The biggest difference between the Saints and Buccaneers isn’t what you think

Tampa Bay has to work harder than New Orleans to score points. Here’s why.
As good as the Bucs offense has been this season, it's still averaging more than a point less per drive than the Saints offense. [Associated Press]
As good as the Bucs offense has been this season, it's still averaging more than a point less per drive than the Saints offense. [Associated Press]
Published December 8 2018
Updated December 9 2018

In 2011, the Saints became the fourth team in NFL history to average 34 points a game. This season, they’re averaging 35, putting them on pace to set a new team points record.

Is it Drew Brees? Alvin Kamara? Michael Thomas?

Those are all good reasons. But there’s something more elementary to their success. Something really, really boring. Something that only coaches talk about.

The single greatest difference between the Buccaneers and Saints isn’t who is playing quarterback, running back or receiver.

No, the difference is that before the Saints touch the ball, before coach Sean Payton even relays the play call, the offense is getting a 5-yard head start.

The Saints begin their drives around the 31, 32-yard line, the best average starting field position in the NFL. The Bucs begin their drives around the 25, 26-yard line, the worst average starting field position.

Five yards? What’s the big deal? Pffffff. That’s equivalent to a false start penalty — or in the Bucs’ case, a run play.

If you feel like 5 yards aren’t a matter of life and death, here’s what Tony D’Amato, coach of the AFFA’s Miami Sharks, might tell you:

“You know, when you get old in life, things get taken from you. I mean, that’s part of life. But you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game — life or football — the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

“On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch! Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!”

I know that sounds like a pregame pep speech right out of a movie and that D’Amato might not sound like an analytics guru. The numbers, though, back him up. Inches matter.

This season, teams that have started a drive inside their 10-yard line have given the ball back to their opponents, via a punt or turnover, more than 65 percent of the time. They’ve gone on to score points only 20 percent of the time. If we expand the sample to include all drives that start inside the 30, teams give the ball back to their opponents a little more than half the time. They’ve gone on to score points about a third of the time. Simply put: The closer a team is to its opponent’s end zone, the better. The likelihood of a punt or turnover steadily decreases, and the likelihood of a touchdown or field goal increases.

Those numbers tell us that field position is an advantage, but they don’t necessarily tell us how much of an advantage. The value of that 5-yard head start is something we can measure, and we can do so using “expected points,” a concept introduced in the 1988 book The Hidden Game of Football. The concept is based on the premise that each yard line has a point value that fluctuates based on down and distance. For example, a first and 10 from a team’s 20-yard line is worth 0.28 expected points, a first and 10 from its 25 is worth 0.61 expected points, a first and 10 from its 30 is worth 0.94 points and so on.

Expected points by yard line
Starting field position Expected points value
Team's own 10 -0.38
Team's own 15 -0.22
Team's own 20 0.28
Team's own 25 0.61
Team's own 30 0.94
Team's own 35 1.27

Sunday’s game won’t unfold this neatly, but for the purposes of keeping the math simple, let’s assume the Bucs and Saints both get 12 possessions. Say Tampa Bay starts at the 25 each time and New Orleans starts at the 30. That amounts to a four-point advantage for the Saints. Four points! Based purely on field position!

So how does a team improve its field position? Kickoff and punt returns are the first things that come to mind. The Saints haven’t excelled in those phases, but they’re near average. The Bucs, however, are firmly below average, according to Football Outsiders’ data on special teams efficiency.

Another way: limiting turnovers. There’s the obvious disadvantage of giveaways — you’re essentially forfeiting a turn. Less obvious is that a team often compounds the mistake by giving its opponent good field position.

New Orleans has given away the ball 10 times, the second fewest. Off those turnovers, opponents have scored 27 points. Tampa Bay has given away the ball an NFL-high 30 times. Off those turnovers, opponents have scored 75 points, which is more than 20 percent of the total points the Bucs have allowed this season.

To beat the Saints, it’s true that the Bucs defense needs to generate pressure against Brees, disrupt Kamara’s option and wheel routes, and blanket Thomas. Chances are, though, that against a patchwork secondary New Orleans will move up and down the field, just as Carolina did last Sunday. The key, then, for the Bucs will be for them to force the Saints to drive 75, 80 yards on every possession rather than 70, 50 or even 30 yards. The longer they have to drive, the more likely they are to make a mistake.

That’s football, guys. That’s all it is.

