The Saints’ defense coordinator will attempt a herculean task, stopping Tom Brady in the playoffs
Now, the fun begins.
After taking care of business in a slime-filled game against Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints are tasked with taking out a living legend when they face off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the third time this season. The first time these teams matched off was in Week 1, where Brady went 23/36 (63.9%) for 239 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in a 34-23 win for the Saints. Then came Week 9, with Brady fixing to get his revenge at home against the Saints on Sunday Night Football. Brady at home, in primetime, trying to avenge a loss. It was the perfect environment for him to have an amazing performance.
This game marked three benchmark lows for Brady in 2020. The only game he didn’t throw an interception in, the only game he threw at least 3 interceptions, and his 40.4 passer rating was his lowest since a 34.0 rating in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9 of 2006. That will no doubt be fresh in Brady’s mind as the two teams face off with seasons, and possibly careers, on the line.
So heading into this NFC Divisional Round matchup, we’re gonna analyze exactly what the Saints did in those first two games to beat Tom Brady, and some of the things that Brady did well against the Saints.
The Saints Defense vs Tom Brady: The Good
In preperation for this, I went back and charted every incomplete pass that Brady has thrown against the Saints so far this season, and this is what I found on Brady’s 29 incomplete passes
This table is basically telling us what we already know about the Saints defense, that they run a lot of Cover 2, and these plays were no exception. The Saints ran a Cover 2 look on more than half of the incompeltions that Brady has thrown against them this season. This category does include both Cover 2-Man and Cover 2-Zone, but this is just reaffirming the notion that the Saints run more Cover 2 than any other team in the NFL. Expect more of the same on Sunday, especially Cover 2-Man considering Brady’s proficiency at destroying zone defense.
Here’s where we start to get interesting, dividing all 29 incompletions into what I referred to as “incompletion type”, putting them in one of four categories. Inaccurate pass (a.k.a Brady just straight up missing his target), dropped pass, miscommunication (Brady/WR not on the same page) or a catch-all category of “Defense”, which can mean anything from an early throw due to pressure or a pass breakup. Brady’s five interceptions against the Saints fit into these categories. For example, Antonio Brown stopping mid-route in the Week 9 clash, leading to Marcus Williams getting an unconested interception was labeled as “miscommunication” while Janoris Jenkins jumping a route for a Week 1 pick six was labeled as “defense”. Basically, want to boil down which incompletions did the Saints cause, and which were the fault of the offense. For our purposes, the more incompletions the Saints themselves force, the better, because those are things the Saints can repeat rather than relying on the Bucs to drop passes or Brady to miss throws.
Plays like this here are what we want to see out of the Saints defense. This was a play that was marked as forced by the defense, but it could easily be marked as a miscommunication between Brady and Godwin. On this play we see David Oneymata bullrush the Bucs’ left guard right into Brady, who sees Godwin running a wheel route on the right side and throws it to him right before the pressure hits. Only issue is that Godwin’s noticed that he doesn’t have a step on his defender and stops short for a curl route right as Brady throws it, leading to this pass falling harmlessly to the turf on first down.
One note from this collection is that only incompete passes were charted, this doesn’t include the 6 sacks that Brady took in those contests. Sacks are nice, but constant pressure is key for a great defense. Especially since, when under pressure, Tom Brady turns from an all-time great quarterback into slightly above average one, according to these stats and grades from Pro Football Focus.
Yes, every quarterback struggles under pressure. This isn’t some Newtonian discovery that I’m making right here. However, few quarterbacks struggle like Tom Brady struggles under pressure. Among quarterbacks that have played 20% of dropbacks in 2020, Tom Brady’s 102.2 passer rating was 9th in the NFL. With the same qualifier, Tom Brady when under pressure has a passer rating of 54.5, 28th in the NFL. Right behind Jalen Hurts, Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold, in that order.
(As a counterpoint, Drew Brees’s passer rating under pressure is 88.5, 4th in the NFL only behind Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert.)
