In Week 1, the Titans built an insurmountable lead quickly because they were able to fool the Buccaneers defense. That should not be the case this week, as the Bucs go from facing the unfamiliar in rookie Marcus Mariota to the familiar in 15-year veteran Drew Brees.
Considering that Brees threw more passes than any other quarterback last season and the Saints traded away tight end Jimmy Graham and deep threat Kenny Stills during the offseason, New Orleans looked like a team that would seek a better run-pass balance in 2015.
Instead, in their 31-19 season-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals, they looked like the same old pass-happy Saints. Brees handed the ball off 19 times and threw it 48 times, which is the 22nd time in 144 games with the Saints that he has attempted at least that many passes.
Just four of those passes (8.3 percent) traveled 20 or more yards down the field. This is consistent with last season, when Brees attempted a deep pass on 9.7 percent of his throws, his lowest percentage since 2007. He completed eight of those passes for touchdowns, which is half the amount he threw in 2011.
Drew Brees' deep passes (20 or more yards)
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Of Brees' 30 completions against the Cardinals, 26 were caught inside 10 yards — and 12 of those were caught behind the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. While Mark Ingram (nine rushes for 24 yards) and Khiry Robinson (eight rushes for 19 yards) didn't get a lot of carries, they were heavily involved in the Saints passing attack, particularly on screen passes, a staple of the Saints offense. In each of the past two seasons, only Detroit's Matthew Stafford has gained more yards than Brees on running back screens, according to Pro Football Focus.
The more aggressive the Bucs are defensively, the more screen passes they will see. They almost certainly won't be as aggressive as the Cardinals, who blitzed Brees on 21 of his 50 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Even so, count on the Bucs seeing their share, as they did in Week 5 last season when Pierre Thomas tore through the defense for a second-quarter touchdown.
Here's what happened: It's third-and-12 for the Saints from the Tampa Bay 15-yard line. Three receivers line up to Brees' left and red-zone threat Graham (since 2010, his 41 touchdowns scored from inside the 20-yard line are second to only New England's Rob Gronkowski) lined up to his right. All four receivers run 8-10 yards down the field and set up to block.
The Bucs send six defenders after Brees, who holds onto the ball juuuust long enough before floating it to Thomas. From there, it's simple math: Thomas has seven Saints players to block six Bucs defenders.
The Saints released Thomas in March and replaced him with C.J. Spiller, who was limited in practice this week after missing the season opener and is questionable for this Sunday.
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Another player to watch in the Saints' passing game is second-year receiver Brandin Cooks. With the departure of Graham, he is Brees' No. 1 target. He suffered season-ending thumb and wrist injuries in mid November, so he faced the Bucs only once. In that contest, he caught nine of a team-high 11 targets for 56 yards.
Because of his relatively diminutive size — 5 feet 10, 189 pounds (he's no Mike Evans, who is 6-5, 231 pounds) — the Saints call plays designed to get him in space. Otherwise, when bigger defensive backs press him at the line of scrimmage, this happens:
Let's go back to Week 5 last season and examine the Saints' creativity. On this second-and-2 late in the first quarter, Cooks lines up out wide to Brees' left. When Brees takes the snap, the defense has to determine whether he's handing the ball off to fullback Austin Johnson or Robinson … or Cooks on the end-around.
The blocking of the Saints offensive line suggests the run is going left, and the Bucs defense begins its pursuit accordingly, which clears the way for Cooks on the end-around.
This end-around was more than just your typical gadget play. Fast forward to midway through the third quarter. The Saints trail the Bucs 24-13 but are deep in Tampa Bay territory. They come to the line on first-and-10 in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end), a grouping from which they ran the ball 56 percent of the time in 2014, according to Football Outsiders. Before the ball is snapped, Cooks starts running like the play call is another end-around.
But it's not! When Cooks reaches the hashmarks, he stops and turns back. Cornerback Johnthan Banks, who followed Cooks as he sprinted to the backfield, is in the middle of the field and has to slam on the brakes. It's an easy pass for Brees and easy catch for Cooks, who picks up 9 yards.
Whether it's quick slants, screen passes, end-arounds, fake end-arounds or jet sweeps, Cooks figures to be a factor Sunday, so the Bucs should monitor his every move like they're federal agents responsible for the Pope.
The Bucs haven't beaten the Saints since October 2012 (seven games), and they haven't beaten them in New Orleans since January 2011, a game in which the Saints pulled several starters in the fourth quarter because they were locked into their NFC playoff seed. The Bucs came close twice last season, crumbling in overtime after building an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in Week 5 and tanking/resting their starters for 2015 in Week 17.
To win Sunday, the Bucs must get to Brees, or at the very least hurry him, to disrupt his timing on short and intermediate routes and pressure him into ill-advised passes. Two of his three interceptions in Week 5 were the result of him forcing a throw instead of taking the sack. But if given time, receivers will separate, and Brees will find breakdowns in coverage and close in on 400 career touchdown passes. He's only three away. The pick: Saints