What to watch for

First down: If you’re having a friend over to watch the game and he tells you that the Bucs need to establish the run to keep Brees on the sidelines, point to the door and inform him he won’t be getting into heaven. He is not worthy of an explanation, or your friendship for that matter.

Tampa Bay has a poor run offense, and New Orleans has a stout run defense, so committing to the run would be like drinking poison and expecting it to kill your enemy. Nelson Mandela once said that. Or maybe it was Mahatma Gandhi. Or Bono. Actually, I have no evidence any of them said such a thing.

What the Bucs should do is pass on first down. Not 100 percent of the time, of course. But maybe 99 percent. In such situations, Tampa Bay is one of the most efficient pass offenses and New Orleans is one of the most vulnerable pass defenses. The Bucs are averaging 8.8 yards per first-down pass, the third-best average; the Saints are allowing 8.4 yards per first-down pass, the second-worst average.

Weather: Let’s check in on our Super Duper First Alert Max AccuStorm Trackermageddon 3000 radar brought to you by Fruit of the Loom:

“It’s supposed to rain. Back to you, Thomas.”

In preparation for rain and wind, the Saints have practiced outdoors with a wet ball.

Your thoughts, Dirk Koetter?

“Good for them.”

Explosive plays: The Bucs are tied with the Rams for the league lead in explosive plays, which Koetter defines as pass plays that gain at least 16 yards and run plays that gain at least 12 yards. Each has 126.

Tampa Bay, however, also has called more plays than most teams. So what if instead of looking at the volume of explosive plays the Bucs have executed, we look at their rate of explosive plays? They drop a few spots but still rank among the leaders. They execute explosive plays 15.5 percent of the time, trailing only the Chargers, Chiefs and Rams.

As for the Saints, they’ve executed 97 explosive plays. Their 12 percent rate is almost exactly league average.

Rate of explosive plays
Team Explosive passes Explosive runs Total explosive plays Rate of explosive plays
1. LAC 82 41 123 17.3%
2. KC 88 32 120 16.1%
3. LAR 94 32 126 16.0%
4. TB 97 29 126 15.5%
5. CAR 64 45 109 14.9%
6. SF 64 37 101 13.6%
7. CIN 68 27 95 13.4%
8. CLE 76 30 106 13.3%
9. NE 73 28 101 13.2%
10. TEN 64 36 100 13.0%
14. NO 69 28 97 12.0%

Tampa Bay and New Orleans are two of the most efficient pass offenses in the league, but they have dramatically different approaches to executing explosive plays. The Bucs attack defenses vertically; the Saints attack defenses horizontally and vertically. Consider that both teams are among the league leaders in yards per pass. Tampa Bay is averaging 9.0; New Orleans is averaging 8.5. The depths of Jameis Winston’s and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s targets, however, have been about 3 yards greater than Drew Brees’, as Times colleague Eduardo Encina pointed out this week. In other words, the Saints are racking up their yardage after the catch, while the Bucs are doing so before the catch.

Nothing illustrates this more succinctly than each team’s distribution of targets. Jacquizz Rodgers is the only Bucs running back to gain at least 16 yards on a pass play, and he has done so three times. He has not scored a touchdown. For the Saints, Kamara and Mark Ingram have been responsible for 13 such plays and have scored three touchdowns.

What to download

In his past two starts, Jameis Winston hasn’t committed a single turnover. It hasn’t just been luck, either. He has been responsible for only two “turnover worthy” plays, according to Pro Football Focus. He has 16 over the full season.

It might be too early to label this late-season stretch a “turning point,” but it’s no doubt a marked and encouraging improvement. What’s changed? Is it better decision-making? Is it the glove? Is it the visor?

Here’s a theory: He’s meditating. Winston said Thursday that he has been using an app called Headspace during daily morning sessions.

“It’s a pretty good app,” he said. “It just puts everything in perspective, slows things down. It always talks about how self-talk is not necessarily good because you’re not present. Sometimes you’ve just got to live in the moment and trust your instincts and go out there and play.”

Prediction

Did the Cowboys show the NFL the blueprint to beating the Saints? No. You know what the blueprint is? It’s not a game plan that you install the week before a game. It’s drafting players like Demarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch. New Orleans’ loss to Dallas was a blip. Its previous 11 games offer plenty of evidence that it’s a scary good football team, and I’m betting that’s the one that shows up Sunday. The pick: Saints 27, Bucs 20.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.

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