NFL Game Scripts Week 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints

After recruiting Tom Brady and adding more weapons on offense, including OL help, while also garnering recognition for their emerging defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became offseason darlings and a Super Bowl consideration. Yet before the Draft, the New Orleans Saints were widely viewed as one of the most complete teams in the league, especially after being one of the top seeds in the playoffs the last few years. A season-opening contest between these two juggernauts will set the tone for the rest of the season, and could be a crucial tiebreaker in terms of winning the division and NFC seeding come January.

Buccaneers Offense vs. Saints Defense

The Passing Game

NFC Betting 2020, Tampa Bay Buccaneers New Orleans Saints
Image credit: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For all their depth at the offensive skill positions, the Buccaneers can still only field five weapons at a time. With it likely taking time for the team to gel and figure out what works best for them, we will see a stripped-down version of what this offense will become by December. With Mike Evans being the team’s best outside and downfield receiver, Chris Godwin emerging over the last few years as one of the league’s best slot receivers, and TEs Rob Gronkowski and OJ Howard being imposing figures in the middle of the field, the biggest question is which RB will get the most snaps.

Although he took time off in 2019, Gronkowski figures to command reasonable game time due to his pre-existing chemistry with Brady. Similarly, Brady has enjoyed throwing to slot receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman over the past decade, so getting a guy like Godwin to target will also provide familiarity for his style. OJ Howard has had issues with drops during his career, but he and TE3  Cameron Brate at the very least give Brady two big targets on short and intermediate throws.

What all of this means for the Buccaneers, especially early in the season, is that on every passing play 2-3 receivers will be available on short throws across the entire field, spreading out the LBs and DBs. Brady will need to take shots downfield to Evans, and at times Gronkowski and Godwin. But borrowing elements from New England, particularly using the entire width of the field and ‘levels’ type passing/route concepts, will ease Brady into the new system. HC Bruce Arians typically wants to use a vertical offense, but compromising with Brady, especially early on, will pay dividends later in the year.

To combat the individual game-changing skill players in the Buccaneers’ passing attack, the Saints have a few weapons at their disposal. Although Chris Godwin had decent games against the Saints last year, Mike Evans was held to zero catches in their first meeting, and had just 4 receptions for 69 yards in the second, due to CB Marshon Lattimore mostly shadowing him. While Lattimore generally stays on the right side of the defense, the Saints are likely to move him around to stay on Evans and prevent the deep game having much success. 

Although Godwin could be moved closer to the sideline to make room for rookie WR Tyler Johnson to see time in the slot instead, CBs Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson can hold their own at times to not constantly be beaten, but are likely to be worked over by in-breaking routes and double moves, especially by Godwin. Timing and rhythm throws by Brady to find Godwin may be too much to ask for in Week 1, but it doesn’t mean the Buccaneers won’t try it.

What can the Saints do defensively to combat the Buccaneers passing game?

In covering the TEs, the Saints have multiple options open to them. Safety Malcolm Jenkins most likely will be tasked with man coverage against either Gronkowski or Howard, with the former having had difficulty when matched up with high-calibre safeties unafraid to be physical in the past. Additionally, LB Demario Davis is versatile enough to stay in coverage against the likes of Howard, Brate, or Gronkowski if he has lost some speed or strength, allowing Jenkins to shift over to Howard instead, or provide additional help over the top. Brady may read the field better than almost anyone, but if the Saints’ DBs can limit the separation and break up passes, they can play from in front for much of the game and take advantage of potentially soft OTs on the Tampa Bay OL.

On that note, the Buccaneers will be relying on Brady’s pocket presence and movement to buy time while his receivers complete their routes. The Saints can unleash a four-man rush if they choose, with strong players across the DL. Yet in 2019 they blitzed on just over a quarter of all plays, and will be using LBs Kaden Elliss and Zack Baun as extra pass rushers so that the Buccaneers OL are prevented from double-teaming Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport too often. Disrupting Brady’s timing, and forcing him to release the ball quickly will help their secondary more, so the Saints could slightly increase their blitz frequency, especially as they test rookie OT Tristan Wirfs.

The Running Backs

Even if Elliss and Baun aren’t used as pass rushers constantly, they are valuable assets for the Saints in closing down RBs as receivers, another tactic Brady used regularly with the Patriots. Despite signing RB Leonard Fournette, the Buccaneers will use Ronald Jones more often as he is the superior receiver, and is a strong enough runner. 

Although Fournette is a more physical runner, his yards after contact aren’t convincing enough for him to be the leader of the backfield. With LeSean McCoy and Ke’Shawn Vaughn as backups, each of these RBs could see time in this game to suit a specific role. Fournette will soften up the defense by running straight at them, and could see more goal-line and short yardage carries, while Jones and Vaughn provide the option of rushing or passing.

McCoy will mostly see the field in pass protection and as an occasional receiver, and the entire stable forces the Saints to make changes to their personnel. Once this happens, it restricts the defense from getting in their own rhythm, and leads to bigger passing plays as the passing lanes slightly widen.

