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Saints Pass Defense vs. Buccaneers Passing Attack

New Orleans pummeled Tom Brady in two regular season meetings last year. Now finally back near full strength, can the Saints terrorize Tampa Bay's offense in this Halloween showdown?
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The Ceasars Superdome is the site of a Halloween showdown in the NFC South between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay holds the division lead at 6-1 and comes in as defending Super Bowl champs. New Orleans is right on their heels at 4-2 and having won the division for four consecutive years.

The Saints were only known as a team with a proficient passing attack during the 15-year tenure of QB Drew Brees. Now that Brees is retired, the national media is finally beginning to recognize the strong defense that this team has built over the last five seasons.

New Orleans ranks seventh in total defense, allowing an average of 331 yards per game. The paltry 16.8 points scored against them is second lowest in the NFL and they have the league's top-ranked red-zone defense.

This has been one of the league's best defenses against the run over the last four years. They are third in that category so far this year. After ranking fifth against the pass and leading the NFL in interceptions in 2020, the Saints came into the year surrounded with questions after offseason personnel losses and early season injuries.

Tampa Bay has averaged 423 yards of total offense entering this game, second highest in the NFL. Most national media focus on QB Tom Brady since his free-agent addition to the team last year. It was actually the Buccaneers defense, and a balanced running game that carried Brady to his seventh Super Bowl title.

Still, the future Hall of Fame quarterback continues to terrorize defenses into his 22nd NFL campaign. The Saints pummeled Brady in two regular season wins last year. Now finally back near full strength, can New Orleans cause nightmares for Brady in this critical NFC South Halloween showdown?

SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS PASSING ATTACK

New Orleans Pass Defense

Credit: USA TODAY

Credit: USA TODAY

The Saints rank 20th in pass defense, surrendering an average of 250 yards per game. Those rankings would be much higher if not for head-scratching letdowns against mediocre quarterbacks like Daniel Jones of the Giants and Carolina's Sam Darnold.

A perceived weakness coming into the year, the Saints secondary has emerged as a team strength and one of the better units in the NFL. They've intercepted nine passes and allow less than 60% completion percentage to opposing passers.

Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore is having his finest season. Already considered one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, Lattimore routinely locks down the opposition's best wideout. He’s given up a meager 42.9% completion percentage when targeted this season and has an interception along with 10 passes broken up.

Rookie CB Paulson Adebo has developed into an outstanding complement to Lattimore. Targeted often, Adebo has allowed a 61% completion percentage against him, but has defended three passes and a team-high 2 interceptions.

Adebo has played so well that he’s limited the snaps of CB Bradley Roby, an early season trade acquisition. Roby, like Lattimore and Adebo, excels in man coverage. He gives the Saints excellent depth at the position.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams provide solid slot coverage, allowing the Saints to clamp down deeper receiving corps. Gardner-Johnson is the team’s most versatile defender. He is one of three playmakers at safety for the New Orleans defense.

Free safety Marcus Williams has terrific range and anticipation on the back end. His deep support allows the cornerbacks to be more aggressive underneath. Veteran SS Malcolm Jenkins is the team’s oldest player. He helps Williams in deep support and teams with Gardner-Johnson as a devastating tandem of blitzers.

An expected area of strength that’s underachieved for much of the year has been the pass rush. After 145 sacks over the previous three years, the Saints have just 13 sacks this season. Five of those were in last weeks win at Seattle, showing signs that the pass rush is coming to life.

New Orleans has pressured opposing quarterbacks. They have 43 QB hits this season. However, those hurries have too often come late or the defense has allowed a quarterback to break containment.

New Orleans Saints DT David Onyemata (93) rushes the passer. Credit: USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints DT David Onyemata (93) rushes the passer. Credit: USA TODAY

The Saints have gotten little pressure from their defensive tackles, allowing opponents to double team both edges. That’s expected to change with the return of DT David Onyemata after a six-game suspension. Onyemata has developed into one of the league's most disruptive interior defenders. He has a rare combination of strength and athleticism.

Onyemata's return will free up chances for the Saints talented defensive ends. Rookie Payton Turner will miss the game with a calf injury, but DE Marcus Davenport made his presence felt last week while returning from his own injury.

When healthy, Davenport is a dominant defender who commands constant double-team blocking. DE/DT Tanoh Kpassagnon is quietly having a very good year after signing with the team this offseason. Carl Granderson provides outstanding depth for a deep defensive end position off to a slow start.