An even more damning look at Brady is his adjusted completion percentage under pressure, which factors out drops, throwaway and batted passes, etc. Basically throws actually aimed at a target. With no pressure, Brady’s adjusted completion percentage is 78.9%. Brady’s adjusted completion percentage under pressure drops spectacularly to 57.9%, 36th in the NFL, directly behind Brandon Allen (the backup filling in for Joe Burrow) and Carson Wentz (who was uncerimoniously benched for Jalen Hurts and is such demanding a trade). My point simply is this. Pressure Tom Brady and things are going to be fine. Don’t pressure Tom Brady and you’re going to instantly regret it.
A last quick example of how pressure can affect Brady, as given to us by Cam Jordan during the Week 9 gazumping of the Buccaneers. Chris Godwin has a step on trash talker extraodinare and wide receiver fightee Chauncey C.J. Ceedy Duce Gardner-Johnson, but it’s rendered useless by Cam Jordan getting right into Brady’s face and forcing the missed throw. Without this pressure, Brady likely hits this throw for a 20-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage, and that entire game could’ve looked a lot different.
The Saints Defense vs Tom Brady: The Bad
Tom Brady completed 45 passes in his two games against the Saints, and for my own sanity I’m not going to chart every single one of them. Instead, I’ll take a look at the 18 passing plays that went 10+ yards to see what exactly went wrong on those.
(Upon watching these plays, one of these is being thrown out because of a holding call made after the catch but before the fairly arbitrary 10-yard guideline I’ve established for this study. So when these numbers add up to 17, that’s why.)
Here we again see more of what we already knew. The Saints run a lot of Cover 2 looks. However what’s interesting to me is that the few times the Saints ran Cover 4, they did it with little success. From watching these completions, most of the Cover 4 looks came late in the Week 9 game, when the game was well out of reach for the Bucs and the Saints were basically playing prevent defense. Even so, Cover 4 is primarily a zone look with four deep safeties designed to stop deep passes over the top. If the Saints run that, Brady is more than comfortable finding his tight end between the linebackers and the deep defensive backs. Which leads me to my next point…
On 64.7% of these passes that resulted in 10+ yards for the Buccaneers, Brady picked up the necessary 10+ yards through the air. What you like to see from this from the Saints perspective is a lack of allowing yards after the catch on screens or checkdowns. While neither Mike Evans nor Chris Godwin are the biggest YAC threats in the league, this is still a display of sound tackling and swarming to the ball on short passes. The more you do this, the less teams rely on short passes against you and instead try to work the ball into intermediate to deep areas. This forces the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer while he waits for routes to be run which leads to my biggest point from the previous section, pressure.
On 13 of the 17 passes studied for this piece, Tom Brady was not pressured. This should not be a surprising number to anyone who read the last section. If you do not pressure Tom Brady, you allow him to do things like this.
Oh buddy look at all that pocket. Brady has enough time to kiss his son on the lips at least three times as he waits for Chris Godwin (slot right wide receiver, a.k.a. the man in motion on the play) to get the step on D.J. Swearinger, at which point he delivers a dime to Godwin who is able to get both feet in for a 29-yard gain early in the season opener.
Now, some of you may be wondering just how many of these big Brady passes came when a certian sunday night ritual sacrfice was well out of reach, and if you’re one of those people then you’re reading the right article.
Six of the aforementioned seventeen completions have come in what we in the industry call “garbage time”. Basically the game is already out of reach and you shouldn’t take much stock in what happens during these moments. Like, for example, an entire 4th quarter when you’re losing at home by 31 to a division rival. If that’s when you decide to turn it up, when your opponents are basically camping a quartet of defenders 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, then maybe those shouldn’t be taken into account for this particular study.
The message is key, the message is simple. The Saints need their four-man front to get to Tom Brady while keeping up with the Cover 2-Man look that has gotten them this far in the season. When you pressure Brady, he statistically turns into a bad quarterback, but if you leave him upright with time for his receivers to get open and downfield, then you’re going to have a bad time. The Saints defensive line has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, and Dennis Allen will rely on them heavily to pressure Tampa Tom, make him uncomfortable and help complete a rare three-game sweep of the 6-time Super Bowl winner.
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