Football

Tom Brady’s Bucs an improved team since last facing the Saints

TAMPA, Fla. — Sitting in what appeared to be his home gym, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady posted a video to his social media accounts Sunday afternoon — the day after his Bucs defeated the Washington Football Team 31-23 in the opening round of the playoffs.

“It’s the middle of January, we’re still working. We’re still here,” Brady said as music began to play in the background. “Round 2 next. Who do you guys want us to play? I think I know. Let’s go.”

The song? “Still Dre,” by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg, with Snoop proclaiming in the opening verse, “Guess who’s back?”

If you know Brady, the team he’s alluding to is unquestionably the New Orleans Saints, whom the Bucs face on Sunday (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox). But if you know the Bucs, and their recent track record against this Saints team, you know it’s probably the last team they should want to be facing. It’s becoming what the Green Bay Packers were to them, and later, the Philadelphia Eagles — two nemeses that thwarted their Super Bowl journeys before the Bucs finally clinched a Super Bowl in the 2002 season.

Since Bruce Arians took over as head coach in 2019, the Bucs are 0-4 against the Saints, with New Orleans outscoring the Bucs by a combined 137-67. Even with Brady now as their quarterback, they’ve lost to the Saints this year by a combined 46 points — 34-23 in Week 1 and a 38-3 shellacking in Week 9.

Still, when Arians was asked who’d he’d be rooting to play Saturday night, he said, “It doesn’t matter … where we go — I mean, we’re a better football team than the last time we played the Saints.”

He’s right. They are. But they left scoring opportunities on the table against a Washington team that had the easiest path to the postseason with a 7-9 record, and they allowed a backup quarterback in Taylor Heinicke to hang three touchdowns on them.

This Saints team, on the other hand, was built to go all the way, to give future first-ballot Hall of Famer Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton one last hurrah before Brees rides off into the sunset. It’s only fitting that Brees’ swan song — if this is truly to be his last year — includes a final duel with Brady, whom he’s gone back and forth with over the last several years rewriting the history books.

Brady is much more comfortable with the offense, and it has adjusted to suit more of his strengths, including pre-snap motion and play-action. The Bucs have recommitted to a more balanced attack by running the ball, too.

Brady is getting rid of the ball quicker. A lot quicker. In Weeks 1-9 this season, Brady averaged 2.43 seconds in the pocket before each throw. In Week 10 through the wild-card game Saturday, he averaged 2.23 seconds in the pocket. He’s also faced significantly more blitzes per dropback (19.1% in Weeks 1-9 and 36.3% in Weeks 10 through the wild-card), yet his passer rating has gone up from 96.0 to 127.8, and he’s actually been pressured on only 10% of those dropbacks in Week 10 through the wild-card, versus the 18.6% in Weeks 1-9.

The last time the Bucs played the Saints, Antonio Brown had practiced with them for less than a week after being out of football for over a year. He is now not only assimilated into Arians and Brady’s offense, but he’s also become a focal point of it over the past five weeks. He has nearly the same number of targets as Mike Evans. He’s lining up inside, outside and in the backfield, and he’s also being utilized in more pre-snap motion. It’s been very effective.

In addition, the last time the Bucs faced the Saints, they were without left guard Ali Marpet, arguably their best offensive lineman, which caused a whole litany of communication breakdowns against the Saints’ defensive line stunts. Brady was pressured on 46% of his dropbacks in Week 9 — among the highest rates in his career.

In Brady’s last five games, including against Washington’s top-ranked defense, he’s been pressured on just 10% of his dropbacks, down from 19% in the first 12 games of the season before the bye week. The Bucs will, however, very likely be without right guard Alex Cappa this time, as Cappa suffered what is believed to be a fractured ankle against Washington, which is significant because Brady does not like pressure up the middle, and teams know that. Plus, left tackle Donovan Smith has struggled against the Saints’ Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson.

On defense, they’re blitzing less and focusing more on keeping things in front of them. They’ve played a lot less man coverage and more zone defense with Cover 2 and 2-man coverage (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath). Against the Saints, they’ll need to press to disrupt the timing of receivers’ routes.

This season, Brees’ completion percentage has dropped from 74.6% when both outside cornerbacks are playing off coverage to 59.2% when both outside corners are playing press (during the regular season, his completion percentage against press dropped even lower, to 57.6%). It should also be noted that Brees’ completion percentage against 2-man drops to 56.5%, versus 71.8% against all other coverages. So the recipe is there.

Cornerback Jamel Dean has made some noticeable improvements. In their last matchup in Week 9, Dean was out of position on Tre’Quan Smith’s touchdown and succumbed to a double move by Emmanuel Sanders for another TD. But after returning from a concussion and groin injury, Dean gave up just one pass to Calvin Ridley in Week 15, with Arians saying it may have been his best game ever.

The team also believes cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting is in a better place after battling some nagging injuries and some confidence issues, and he’s now getting a higher volume of snaps again. Murphy-Bunting picked off Heinicke in the first quarter in the wild-card win.

While all of these changes have been noticeable and yielded positive results that allowed the Bucs to clinch a playoff spot and the No. 5 seed, it remains to be seen if they can be sustained in a game against arguably one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

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