Thu, 04 Mar 2021

Saints Get Offensive Core Back Together for Playoffs

Buccaneers
14 Jan 2021, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Scouting Report: New Orleans didn't have Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara on the field together much in 2020 but they're all back for Sunday's game against the Bucs...Plus, other key players and strengths and weaknesses for the Saints Scott Smith

Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to do some emergency scouting on a quarterback they had barely seen before. Washington's Taylor Heinicke, he of one career NFL start and one pass against the Buccaneers in 2018, was expected to get some action in relief of Alex Smith in the Wild Card game at FedExField. Instead he played the whole game and kept the Football Team competitive in an eventual 31-23 Bucs win. It was also Tampa Bay's first exposure to the likes of Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Chase Young and Montez Sweat.

There's no such issue this week as Tampa Bay moves on to New Orleans in the Divisional Round. The Buccaneers know Drew Brees as well as any opponent in the NFL. They are more than familiar with the likes of Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore. The Saints are the devil the Buccaneers know.

It won't be hard for the Buccaneers to scout the Saints. Stopping them is another matter. They surely feel the same way about Tom Brady, Mike Evans and company. The Bucs and Saints meet for the third time this season and Tampa Bay will be looking to write a new script after New Orleans gave the Bucs their only two losses by more than three points all season.

Drew Brees, who has contemplated retirement after recent seasons, could possibly be playing in his last game against the Buccaneers. It will be the 31st time Tampa Bay has faced Brees, who has a career 99.5 passer rating against them. The Buccaneers have seen the veteran quarterback's game evolve over a decade and a half since he came to the NFC South in 2006. At this point, Brees is much more of a quick passer who gets the ball into his playmakers' hands and lets them pick up extra yardage. His incredible vision and quick decision-making, coupled with an elite offensive line in front of him, make it extremely hard to pressure him into mistakes.

In the Wild Card round, Brees faced one of the NFL's best defenses as the Saints gritted out a low-wattage 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears. Brees threw 39 passes and 28 of them traveled fewer than 10 yards downfield in the air. He completed 25 of those 28 short throws for 193 yards and two touchdowns. That included 16-for-16 passing on quick outs. Tampa Bay's defense will have to be ready for fast and precise passing from Brees and company.

That company now includes Thomas and Kamara, both of whom were missing down the stretch for the Saints. Kamara only missed one game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list but Thomas was on injured reserve for the last three weeks of the season with an ankle injury. That ailment and a few others caused the NFL's leading receiver in 2019 to miss all but seven games this season, and his touchdown catch against the Bears last Sunday was his first of 2020. Not only did Kamara and Thomas return for the start of the playoffs but electric wideout/kickoff returner Deonte Harris also came off I.R. and had seven catches for 83 yards against Chicago.

The Saints have won the last four NFC South titles and have been to the playoffs in nine of the 15 seasons since Brees arrived, but they haven't always had as balanced a team as the 2020 version. This season marks the first time since 2013 that the New Orleans defense has ranked in the top 10 in either points or yards allowed, as they were tied for fifth in points per game (21.1) and fourth in yards per game (310.9).

There are big-time difference-makers at all three levels of the Saints' defense. While Cameron Jordan is going to his sixth Pro Bowl and fourth in a row and is the emotional leader of that group, it's actually 2020 breakout star Trey Hendrickson who led the team with 13.5 sacks, tied with Aaron Donald for the second-most in the NFL. The Saints will be keeping a close eye on Hendrickson after an apparent setback in practice last week caused him to miss the Wild Card game with a neck injury. Even if Hendrickson can't play the Saints can ably replace him with ends Carl Granderson and Marcus Davenport across from Jordan. Sheldon Rankins had the Saints only sack against Chicago and is a force against the run inside.

In the middle, the Saints have rangy linebacker Demario Davis, who was last year's breakout star on defense, gaining All-Pro recognition. One of the league's better coverage linebacker, Davis had 12 passes defensed in 2020 and also recorded exactly 4.0 sacks for the second season in a row.

