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MAQB: How the Saints’ Defense Shut Down Tom Brady

Looking at the blanking New Orleans laid on the Bucs. Plus, what Chris Godwin’s season-ending injury means in free agency, evaluating John Harbaugh’s fourth-down decision and more from around the NFL.

This has been one of the more eventful regular-season weeks I can remember. So let’s go ahead and clean up what’s left over from the morning MMQB column

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• Tom Brady was shut out for the first time in 15 years, and the truth is that the blanking the Saints’ defense laid on the Bucs wasn’t exactly out of left field. Here are Brady’s stat lines against New Orleans since coming to the NFC South last year …

Sept. 13, 2020 (at New Orleans): 23-36, 239 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 78.4 rating
Nov. 8, 2020 (at Tampa): 22-38, 209 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, 40.4 rating
Jan. 17, 2021 (at New Orleans): 18-33, 199 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 92.9 rating
Oct. 31, 2021 (at New Orleans): 28-40, 375 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 112.0 rating
Dec. 12, 2021 (at Tampa): 26-48, 214 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, 57.1 rating

Add it up, and Brady’s had five games in 34 as a Buc (including playoffs) with a passer rating under 80, and three of them have come against Dennis Allen’s Saints defenses (last season’s NFC title game and this season’s game against the Patriots are the other two). So as New Orleans was leaving Florida on Sunday night, I asked Allen whether there’s some sort of blueprint he and his players drew for defending Brady.

“I don’t know that we’re doing anything crazy or anything that's unbelievable,” Allen said. “I think our guys just played well against these guys. Look, you have to get after Tom with a four-man rush. If you have to bring more than four to get pressure on him, you’re gonna struggle. We tried to be patient with the run game, and play a lot of split-safety and keep guys over the top and try to eliminate the explosive passes as much as we can and make him run the ball. And that’s kinda been the plan against him.

“And when we make him go the long, hard way, we've been fortunate enough that we end up creating some takeaways and getting off the field that way.”

There’s another part of the game, too, where I could see the Saints using a well-worn plan, one that Rex Ryan used to deploy against the Patriots with the Ravens and Jets, and that’s to force the run game inside and flood the middle of the field with coverage—forcing Brady to make throws outside the numbers and down the field. That, of course, isn’t to say Brady can’t make those throws. It’s just that in a pick-your-poison situation, the idea is to make it harder on the quarterback. And with Brady, that’s historically been the way to do it.

(Note: It didn’t hurt for the Saints that Chris Godwin and Mike Evans were out of the game.)

• One other thing that I asked Allen about was the play of his six-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Cam Jordan. If you don’t remember, the 32-year-old missed the first game of his career last week after landing on the COVID-19 list, which ended a remarkable streak of 184 consecutive games played (he started 182 of those, coming off the bench in a Week 15 game and a playoff game his rookie year).

He came back with a vengeance against Tampa Bay, notching two sacks and three hits on Brady, while causing general havoc all night and making the defining play of the game. That one came at the end of the third quarter: Jordan incinerated Tristan Wirfs, one of the NFL’s best right tackles, at the snap and barely missed his third sack as Brady stepped up, then tucked the ball and ran. Jordan stayed after him, caught him from behind and punched the ball out in one fell swoop, around the Saints’ 23. Marcus Lattimore pounced on it to preserve the shutout.

That was the only time all night Tampa Bay got inside the New Orleans 25, and it would be the final time the Bucs even made it into Saints territory.

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“Anytime you have a great player like that and they miss time, especially when it's something that they can't control, they kind of have that motivation—they just want to go back out there and play,” Allen said. “Look, I'm not surprised that he played as well as he did. Honestly, I kinda expected it.”

The night was a landmark one for Jordan personally, too. His second sack gave him 100 for his career. And for his part, when he was asked afterward about Allen’s impact on the game, he joked with the media that he was going to help them find Allen a new job somewhere else.

• Bruce Arians’s revelation Monday afternoon that Godwin blew out his ACL on Sunday is, indeed, a difficult blow for the defending champs. And it, again, underscores how much more important Antonio Brown is to Tampa Bay than he was last year. Fact is, with their late arrivals, and the COVID-19 practice realities, both Brown and Rob Gronkowski were baked into the Tampa Bay offense in 2020 as sort of bonus pieces. This year, with a full offseason added to Brady’s trust in them, they’ve become much more than that—and it’s something opponents noticed when the offense’s struggles coincided with the absences of those two. So in a weird way, having Brown and Gronkowski as necessary pieces could, over the next month or so, lead to having a more aggressive Brady out there. And as for Godwin personally, there’s no sugarcoating it. It really sucks. He’s playing this year on the franchise tag and was almost certainly going to hit the market unfettered in March, just after his 26th birthday. The good news? We’re at the point with ACL surgeries now where it’s not a total killer for a looming free agent. Last year, Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree landed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Titans coming off a torn ACL. And in 2018, then Jaguar Allen Robinson was still rehabbing from his own ACL reconstruction surgery when the Bears gave him a three-year, $42 million deal. So the smart money says Godwin will be fine.