The return of Davenport and Onyemata to the lineup should also spark veteran Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan. A source of criticism among the fan base, Jordan has only one sack after a down year by his standards in 2020. However, he leads the team with 8 QB hits and 13 pressures.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen uses an aggressive scheme and is outstanding at in-game adjustments. The key to this approach is LB Demario Davis, one of the best defensive players in the league.

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Davis leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss (8), and is tied with Kpassagnon for the team lead with 3 sacks. He not only leads a ferocious charge into opposing backfields, but is also athletic enough to lock onto backs or tight ends in coverage.

Davis is complemented by two athletic linebackers in veteran Kwon Alexander and rookie second-round pick Pete Werner. Alexander returned from injury last week and provides exemplary coverage down the field. Werner has already proven to be a standout in coverage and is rounding into a solid every down defender.

Tampa Bay Passing Game

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 44-year-old Brady has thrown 21 touchdowns, just 3 interceptions, has two 400-yard games, and has averaged 325 yards/game for Tampa's top-ranked passing attack. Brady's exploits defy logic, but he is also surrounded by more offensive talent than he’s ever had.

Dangerous WR Antonio Brown will sit out this week and Pro Bowl TE Rob Gronkowski is a game-time decision with a rib injury. The Buccaneers still have a bevy of talented pass catchers to take over a game.

Underrated WR Chris Godwin leads the team with 42 receptions for 520 yards, scoring three times. WR Mike Evans is right behind him with 37 receptions for 496 yards and a team-high 7 touchdowns. Both are physical wideouts with the athleticism to make big plays down the field or along the sideline.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin (12) scores a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin (12) scores a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY 

The Bucs will miss Brown’s production, but promising second-year WR Tyler Johnson has proven he can make plays and has Brady's trust. If an opponent can contain Godwin and Evans, they face the daunting task of trying to hold down Tampa Bay's talented tight ends.

Even without Gronkowski, who has 16 catches, 184 yards, and 4 scores in just three games, the Buccaneers can attack defenses with two tight ends who could start for most teams.

Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard have combined for 22 receptions and 219 yards despite limited targets. Each are capable of making big plays down the field or in traffic.

The Buccaneers don't use their running backs as receivers often, but Brady is a master of the short pass as an extension of the running game. RB Leonard Fournette has 27 catches for 222 yards and Giovani Bernard has always been a productive receiver out of the backfield.

Current New Orleans QB Jameis Winston was rarely given decent pass protection in his five years as Tampa Bay's quarterback. The Buccaneers have built a formidable wall of protection for Brady, who has been sacked just nine times.

Second-year RT Tristan Wirfs is already one of the league's best linemen. Veteran LT Donovan Smith has always been inconsistent as a pass blocker, but has played the best football of his career over the last two years.

Guards Ali Marpet, Alex Cappa, and C Ryan Jensen form a reliable interior pocket for Brady, who has often floundered when pressured up the middle.

What to Watch

Credit: Nola.com

Credit: Nola.com

If New Orleans doesn't get immediate pressure on Tom Brady, they are in for a long day. In their two regular season meetings last year, the Saints had 24 pressures on Brady, hitting him 15 times and recording five sacks.

Their pressure, along with outstanding coverage in the secondary, caused Brady to have some of the worst outings of his career. The Saints held Brady to less than 59% completion percentage while allowing just two touchdowns and intercepting him five times.

Pressure up front gives an extra advantage to a Saints secondary who faces a pay-per-view worthy matchup against the Buccaneers receivers. Godwin has had some productive games against New Orleans. He’ll probably be guarded most often by Adebo, a rookie who will be targeted often by Brady.

Davis, Gardner-Johnson, Werner, and Jenkins need to contain Gronkowski, Brate, and Howard. Tight ends have given Saints coverage some problems this year. Davis and Werner must also take away Fournette as an effective check-down option for Brady.

Other than the battle up front to keep Brady clean, the war everyone should be watching is on the outside between Marshon Lattimore and Mike Evans. In nine career games against each other, Lattimore has usually taken Evans completely out of the game.

Evans has caught only 50% of his targets, 27 catches for 439 yards and three scores against the Saints since Lattimore joined the joined the team in 2017. Other than the 2018 season where he had two terrific outings, Evans has been totally shut down with Lattimore predominantly in coverage.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore breaks up a pass to Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore breaks up a pass to Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

Excluding 2018, Evans has only 16 receptions for 206 yards and a score in seven other games against Lattimore, catching just 39% of his targets. He's been held to one reception or shut out in four of those meetings.

Lattimore vs. Evans is a microcosm of the physical war that will take place at multiple positions in this crucial NFC South battle. If the Saints are to have a chance, they must be able to beat up Brady and limit his receiving weapons. 

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