Sean Payton did not need to defer to the tape after Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers.
The Saints coach knew right away that the secondary struggled more with technique and execution than coverage breaks, and the team did not generate much, if any, pass rush during the 48-40 loss. A review of the film only confirmed his immediate suspicions.
“Our pass-rush plan hurt us at times,” Payton said. “There were some pivotal moments where the quarterback was able to flush and do enough damage to earn a third-down or gain a first down. We struggled in coverage. Our technique wasn’t great.”
Only one of the big plays looks like an obvious coverage bust. Immediately after the play happened, many pointed at either cornerback Patrick Robinson or safety Vonn Bell for blowing the coverage that resulted in DeSean Jackson running free for a 58-yard touchdown on Tampa Bay’s opening drive. But it does not look like either of those players are the culprit.
It appears New Orleans is playing Cover 3 on the play, which means both Bell and Robinson were responsible for underneath and intermediate routes, with cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley and safety Marcus Williams each assigned a deep third. As the play starts, Lattimore covers an in route that Williams also gets caught watching. Crawley takes an out route on the side of the field, which leaves Jackson running free through the middle of the field before he breaks to the outside on a deep corner route.
It looked like Tampa Bay’s plan was to get the ball out as quickly as possible. The throw to Jackson, which clocked in at 3.19 seconds, was one of six plays where Ryan Fitzpatrick held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. In doing so, Tampa Bay had seven men in protection. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins nearly blew the play up when he tossed a guard to the side, but the running back picked him up in protection to give Fitzpatrick enough time to find his target.
There could be multiple dirty hands on the play, and it’s possible there was a different call than how it appears on film, but someone should have covered Jackson. An early coverage bust could have been stomached, and it is probably a good thing there weren’t any other significant breakdowns the rest of the way, but the defensive performance never really improved after that moment. But perhaps things like linebacker Demario Davis hitting the wrong hole on a 23-yard run (after David Onyemata fails to get off a block), or Coleman taking the wrong angle on a 20-yard screen pass are emblematic of the same issues that cause a coverage bust.
A lot of credit has to be given to Tampa Bay for having a good game plan. A good example came in the fourth quarter when the Bucs got Jackson singled up on Crawley for a 38-yard touchdown by occupying the safety on an in route. Another one came when Bucs used a pick play to free Chris Godwin from Robinson for a gain of 16 in the first quarter.
But a lot of the big plays were simply the result of the receivers beating the cornerbacks down the field, which was the case on a handful of big gains with Lattimore (115 yards surrendered, one touchdown) and Crawley (131, two touchdowns) in coverage. Crawley nearly gave up another touchdown while in coverage against Godwin, but Fitzpatrick overthrew the pass after Crawley slipped and fell.
And that was one of the more surprising things about the game. Even with Fitzpatrick throwing the ball extremely fast, Tampa Bay was getting open down the field. He let the ball fly in 1.83 seconds on Evans’ 50-yard touchdown with Lattimore in coverage in the third quarter, and 1.75 seconds on a 35-yard gain to Jackson in the fourth with Crawley in coverage.
The throw to Evans to looked risky at first since the two players appeared to be in stride, but Evans ended up winning the route in the end.
The quick trigger made it hard for the pass rush to get anything going. There were a few times when the team knocked on the door, but the team only ended up with five pressures (Cam Jordan 2, Tyeler Davison, Marcus Davenport, Onyemata).
And it wasn’t as if New Orleans was less aggressive than usual. The team blitzed on 12-of-28 plays, which is a significant percentage in line with many games from last season. It should also be noted the Saints didn't play much press coverage.
As far as the rush plan Payton alluded to, one of the things that likely irked him was late in the fourth quarter when Fitzpatrick was able to escape the pocket and rush for 12 yards on a third-and-11 play. Davenport stunted behind Onyemata, which gave Fitzpatrick the opportunity to sneak out toward the right sideline and run for the first down.
There were multiple instances where the pass rush created opportunities for him to get free. This could be a big issue next week against Cleveland Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor if the team does not have a better plan to keep him contained to the pocket.
This film felt entirely out of character for a defense that played so well last season, which makes it hard to harbor long-term concerns about anything that happened here. If any of these flaws prove to be lingering, it will take at least another week or two of evidence before it is time to raise real concern.
Personnel shuffle: There were a few interesting things with personnel usage. One of the things that stood out was how the Saints used their linebackers. They started out with Alex Anzalone serving in the nickel package alongside Demario Davis. Midway through the third quarter, A.J. Klein stepped in for Anzalone, and then Manti Te'o took over for Klein. Then, late in the game, Anzalone was back on the field. It's unclear what led to the shuffling.
The other thing that was different from previous games is how often Davison remained on the field in passing situations. New Orleans played nickel on 23 passing plays. Davison was on the field for many of them. He played 52 of 66 possible snaps. That is not a typical rate for the nose tackle.
Lastly, Bell did not play much, if at all, during the second half. Coleman and Williams appeared to get all the snaps.
Playing the hits: Ted Ginn scored his second-quarter touchdown on a common route concept. The wide receiver ran an out-and-up route with the receiver next to him running a go route. This route concept is used to isolate the safety and get Drew Brees' a one-on-one matchup to target. New Orleans targeted the out-and-up route four times last season, connecting on three for 33, 34 and 40 yards. Alvin Kamara caught two of those passes last season. Michael Thomas caught the other for 33 yards.
Usual work: All but three of Alvin Kamara's runs (there were only eight of them) came while three-receiver personnel. This was typically the case last season as well, as 80 of his 120 carries came out of the same personnel packages. One area of interest entering this game was how the running backs would be used and if Kamara's opportunities would look different this season. So far, they haven't. For one week, at least, it appears the Saints prefer to have him running against lighter boxes.
Same song: The passing attack was mostly conducted from the same looks with 36 of Brees' 45 attempts coming from the same personnel package. Seventeen of his attempts came with an empty backfield, including four on the final two drives. It seems like New Orleans often likes to try and spread out the Tampa Bay defense.
Brees' offensive line held up well, but the team missed Andrus Peat at guard. Josh LeRibeus had some issues in protection.