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Second look: How the Saints went small on defense to defeat the Buccaneers

A lot of the major themes from the New Orleans Saints season-opening win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held up on the second watch: The offense left some big plays on the field, but the defense and kicking game offered more than enough in support.

Each week, we’ll put the game tape under the microscope to either identify some interesting trends that emerged on the second watch, or figure out exactly how the big plays came to be.

First up from the Saints’ 34-23 win: A defense that almost never featured all three linebackers on the field at once.

Nickel and Dimed

P.J. Williams, who served as the Saints’ top nickel corner for much of last season, was not active Sunday against the Buccaneers after dealing with a hamstring injury during practice leading up to the game. But his absence did not appear to alter the Saints game plan.

New Orleans spent the vast majority of Sunday’s game in sub defensive personnel groupings — meaning five or more defensive backs on the field at once. It only aligned in its base defense, with second-year linebacker Kaden Elliss in at the SAM position, for three snaps. Two of those were goal line defense, and a third was a third and short.

For the remainder of the game, the Saints were either in nickel or dime defense. Fourteen of their 15 fourth-quarter defensive snaps were played with six defensive backs on the field, with safety D.J. Swearinger playing deep and Malcolm Jenkins dropping down to defend the slot.

Though the Saints had lighter personnel on the field for the majority of the game, Tampa Bay found no footing on the ground, gaining 86 yards on 26 carries.

Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay’s leading rusher with 66 yards on 17 carries, busted out one nice run of 21 yards on a trap play in which he vaulted over a Malcolm Jenkins tackle attempt. But 12 of his carries gained three yards or less, and there’s a tale to be told in those numbers too.

We’ve talked a lot this offseason about the Saints embracing the positionless defender, and specifically about C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s role in that. He allows the team an incredible degree of flexibility because he plays like someone much bigger.

Look at those 12 carries of Jones’ that resulted in three or less yards, and Gardner-Johnson was credited with the tackle five times (he also made a stop on Jones’ lone four-yard carry). He was essentially the Saints’ third linebacker in their nickel and dime defenses.

He is only listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but Gardner-Johnson is as aggressive and fearless a defender as the Saints have. That can sometimes work against him in coverage, but he is a dynamo defending the run. The first play of the Buccaneers’ second drive is the clearest example: Gardner-Johnson identified the play early, darted into the hole and met Jones at the line of scrimmage, dumping him for a two-yard gain.

Gardner-Johnson made those sorts of plays routinely, making a team-high nine solo tackles, but also provided the sort of coverage flexibility the team would not have in base defense. All of this while the Buccaneers played nearly a third of their offensive snaps with either two or three tight ends on the field.

Defenses have been trending this way for a while. A Football Outsiders analysis of the 2019 season found NFL teams played in their base defense just 26.7 percent of the time. That same analysis found the Saints play in their base defense just 16 percent of the time last season — the fourth lowest mark in the NFL.

The almost complete abandonment of the base look likely was matchup related this week, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

One big play

The Saints put up 27 offensive points (one touchdown came courtesy of the defense) and had another scoring play overturned by a questionable replay review, so it’s hard to truly call it a bad offensive day.

But the standard here is different. The Saints have finished in the top nine of offensive DVOA every year since 2011, a streak that includes six top-five finishes. In that same stretch, they’ve never finished worse than 10th in both scoring and total offense. History tells us to expect them to be an incredibly efficient, explosive offense.

Often that was not the case Sunday, which is why both coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees described their performances as play caller and ball distributor as “awful.” The Buccaneers largely kept the Saints in front of them, allowed very little open space and made sure tackles.

Brees only attempted seven passes that traveled further than 10 yards in the air, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and completed only two — both to tight end Jared Cook. But the second of those completions played a key part in the Saints’ win.