What Tampa Bay really will do with the RBs is questionable at this time. Jones should be the starter, and while he will be ok as a rusher, releasing him on swings, curls and angles should get him to the second level of the defense, counteracting the Saints’ blitz. Vaughn and McCoy will signal a passing play, whereas Fournette suggests a run (or at a minimum, is a lesser factor in the passing game), allowing the defense to either back off slightly, or creep towards the line of scrimmage and play downhill. 

Jones’ versatility will help Tampa Bay disguise their play calling a little better, but New Orleans are equipped to push their dime LB/Safety into coverage. The combination of Jenkins, Davis, Baun, Elliss and DJ Swearinger allows them to blitz different players while also tracking the RBs and TEs and not leaving them unattended.

Saints Offense vs.Buccaneers Defense

The Passing Game

If there is a weakness to the Saints, it may be at WR and the durability of QB Drew Brees. Brees’ arm strength has been increasingly questioned the last few seasons, and the team instead focuses on fewer deep pass attempts, and more RAC. With a simple formula to their attack, it all functions due to having one of the best OLs in the league, and allowing elite playmakers to make a difference with the ball in their hands.

The centrepiece to the Saints offense is WR Michael Thomas, who hauls in almost anything thrown in his direction, winning the contested catches. The Buccaneers lack a CB who can go toe-to-toe with Thomas, and so they will instead shade coverage to his side of the field, potentially with rookie Safety Antoine Winfield Jr, whose play recognition and awareness will help him give Thomas little time to add RAC yards. However, with Thomas taking the majority of the defense’s attention, it opens up space for Emmanuel Sanders, another RAC-based WR, who should see much of his work come from slants. With these two WRs, the Saints can then use TE Jared Cook to work the sidelines underneath, while WR Tre’Quan Smith runs deep routes and RB Alvin Kamara provides another option as a short-distance receiver.

While Tampa Bay will struggle to match these players individually with their DBs, their ILBs Devin White and Lavonte David patrol the middle of the field sideline to sideline, and will be tasked with getting to Kamara and Cook as soon as the ball is thrown in their direction. If David and White can contain these two, forcing Brees to throw downfield more, the Buccaneers will have a much better chance of controlling the game, as the Saints are forced to run the ball more. In turn, this plays into the Buccaneers’ hands, as their DL is underrated and could emerge as one of the league’s best this season.

The Run Game

Tampa Bay Buccaneers New Orleans Saints
Sep 9, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Latavius Murray (28) runs for a touchdown past Houston Texans cornerback Bradley Roby (21) during the third quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NT Vita Vea’s run-stopping prowess and ability to chew up double-teams gives the Buccaneers the ability to force the Saints’ RBs to the outside more often, where the likes of Shaquill Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston are waiting. New Orleans are capable of running the ball well, and will give Latavius Murray snaps to try and find gaps between the tackles, whereas they will use Kamara to run outside the tackles and use his elusiveness to break tackles, or make defenders miss. The Saints will need to be patient with the run so that they can continue passing the ball, even if they are making minimal gains early on.

What should we expect to see on Sunday?

New Orleans’ other option on offense is QB/utility player Taysom Hill. Although their game plan will be to get Thomas, Sanders, Cook and Kamara going early, to add uncertainty Hill will be used for a series or a few snaps to prevent the Buccaneers’ defensive front from teeing off on Brees. Hill’s ability to run the wildcat, pass, or split out as a receiver makes him extremely difficult to gameplay for, with few defensive players capable of matching up with him. The Buccaneers’ best chance against Hill is to assign Devin White to spy him, unless he splits out as a receiver, when Safety Jordan Whitehead should be shifted in his direction.

First and foremost, the Saints will balance a few runs with passes to get Thomas and Sanders going early. As the Buccaneers adjust to reduce the WRs’ impact, Kamara will see targets to push coverage outside the hash marks, freeing up space through the middle for Jared Cook and Thomas again. Continuing to run with Murray and Kamara, using the exceptional OL, will force the Buccaneers to leave defenders towards the line of scrimmage. The Tampa Bay secondary will be left without the LB help they need, and that is where the Saints will exploit the defensive gaps. If pressure builds too much, or the Buccaneers front seven are getting too much pressure, Taysom Hill will be brought out to either confuse the defense, or look for a big play with a mismatch.

How will this game be decided?

As good as Tampa Bay’s defensive front is, and as good as their offense can become, it’s a lot to ask in Week 1 for everything to go right for a new unit that is still gelling. Instead, the Saints are in a familiar setting, and can exploit the Buccaneers’ secondary.

The Saints’ defense doesn’t have the same elite playmakers as the Buccaneers’ defense, but it does have everything it needs to match up against Tom Brady and co. before they find their feet this season. It should be close, but the Saints’ experience and familiarity with each other allows them to win.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst