% completion rate and 5.5 YPA, along with four more interceptions on those plays.
The Saints’ receiving unit, though, certainly hasn’t helped out their quarterback this season. All of their major targets, including Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Lance Moore have already increased their drop totals from 2011 — Moore has dropped more through 13 games than in the previous two seasons combined. That shouldn’t absolve Brees from blame, though, as he’s had trouble with sheer inaccuracy and poor pocket presence attributable to none other than himself. Considering his highest-graded game this season came in Week 7 in Tampa, it will be interesting to watch how Brees starts out on Sunday, particularly in targeting Graham, who he tends to lock on to at times. He’ll have to watch out for Ronde Barber, who is our fourth-highest graded safety in coverage and will likely match up against Graham for much of the game.
Will we get another performance from the Saints’ offense that we’ve been accustomed to seeing in years past, or will it be a performance, now that the playoffs are out of reach, that’s reminiscent of the team’s struggles in recent weeks?
Michael Bennett vs. William Robinson
For the Saints to get their passing game going, they’ll to need to protect Brees better than they did against the Giants when they allowed pressure on 41% of passing plays. While Gerald McCoy is sure to be a force in the middle as always, the bigger problem for the Saints’ offensive line may be blocking Michael Bennett when rushing from his usual spot at left defensive end. Though he came up empty in the first meeting, and had poor performances in Weeks 12 and 13, Bennett is coming off his best game of the year. Against the Eagles, he terrorized rookie right tackle Dennis Kelly and the rest of the line for two sacks, two hits, and six hurries, disrupting the QB 10 times.
He’ll likely match up against William Robinson on Sunday as Saints starting right tackle Zach Strief continues to battle injury. Robinson played only 46 of the team’s 73 snaps against the Giants, but did not fare well, allowing six QB pressures mostly at the hands of Jason Pierre-Paul. And though JPP is widely considered the better player, Bennett is actually having a better year rushing the passer. The Buccaneer ranks eighth among all qualifying 4-3 defensive ends in our Pass Rush Productivity rating, while JPP comes in at 11th. This will be a tough task for Robinson, who is among the lowest ranked tackles in the league in terms of Pass Blocking Efficiency.
Bucs’ Ground Game vs. Saints’ Run Defense
Regarding performance under pressure, Josh Freeman may be having an even worse season than Brees. Freeman has completed just 39.8% of his passes with a 4.3 YPA on those plays. To lighten his load, look for Tampa to make heavy use of Doug Martin as they look to attack one of the worst run defenses in the league. Though given the Saints’ inability to generate pressure up front, the Bucs will still do their fair share of passing. Martin has had an exceptional rookie season, putting up a 4.7 YPC average and forcing 48 missed tackles — a figure that’s second among all running backs. The team particularly excels running through the left side A- and B-gaps, averaging 6.47 YPC there versus 3.9 everywhere else. Of course, the mammoth presence of Carl Nicks through Week 8 had something to do with that average, but they are still dominating through those gaps in recent weeks behind Jeremy Zuttah and Donald Penn.
Through the left-side A- and B-gaps, Tampa will have to contend with the presence of Broderick Bunkley, who plays almost exclusively at DRT and is the Saints’ highest graded interior lineman against the run. Akiem Hicks has also been one of the few bright spots in the Saints’ interior run defense and also lines up at DRT most often (59%), though the rookie can tend to play high and thus lose power at times. Fortunately for Martin and the Bucs, they won’t find much resistance once they get to the second level of the New Orleans defense — all six players that have seen snaps at linebacker have graded negatively in run defense. Even the addition of Jonathan Vilma and a healthy David Hawthorne have done almost nothing to shore up their run defense. Vilma has continued his old ways of constant overpursuit and getting dragged for extra yardage by the ballcarrier, while Hawthorne has looked far from the player we saw in Seattle. Given Martin’s elusiveness, he’ll surely have plenty of opportunities to get into the open field, as the Saints back-seven has accounted for 84% of the team’s 110 missed tackles. Perhaps a good omen for New Orleans, though, is that they could be without Malcolm Jenkins, who’s tied for a league-high 20 missed tackles and is our second-worst rated safety.