The emergence of Hendrickson makes the Saints' famous 2017 draft look even better. That haul also included Kamara, star right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, starting safety Marcus Williams (three interceptions) and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore, who is also headed back to the Pro Bowl (virtually), had two picks and 11 interceptions this year to go with 62 tackles. The Saints are never shy about putting Lattimore across from Mike Evans, and that will be one of the game's most important matchups on Sunday.

The Saints usually have an edge over their opponents on special teams, and that group got much more dangerous with Harris back in the return game. Punter Thomas Morstead, who had a 41.7-yard net punting average in 2020, has long been one of the NFL's best at his position. The same is generally true of place-kicker Wil Lutz, as well, though Lutz has surprisingly missed four of his last seven field goal tries over the past six weeks, including the Wild Card game.

New Orleans improved to 7-2 in the Superdome with that Wild Card victory. Their only two losses at home came against the top seeds in each conference playing field, Green Bay and Kansas City. The Buccaneers last won at that venue in the 2018 season opener. Now they will try to avoid the three-game 2020 sweep and move one step closer to playing the Super Bowl on their own home field. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they get their playoff rematch with the Saints on Sunday night:

SAINTS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

Three games against the Saints means we've also now had three Scouting Reports, each separated by approximately two months. There are plenty of very good options to spotlight as difference-makers for the 13-4 Saints, and over the past two reports we've already selected Kamara, Hendrickson, Jordan, Davis, Ramczyk, Thomas, tight end Jared Cook and safety Malcolm Jenkins. It's hard to completely ignore that core of stars, so our last group will be a mix of repeats and new choices. In addition to the obvious difference-maker under center in Drew Brees, here are four other Saints who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday night:

1. RB Alvin Kamara. With Thomas sidelined for much of the season with ankle injuries and other issues, and with the Saints' downfield passing game mostly a thing of the past, Kamara became an even bigger part of the New Orleans offense. He led the team in both rushing yards (932) and receiving yards (756), with excellent per touch averages of 5.0 yards on the ground and 9.1 yards through the air. He was absolutely unstoppable in the red zone in 2020, scoring a league-leading 21 times, including 16 on the ground. Only one of his 16 rushing touchdowns was from farther than 11 yards out. Though the Buccaneers held him to a relatively painless 116 yards from scrimmage in the two previous meetings combined, Kamara still scored three times in those contests. The main thrust of the Saints' offense is to get the ball to Kamara in ways that allow him to do more damage after the ball is in his hands. His 731 yards after the catch in 2020 was by far the most of any player in the NFL. Obviously, the Saints run a lot of screens with Kamara; his 88 targets in the screen game were not only the most in the NFL but 39 more than the second player on the list, Pittsburgh's James Conner. As electric as he can be in the open field, Kamara can also win the physical game inside, as he did last week when he gained 32 yards on six carries against an eight-man box for the Bears.

2. DE Cameron Jordan. Jordan finished the 2020 regular season with his lowest sack total (7.5) since 2016 and his lowest QB hit total (16) since 2014 but he remains one of the main defenders the Buccaneers must slow down on Sunday night. That will largely be the task of rookie Tristan Wirfs, as Jordan mostly rushes over the right side of the opposing line. Wirfs held Jordan without a sack in the previous two meetings, though Jordan did have a QB hit in each game. He is capable of getting on a hot streak, as he did to win the NFC Defensive Player of the Month award this November, a month during which he racked up 5.0 sacks and six tackles for loss. At 6-4 and 287 pounds, Jordan is a power rusher who can overwhelm opposing tackles, getting on them extremely quickly and gathering force quickly. He also plays with relentless effort and can keep blockers off him if he wishes with a very long wingspan. He can rush effectively from a three-point stance or from an upright position and the Saints have been known to move him around on the line. Jordan is also an iron man who has never missed a game or a start in his nine year career and who has played a whopping 8,442 defensive snaps in that span, the most in the NFL. All of that experience and a keen mind mean Jordan can often outwit his opponent and can quickly sniff out what the offense intends to do.

