Can Tom Brady solve the Saints' splendid defense?
Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

Sunday will be the third meeting this season between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. The obvious storyline is the matchup between the teams' ageless superstar quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But the game may well turn on how Brady and his multiple offensive weapons fare against a Saints defense that already contained the Bucs twice this season.

Brady elevated the Bucs this season, leading them to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and to a playoff victory last week - Tampa Bay's first since it won Super Bowl XXXVII 18 years ago. But in their two meetings with the Saints, the Bucs were outscored 72-26. What is it about the Saints' defense that's made them such a formidable obstacle for Tampa Bay? And can the Bucs get past them this time?

Let's start by putting aside the it's hard to beat a team three times in a season talking point, since it's actually happened 14 out of 21 times since the 1970 merger. So drop it, OK? Let's instead get right to the nuts and bolts of this thing.

Tampa Bay's offense finished the regular season ranked third in offensive DVOA and fifth in expected points added per play (EPA/play), per Ben Baldwin's database. Two of its four worst EPA/play games came against New Orleans - the latter being Week 9's 38-3 beatdown in Tampa. But from Week 10 to Week 17, the Bucs had the best EPA/play of any team in the league. And they also had the most EPA/play of any of the 12 teams that played during last weekend's wild-card games.

The Bucs have benefited from the addition of Antonio Brown, who first played in Week 9. Brown's another dynamic pass-catching target in an offense already stacked full of them: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate. But the one problem that can undo Tampa Bay's offense is something the Saints happen to do quite well: pressure.

Pressure's an issue for Brady, as it's been throughout his career. Of course, getting to Brady can be easier said than done, but when it's been done this season, it's been troublesome for the Bucs. In the four games Tampa Bay posted its worst EPA/play of the season - the two losses to the Saints, plus defeats against the Bears and Rams - Brady faced far more pressure than he did in every other game in 2020. His performance was also notably worse, per PFF:

Pressure rate Completion rate TDs INTs Sacks Passer rating
37.1% 46.3% 0 2 10 42.7

Now look at what Brady did against pressure in the Bucs' 12 other games, also per PFF:

Pressure rate Completion rate TDs INTs Sacks Passer rating
19.5% 42.1% 4 3 11 62.9

Notice that his performance against pressure in those other games wasn't much better, but that he only saw half as much of it. Brady isn't all that mobile, but he can still step up in the pocket to deliver a throw if he's getting heat from the edges. He especially thrives if he's got a clean pocket. And New Orleans is the kind of team that's capable of getting in his face fairly consistently to make things uncomfortable.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Saints finished the regular season ranked seventh in pressure rate (25.8%) despite blitzing 31.8% of the time, which ranked only 14th. New Orleans can do this because it has multiple players capable of beating blocks. ESPN has a metric called sacks created, which credits the player to first beat his blocker on a sack, as opposed to the dude who finished the sack. With defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Trey Hendrickson, plus defensive tackle David Onyemata, the Saints have three of the top 24 players - league-wide, at any position - in sacks created.

Hendrickson missed two of the Saints' last three games with a neck injury, but returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday. He had three sacks and four quarterback hits in the Saints' two wins against the Bucs, so his status could be pivotal.

New Orleans didn't just tee off on the Bucs, either. The Saints finished the regular season second in defensive DVOA and second in weighted defensive DVOA, which places greater emphasis on more recent games. Per Baldwin's data, they were also fourth in EPA/play. And since that Week 9 wipeout of the Bucs, the Saints boast the league's second-best defensive EPA/play.

New Orleans is also excellent in coverage. Demario Davis has emerged as one of the league's best off-ball linebackers; his 12.5 coverage snaps per reception ranks third in the league, per PFF. And Alex Anzalone has stepped in as a tackler who can also assist in coverage since replacing the injured ex-Buc Kwon Alexander in the last two games.

On the back end, the top five players in New Orleans' secondary rotation - cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams, and slot corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson - all have passer ratings against of lower than 100. The Saints tied for the league lead during the regular season with 18 interceptions. Lattimore trailed Evans in the two regular-season games against Tampa Bay, limiting him to three catches on eight targets for 30 yards. And Jenkins had a pick-6 that blew the Week 1 matchup wide open.

Brady succeeded in defying the constraints of his age for another year, and it's been to the Bucs' benefit. He and the Bucs have been getting better at the right time. But now Brady has to flourish against a defense that's in many ways built to beat him, and that already beat him handily twice. Tom Brady's the GOAT, but even he can still prove something with a win Sunday.

Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.

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Can Tom Brady solve the Saints' splendid defense?
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