• That said, this is probably it for Godwin in Tampa, since he’ll be looking for the kind of life-changing haul every young player does in his second contract. What’ll be interesting is seeing how the Bucs will replace him in 2022—and whether Brady will take the avenue of trying to recruit another friend, Odell Beckham Jr., to the Bucs to go ring chasing with him.

• We’ll see what happens in the game, but I can say the Browns feel pretty good about how they’ve made it to kickoff Monday afternoon, with a very solutions-oriented approach to the problem. And sure, it helped that Cleveland could dust off the playbook from having gone through this before two games against the Steelers last year. Special teams coach Mike Priefer stepped in seamlessly for Kevin Stefanski, having done that in 2020, and he wasn’t the only coach to manage things creatively. Line coach Bill Callahan shuffled pieces (you’ll see that when Cleveland breaks the huddle), and safeties coach Jeff Howard had to handle his whole room being wiped out (John Johnson did come off the list this morning). And that was while the team was dealing with the virus hitting some nonfootball staff, too. Lockers were moved out to the team’s indoor facility. The game plan shifted dramatically between Monday and Wednesday, and again from Wednesday to the weekend, to accommodate three different quarterbacks. And, for the most part, everyone who’ll coach and play against the Raiders got in the work they needed to. So we’ll see how it looks. But I can say the Browns feel good about it. And if it works out against Vegas? Maybe it’ll be a galvanizing thing in an up-and-down season for Cleveland.

• We’re getting closer to the draft, so I figured I’d throw you guys a quick Mock Top 5, with the class and draft order starting to come into better focus.

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Michigan
  2. Detroit Lions: Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon
  3. Houston Texans: DeMarvin Leal, DT, Texas A&M
  4. New York Jets: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
  5. New York Giants: Evan Neal, OL, Alabama

Obviously, all of this is subject to change. And I’m sure it will plenty of times over the next four months.

• The Chargers’ COVID-19 cases further exemplify how under the new protocols, the advantage of being vaccinated is only going to grow. Coach Brandon Staley said after the announcement that Joey Bosa is out Sunday, while Austin Ekeler and Corey Linsley are day-to-day—basically meaning that Ekeler and Linsley can test out before Sunday and Bosa can’t, which implicitly tells you Bosa isn’t vaccinated and the other two are. That dynamic, of course, has been in play all year. What’s new is that from here on out the Ekelers and Linsleys of the league won’t be testing nearly as much as they have been, and they’d been testing just once a week. Meanwhile, guys like Bosa will remain in daily testing, increasing the chance they pop (and this won’t be Bosa himself again this year, since he gets a 90-day testing holiday after this one).

• I forgot to weigh in on John Harbaugh’s fourth-down decision in the morning column, so here it goes: I wholeheartedly agree with what he did. And as many readers might know, I don’t always fall in line with these calls (I think the Chargers, for example, should’ve taken the points on their first drive against the Chiefs on Thursday). But this one was, and they all should be, about the coach reading where his team was at. There were 42 seconds left in regulation, and the Packers had a timeout. That’s ample time for Aaron Rodgers to drive his offense into field goal range. Kick it or go for it; either way Harbaugh was going to have to deal with that. The difference, to me, is kicking the extra point would mean you’d need to beat Rodgers twice—once at the end of regulation and then again in overtime. And given how beat up the Ravens are (starting QB, top two backs, starting tackles, starting corners, etc. out), that would’ve been a lot to ask, even though Baltimore moved it effectively behind Tyler Huntley in the fourth quarter. The call by Harbaugh was reflective of where his team’s at right now, and I think that piece of it is what people looking at charts too often ignore. What’s right and wrong in these situation isn’t just about percentages; it’s about the people you’re putting out there, too.

• Jaguars interim coach Darrell Bevell is smart to turn play-calling over to Brian Schottenheimer for the season’s final three games. I think it shows that Bevell has prioritized what’s right for Trevor Lawrence and the rest of the roster, too. The former can now work intensively with the pass-game coordinator, who doubled as his position coach to come up with the best plan to finish the season strong. The latter will now get a coach who can touch every piece of the team. Good for Bevell, who thought unselfishly here.

• One other thing on the Jaguars: I really think we need to stop acting as if hiring an offensive coach is the only way to nurture a young quarterback. Bill Belichick’s been around for the development of Tom Brady, Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and now Mac Jones in New England. Harbaugh had both Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson from the time they were rookies. Pete Carroll drafted and developed Russell Wilson. Matt Ryan didn’t have his first offensive-minded coach until … this year. And Ben Roetlisberger’s never had one, and working with Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin seems to have worked out O.K. for him. Now, does that mean there aren’t benefits to having an offensive guy as a young QB’s coach? Of course not. But it’s not like there’s all this evidence that going down the path of hiring a coach to pair with your young QB is the only way to be successful. 

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