3. T Terron Armstead. Like both players noted above, Armstead is going to the virtual Pro Bowl this year, marking the third time in a row he's been selected for the all-star game. The former third-round project out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff showed off elite athletic skills at his Scouting Combine, including a stunning 4.71 40-yard dash at 6-5 and 306 pounds. Since the Saints drafted him in 2013 he has gradually channeled those talents and developed into an extremely reliable blind-side blocker for Brees. Armstead's only trouble in the NFL has been staying healthy but he would have played his first full 16-game season in 2020 if not for a positive COVID test that kept him out of two games in the second half. Armstead, a former track star, has excellent feet and with that aforementioned speed he can obviously be a dominant blocker on the move. While left tackles are most prized for their pass protection, Armstead is also a force in the running game and he was playing at the top of his game as the regular season came to an end. Head Coach Sean Payton singled Armstead out for his strong performance in the Christmas Day win over Minnesota in which Kamara tied an NFL record with six rushing touchdowns. The Buccaneers know they have to get to Brees very quickly if they want to apply any pressure on him at all, and Armstead will make that difficult on both Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

4. S C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The Saints have a strong pair of starting corners in Lattimore and veteran Janoris Jenkins, but they also found a solution for the slot in the 2019 draft when they took Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round. That's good news for New Orleans because it rarely plays with fewer than five defensive backs on the field. The Saints' most common defensive alignment is a nickel with Gardner-Johnson in the slot, but overall that defense only played with four or fewer DBs on the field on 11.6% of its plays. The 5-11, 210-pound defender is listed as a safety on the Saints roster but clearly has strong coverage skills as he has taken almost all of his snaps in the slot in 2020. He is compactly built and has the tackling skills to play on the inside, ranking third on the team with 65 spots and he also collected one sack and four quarterback hits on blitzes this season. Gardner-Johnson finished the regular season with just one of the Saints league-leading 18 interceptions but he paced the team with 13 passes defensed. Also, it appears that the former Florida Gator has some well-developed trash-talking skills. He managed to draw punches, and subsequent ejections, from two different Chicago wide receivers this season. Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians cautioned his team on Monday not to "get caught up in the finger-pointing and trash-talking" on Sunday night.

STRENGTHS

The Saints had the fifth-best scoring offense and tied for the fifth-best scoring defense in 2020, which is obviously a good combination that led to a +9.1 per-game scoring differential. Only Baltimore (+10.3) had a better differential. (The Buccaneers were fourth at +8.6). New Orleans didn't quite match its historic season of just eight turnovers committed in 2019 but still gave it away just 17 times. As usual, the turnovers in the passing game were a major edge for the Saints; they finished fifth in interception percentage on offense (1.53%) and fourth in the same category on defense (3.23%). Five different players in the Saints' secondary had at least two interceptions. Thanks largely to the swift and shifty Deonte Harris, the Saints ranked in the top 10 in both punt and kickoff return average while their coverage units allowed the lowest punt return average and second-lowest kickoff return average. Here are some more specific areas in which the Saints excelled during the 2020 regular season:

* When the Saints played in Tampa in Week Nine, they came in as the best team in the league in scoring within the last two minutes of either half. That did not change in the season's second half. New Orleans scored 50 points in those portions of the game in 2020, which was the most in the NFL. Those 50 points were, in fact, more than double the league average of 21.1 per game.

* New Orleans defends the short pass very well. The Saints rank in the top 10 in average gain allowed on passes to the short right, left and middle and have been particularly tough on shorter throws to the right side. On 181 such plays, the New Orleans defense ranked first in the NFL in average gain allowed (4.13 yards) and second in completion percentage allowed (60.2%).

* The Saints mix it up on offense and offer unexpected looks more than any other team in the league. During the 2020 regular season they used 32 unique personnel groupings, 13 more than the next highest team. Using more groupings is not necessarily a strength in and of itself, but the Saints turn it into one by deploying quarterback Taysom Hill all over the formation. For instance, New Orleans ran 22 plays this season that included two quarterbacks, two tight ends and one back and receiver each, and they averaged 8.64 yards on those snaps. New Orleans also likes jumbo looks and used six or more offensive linemen on at least 20% of their plays in six of their last seven regular-season games.

* The Saints' strong pass rush on defense is also very deep. New Orleans was the only team in the NFL to have five different players accumulate 25-plus quarterback pressures in 2020, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In addition to down linemen Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata, that list also includes middle linebacker Demario Davis. Davis had 25 pressures in 2020 according to Next Gen, which was the most by any off-ball linebacker in the NFL.

