There weren't many surprises in Week 4, but the Buccaneers and the Saints had parts in two of them. The Buccaneers weren't supposed to go to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers, and the Saints weren't supposed to get blown out by the Cowboys after blowing them out 11 months ago.
But that's what happened. Other than the league and retailers cashing in on — um, I mean "raising awareness for" — breast cancer every October, few things are a certainty in the NFL.
While both the Bucs and the Saints have taken different paths into their Week 5 matchup in New Orleans, each sits at 1-3 and only a game behind the 2-2 Panthers and Falcons in the NFC South.
The Saints are 1-3?! How are the Saints 1-3?
Through the first quarter of the season, the Saints have regressed defensively, in both stopping the run and covering the pass.
Against the Cowboys, the Saints built an entire gameplan around limiting running back DeMarco Murray, and it failed. The Saints frequently stuffed eight defenders in the box and left one safety deep, whom they would roll toward Dez Bryant's side of the field. Doing so left other receivers in favorable one-on-one situations.
An example from the first quarter with 1:42 remaining and Dallas up 7-0:
The Cowboys line up in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers). On two of the previous three plays, the Cowboys lined up with at least two tight ends and ran the ball for five yards each time. A run here to the right side, where the Cowboys have positioned tight ends Jason Witten and James Hanna, is plausible.
That's the direction the Cowboys fake, and every Saints defender in the box bites.
Note how far safety Jairus Byrd has moved toward Dez Bryant's side of the field.
Cornerback Corey White gives receiver Terrance Williams a 10-yard cushion even before the snap, making this an easy call for quarterback Tony Romo. He doesn't have to make any other reads and goes right to Williams on the curl route. White misses the tackle, and Williams turns a 10-yard gain into a 16-yard gain.
Tackling was an issue for New Orleans all game long. The Saints missed 14 tackles total, and seven of those were misses on Murray. The game against the Cowboys isn't an outlier, either. The Saints missed 16 tackles in the season opener against the Falcons. After missing only 77 tackles all of last season, they've already missed 44 tackles this season — and we're only four games in.
Will the Saints' shoddy tackling continue against the Buccaneers? Tackles are difficult to predict from one game to the next, but the Buccaneers don't possess a back that's as elusive as Murray.
Murray is second in the league in yards after contact per rushing attempt at 3.34 (only Chris Ivory of the New York Jets is better with a 3.56 mark). By comparison, the Buccaneers' Bobby Rainey has 2.34 YAC per rushing attempt and Doug Martin has 1.78. So while I expect the Saints to focus on shutting down the Buccaneers' run game, they're not likely to have as much trouble this time around.
What are the Saints' weaknesses in pass coverage?
Knowing Vincent Jackson is Mike Glennon's favorite target (he was targeted a team-high 12 times when the teams met in Week 17 last season), Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will likely try to take that option away. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, who held Dez Bryant to two catches for 26 yards before relinquishing an 18-yard touchdown catch with 3:34 left, will be responsible for covering Jackson.
The starting cornerback spot opposite Lewis, however, has been a question mark since the offseason. The Saints brought in 15-year veteran Champ Bailey but cut him after the preseason and gave the job to Patrick Robinson. By the time the Saints played the Vikings in Week 3, Robinson was barely on the field as he was demoted in favor of nickel corner Corey White.
Tony Romo attacked White — who will likely shadow Louis Murphy — completing all five of the passes he threw in his direction, including the 16-yard pass to Williams mentioned above as well as a 6-yard touchdown, also to Williams.
Murphy, signed off the street days before the Bucs played the Steelers, made a clutch 41-yard catch to set up the game-winning touchdown and, with Mike Evans out because of a groin injury, will once again be depended upon.
The problem with that is that over his six-year career Murphy has not been a dependable target. He's known for his speed, not his hands. Here are quarterbacks' ratings when they've thrown to Murphy:
|2013||New York Giants||13||6||37||1||2||39.1|
To be fair, even Stephen King couldn't dream up a more frightening cast of quarterbacks for Murphy. A past-his-prime Carson Palmer. Jason Campbell. Bruce Gradkowski. Charlie Frye. And even …
Still, as Football Outsiders notes in its 2014 almanac, of 149 players with at least 10 targets in each of the last three years, Murphy is the only player to catch fewer than half of his targets in each season.
The safety tandem of free-agent Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd (up to six years, $26.3 million guaranteed) and 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro was expected to be a strength but instead has been a major disappointment. Byrd, who has the second-most interceptions (22) since 2009, tore his lateral meniscus during practice Thursday and will miss the rest of the season. It's a serious setback for a defense in desperate need of playmakers. The Saints sit at the bottom of the NFL in takeaways (zero interceptions, one fumble recovery).
Vaccaro has struggled with his tackling and in pass coverage. Through four games, he is the second-worst tackler among safeties, missing a tackle every 3.1 attempts (Winston Guy, 2.8), according to profootballfocus.com. In coverage, he's targeted every 9.1 snaps, eighth-most in the NFL. The Cowboys threw at him six times, completing five passes. They especially took advantage when he was matched up with Witten.
Here's one example from the first quarter:
On 3rd-and-2 from the New Orleans 33-yard line the Cowboys line up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and position Witten to the right of the offensive line. The Saints show man coverage, and Vaccaro lines up directly in front of Witten. Once again, the Saints have Byrd creep toward Bryant's side of the field.
At the snap, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Witten pushes off the 6-foot, 214-pound Vaccaro to get a little separation. When linebacker Curtis Lofton follows Murray out of the backfield, Witten, running a drag route, is in the clear. The Cowboys convert and never look back, scoring their first touchdown of the game four plays later.
Buccaneers tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins lacks Witten's experience, but at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds he could give the team a similar advantage if he's one-on-one with Vaccaro.
In our scouting report of the Steelers last week, we discussed how there is no hangover effect after blowouts and there is no advantage the week after playing on a Thursday night. Is the Saints' homefield advantage a myth? No, it's for real. Here are their 2013 home/away splits:
|Total yards||Yardage differential||Yards per game||Total points||Point differential||Points per game||W-L|
|Home||3,546||+ 1,496||443.3||272||+ 147||34||8-0|
|Away||2,845||+ 116||355.6||163||– 33||20.4||3-5|
We're only four games into this season, but the win-loss trend has continued as the Saints have lost all three of their away games and won their only home game.
The last time these two teams met in New Orleans, Drew Brees abused the Buccaneers' cornerbacks, completing 15 of the 16 passes thrown at the trio of Leonard Johnson, Johnthan Banks and Darrelle Revis for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Even though the Saints are struggling on defense, the other side of the ball remains strong and should be able to dismantle the Buccaneers' secondary once again. The pick: Saints by double digits.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tbassfootball.