Still savoring the Buccaneers’ season-opening 48-40 win over the Saints? Before we completely turn our attention to the visiting Super Bowl champion Eagles, here are some of my observations after watching the All-22 film:
Let’s start with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s tone-setting 58-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. It’s a play the Bucs have been working on, coach Dirk Koetter said Monday, and attempted in last season’s finale against the Saints.
“If you remember, in the game at home, but we had Hump (Adam Humphries) as the over-the-top guy and DeSean as the low guy,” he said. “Being the really smart coaches we are, we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we put the fast guy inside and the other guy outside?’ There you have it — touchdown.”
(Jackson actually missed the game because of a sore ankle, so Mike Evans was the low guy.)
On Sunday, the Bucs lined up Jackson in the slot and Chris Godwin on the outside. Tampa Bay attacked the right side of the field with a variation of the “smash” concept, a route combination in which the outside receiver runs a shallow route and the inside receiver runs a corner route.
This particular play design stressed the Saints’ deep safety, Marcus Williams. First, Fitzpatrick’s fake handoff forced Williams to honor the possibility of a run. Second, Evans’ deep crossing route on the other side diverted his attention. Once Williams turned his back to Jackson, the play was over. Jackson was gone, and Williams couldn’t recover. Credit Fitzpatrick not only for making the throw but also for looking in Evans’ direction immediately after he received the snap.
The play offered further proof of how Jackson and his speed can transform this offense. For that reason, his status (concussion and right-shoulder injury) is a major storyline this week as the Bucs prepare for the vaunted Eagles defense.
“We didn’t do a good enough job of giving DeSean chances to show what he could do last year,” Koetter said. “We didn’t put the ball where he could make plays. We did a lot better job of that yesterday and he showed up — three explosives of his five catches.”
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As encouraging as the Bucs’ performance on offense was, their performance on defense has to be at least as concerning. You might attribute 40 points and 475 yards to “Drew Brees and the Saints in New Orleans,” but we’ve seen this act more often than USA airs reruns of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” They’re flirting with disaster. After all, they had never beaten an opponent that had scored 40 points against them (0-35).
Brees did whatever he wanted to do, completing 25 of 29 passes to primary targets Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara and 82 percent overall.
“It was fairly obvious what their game plan was,” Koetter said. “They were really going to work those two guys. Just between them — what was it — 25 catches between those two guys?”
The Saints did most of their damage on passes inside 10 yards, taking advantage of matchups against the Bucs linebackers. When a linebacker was covering Thomas or Kamara, Brees completed all 11 of his passes for 129 yards, including this 35-yard gain on the Saints’ second play from scrimmage.
Thomas, lined up wide on the left side of the field, ran a post route to clear out space underneath. Tight end Josh Hill pulled Lavonte David away from the point of attack by running out toward the sideline then along it. That isolated Kamara against Kwon Alexander.
Kamara ran what’s called an option route, which means he has the choice to run in or out depending upon Alexander’s leverage. Alexander guarded against a pass over the middle, so Kamara cut toward the sideline. Brees’ pass traveled only 3 yards; Kamara picked up the other 32 as David struggled to disengage from Hill’s block.
On the next play, the Saints emptied their backfield and spread out the Bucs defense. This time, they lined up Kamara out wide to the left and moved Thomas to the slot, where he was matched up against David. David, trying to prevent a catch over the middle of the field, lined up over Thomas’ inside shoulder. Thomas ran right at David, broke to his left and as soon as he looked back toward Brees, the pass was already on its way.
Like Hill on the previous play, Kamara blocks cornerback Ryan Smith downfield, allowing Thomas to pick up a chunk of yards after the catch.
“They were really working inside — the choice routes to Kamara and the option routes to the receiver,” Koetter said. “That was really their game plan. ... When were in two-high (safety) coverage, they were working inside. We were in single-high (safety) coverages, they were working outside. That’s what teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks do.”
That’s how Brees completed his first touchdown pass of the game — by attacking the Bucs’ single-high safety coverage.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Saints lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers), with two receivers on the right. The Bucs, who don’t typically press receivers, crept closer to the line of scrimmage. When the Saints put Austin Carr in motion and in tight next to slot receiver Ted Ginn, the Bucs defensive backs switched responsibilities, with rookie Carlton Davis taking Ginn and Vernon Hargreaves taking Carr. By stacking their receivers, the Saints got Ginn a clean release and separation from Davis.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the Eagles don’t have the depth at receiver that the Saints do. Alshon Jeffery is out indefinitely as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, and Mack Hollins is on injured reserve. They’ll be leaning on Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace and tight end Zach Ertz. Given the Eagles’ limited options downfield and the Saints’ success underneath vs. the Bucs, 35-year-old running back Darren Sproles could be a factor. He caught only four passes for 22 yards in the opener against the Falcons, but Nick Foles targeted him seven times.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.