WEAKNESSES

The Saints have few glaring weaknesses, although their red zone defense wasn't particularly tight, giving up touchdowns on 68.0% of the drives it faced, the fourth-worst mark in the league. As prolific as the Saints' aerial attack has been ever since Brees arrived in 2006, New Orleans only ranked 19th in passing yards in 2020, with 234.9 per game. In addition:

* New Orleans did hurt itself a bit with penalties in 2020. The Saints' 98 penalties tied for the ninth-most in the NFL but the 1,005 yards the team was penalized was second only to the one-win Jaguars (1,071). The Saints' offense had 23 holding calls, fourth-most in the league, and the defense was flagged for pass interference 19 times, second-most in the league.

* While Kamara can be a tough runner between the tackles, the Saints' rushing attack, which ranked 10th in the league with an average of 4.59 yards per carry, was least successful in 2020 when trying to run directly up the middle. New Orleans averaged 3.95 yards per carry up the middle, just the 24th-best mark in the NFL.

* The Saints unsurprisingly ranked in the top 10 in third-down conversion percentage, coming in eighth with a success rate of 44.7%. However, New Orleans was actually better, compared to the rest of the field, at long third downs than short ones. On third downs that required two to six yards to convert, New Orleans succeeded 46.5% of the time, which was only 24th-best in the NFL. For some strange reason, the Saints had particularly trouble on third-and-four, converting just two of 12 times (16.7%) for the lowest rate in the league.

* While it is probably just a fluke and too small of a sample size to put too much credence in, Saints kicker Wil Lutz has recently lost his touch on longer field goals. Over the previous two seasons, Lutz only missed six times on 35 field goal attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Since Week 13 of this season, Lutz has missed four of his five attempts in that range, one each from 40, 45, 50 and 57.

NEW FACES IN 2020

Thanks to a couple of trades made this year and last year, the Saints only made four picks in the 2020 draft, including just one after the first round. They still found a new part-time starter for their offensive line for the second year in a row on draft weekend. Their biggest addition on defense was actually a player returning to his original NFL home.

1. G Cesar Ruiz. The first player the Saints drafted in 2019 (in the second round), center Erik McCoy, stepped right into a starting job on the O-Line and acquitted himself quite nicely. This year, the Saints spent their first-round pick on a player billed as a center, too, though Michigan's Cesar Ruiz has actually played right guard for the Saints. He split time at that position with Nick Easton, making 10 starts, including the Wild Card game against Chicago.

2. S Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins returns to the team that drafted him 14th overall in 2009 after a very strong six-year run with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints needed a new starter in their secondary after losing Vonn Bell to Cincinnati in free agency and they got one they can maneuver all around the field like a chess piece. Jenkins has rushed the passer frequently this year and has 2.5 sacks.

3. WR Emmanuel Sanders. The Saints were looking for a credible second wideout option to pair with Michael Thomas when they signed Sanders as an unrestricted free agent in March. With Thomas missing large portions of the season due to injury, Sanders actually became the second option overall in the Saints' passing game after Alvin Kamara. Sanders caught 61 passes for 726 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. G Nick Easton. The fourth-year lineman has started games for New Orleans at both left and right guard this season, opening nine games in all. Most recently he started the regular-season finale at Carolina but suffered a concussion. He was placed on injured reserve on January 9.

2. LB Kwon Alexander. The former Buccaneer standout had just been traded to the Saints when they made their way to Tampa in Week Nine, but he wasn't yet on the active roster and didn't play in that game. He did immediately take over at weakside linebacker after that, moving ahead of Alex Anzalone and starting seven games. Alexander produced 27 tackles, four passes defensed and two fumble recoveries in that span, but his unfortunate NFL injury luck continued in Week 16 when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.

3. WR Tre'Quan Smith. Smith, a third-round pick in 2018, had carved out a decent role in the Saints' offense this year, playing at least 65% of the offensive snaps in each of the first 14 games and recording a career-best 34 catches for 448 yards and four touchdowns. However, he suffered an ankle injury in Kansas City in Week 15 and was subsequently placed on injured reserve on December 24. Since he has now been on I.R. for three games he is eligible to be activated if he is ready to play in the Divisional Round.

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