Leading by seven and facing a second-and-10 from their own 39 with 14 minutes to go in the game, Cook lined up on the far left of the Saints’ offensive formation. Defensive back Jamel Dean gave Cook a nine-yard cushion. Brees saw something in the coverage and made a signal to his receivers prior to the snap.

Cook simply ran a vertical route. Brees pump-faked toward the middle of the field, drawing safety Andrew Adams toward Emmanuel Sanders’ in-breaking route, then dropped a perfect pass over Dean’s head to Cook for 46 yards. The ball traveled approximately 42 yards in the air.

“Drew checked the play at the line of scrimmage,” Cook said. “Once he checked it, I was trying to get on top of the defender. I’m not sure what drew his eyes back to Drew behind the line of scrimmage, but he sluffed off a little bit. I guess he thought the play was over and I just kept running my route and Drew was able to hit me in stride right down the sideline.”

Four plays later, Brees hit Emmanuel Sanders for a five-yard score, pushing the Saints’ lead back to 14 points.

Speaking of Cook, four of his five catches came on third down. He and Brees clearly carried over some of that trust from late last season into 2020.

Near misses for Kamara

The Buccaneers clearly went into this game determined not to let Alvin Kamara beat them. Their athletic linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White played a big part in keeping Kamara largely in check, giving the Saints star running back little to no room to make his customary dazzling plays. But the Saints still missed out on two potentially big plays.

Late in the second quarter, Kamara leaked out of the backfield and had only one defender, White, within seven or eight yards of him. Kamara was knocked off his route by defensive end Shaquil Barrett, forcing Brees to reload his throwing motion, but he was still wide open. An on-target pass would have at least gained a first down, and if Kamara broke a White tackle, might’ve gone for a score. Instead, Brees throw was way off target and incomplete.

Later on that drive, at the Tampa Bay 12-yard line, the Saints dialed up a swing pass to Kamara that was set up perfectly, with Ryan Ramczyk out in front as a lead blocker. Kamara could have caught the ball and had one man to beat for the score, but Barrett spoiled the play by batting down Brees’ pass. The plays were there, they just weren’t executed.

Bonus points

1. Undrafted rookie defensive tackle Malcolm Roach, a Baton Rouge native, flashed early in his Saints debut, bursting through the line to blow up runs on both Tampa’s first and second offensive series. He demolished right guard Alex Cappa on the second play of the Buccaneers’ second drive for a tackle for loss.

2. Left guard Andrus Peat had one noticeably bad rep in the second quarter when, with the Saints inside the Tampa Bay 10, he lunged and completely whiffed on defensive tackle William Gholston, allowing Gholston to proceed unimpeded and drop Ty Montgomery for a four-yard loss. He made up for it on the next play with a nice block to spring Kamara for a touchdown on a screen pass. Peat made another nice block on a screen later, using his athleticism to get out and upend promising young rookie Antoine Winfield Jr.

3. Trey Hendrickson (four tackles, one sack, one forced intentional grounding) is a luxury as a third defensive end. He was giving left tackle Donovan Smith fits all game with his motor.

4. The Saints offensive line did an excellent job protecting Brees. Tampa Bay finished with just one sack and three quarterback hits. But the sack was a bad look: Jason Pierre-Paul came completely unblocked and got a clean hit on Brees. That player, in particular, needs to be accounted for.

5. Tampa Bay’s young defensive back Carlton Davis might be a problem in future matchups. He drew one of the toughest assignments in football, guarding Michael Thomas, and he made Thomas a non-factor. According to Next Gen Stats, Thomas ranked tied for last among qualified receivers this week in average separation at .8 yards.

6. Thomas Morstead had an unreal game. Not only did he have a perfect pooch kick on a kickoff that resulted in a muffed catch and Saints possession, but he routinely pinned Tampa Bay deep in its own territory. Morstead’s six punts resulted in a zero return yards for the Buccaneers and five drives that started inside the Buccaneers 15. Tampa Bay’s average starting field position after Morstead punts was its own 14-yard line.

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