If you want to get a grasp on how the New Orleans Saints have prevented Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady from hurting them this season, dial up a three-play sequence from the last time these two teams met.
With the Buccaneers near midfield and about three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Saints sent a four-man rush, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson collapsed left tackle Donovan Smith back into Tom Brady for a sack. The play was negated by a defensive holding penalty. New Orleans sent a four-man rush on the next play, and with Brady evading pressure in his face, Hendrickson brought him down again from behind. Hendrickson got to Brady once again on the next play, another four-man rush, cleaning up a sack after Brady slipped out of Onyemata’s grasp.
The backward march made Tampa’s 16-yard completion on third down irrelevant. Out of field goal range and in need of something offensively, the Buccaneers went for it on fourth down. That’s when the Saints sent a blitz, pressuring Brady into making a desperation heave that was intercepted by Malcolm Jenkins.
So excuse Saints coach Sean Payton for sounding a bit incredulous, but of course his team’s pass rush had a profound impact on the way his team has been able to bottle Brady up this season.
The New Orleans Saints are facing a familiar foe this week in NFC South rival Tampa Bay, a team they swept in the regular season.
“Did you watch the second game?” Payton asked. “How did you think they affected that matchup? I thought it was significant.”
Indeed, the Saints have harassed Brady in their two games against him this season. In that second game, New Orleans racked up 15 pressures against Brady — the most he was pressured in a single game this season — as it thoroughly trounced the Buccaneers 38-3 in Tampa. In their Week 1 meeting on Sept. 13, the Saints pressured him nine times. They did this while blitzing him on only 23.8% of his 80 combined dropbacks — 8% below their season average.
So when the Saints and Buccaneers meet for a third time this Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs, all parties involved are surely well aware of the importance of the Saints’ rush in this game, especially from their front four.
“We always say we are the spear — not the tip of the sword, not one of the weapons,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “No, we are the entire weapon and then everybody else can feed off of our energy level.”
New Orleans sacked Brady six times in its first two meetings, and all but one of those sacks came courtesy of a defensive lineman. This has been the case for much of the season for the Saints: 27 of their 45 sacks this season (60%) have come using standard four-man pressure.
Amie Just, Luke Johnson and Rod Walker forecast Sunday’s showdown between the Saints and Buccaneers.
That is an important skill for a defense to have in the modern NFL, when slowing down opposing passing attacks has the greatest chilling effect on their ability to put points on the scoreboard.
Generating pressure with just the front four allows the defense to do more in coverage. It’s simple math: Sending four players on the rush allows teams to drop a seventh player into coverage, and pressuring the quarterback with four players makes finding holes in that coverage more difficult.
And when that coverage is holding up, it affords the four-man rush the critical few tenths of a second to impact the passer.
“When you look at the way our front has been able to get pressure on the quarterback without always having to bring the fifth or sixth element, really allows us to do some good things in coverage,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “And then I think the improved play of our secondary in pass defense over the last half of the season has also been a big factor in our ability to get after the passer with a four-man rush. So those things work together.”
Everyone who spoke about the four-man rush echoed this sentiment, with the rush and the coverage working in symphony to create havoc on opposing offenses. They also agreed it takes special importance in a game like the Sunday’s against Tampa Bay.
Sending consistent blitz pressure against a player like Brady, with his sharp football mind and 21 years of professional quarterback experience, can sometimes be a fool’s errand.
“He’s been playing football since 1980-something,” Jordan joked. “He’s seen every look that you can give.”
Not only does Brady recognize the pressure when it’s coming, but he releases the ball quickly. And not only that, but the players he is releasing it quickly to make up one of the NFL’s better assemblages of skill position talent.
Receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown have all made a Pro Bowl in the past three seasons. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a diminished version of his former self after returning from retirement this offseason, but the four-time All-Pro still averaged almost 14 yards per catch and caught seven touchdowns this season.
“Any time you can disrupt the quarterback without having to bring extra guys, that’s big,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “It’s especially big when you play against teams with extremely talented skill players — the more guys you can have covering those guys, the better.”
From here on out, the Saints’ 2020 season is on the line every time they line up to play. To keep it going for another week, Rankins said that consistent pressure on Brady and the bunch is going to be important as ever this week.
And to be honest, he said, that’s just how they like it.
“We take pride in that,” Rankins said. “We literally are always asking for that. That’s something we’re like, listen, we got it, y’all take care of it on the back end and we’ll apply the pressure. … We’re going to be the ones to change the game.”
Plenty of eyes will be fixed on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday in anticipation of what could be the last game between New Orleans Sai…
After missing two practices in the lead up to Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints running back Latavius Murray …