TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn’t just the worst loss of the season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night -- it was the worst loss of quarterback Tom Brady's career. The Bucs looked in no way like the Super Bowl contender they’ve been touted as this season.
In fact, no team has ever won a Super Bowl after losing a game by 35 points during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Four teams have recovered from a 30-point loss to win a championship, but all of those losses were in September or October, and none came as late into the season as Tampa Bay’s loss Sunday night.
So what went wrong? A lot.
Brady was lacking in the deep ball: The big story this season was Brady essentially turning back the clock, showing he still had the deep ball, even at age 43. But Brady was 0-for-5 on passes of 20 or more air yards and 8-of-15 on passes of 10 or more air yards against the Saints. He didn't look like he was able to get his feet set. Brady wound up with a Total QBR of 3.8, his worst in any game since QBR was first tracked in 2006. It was also the third time in Brady’s career he threw at least three interceptions without a touchdown, and the first time since 2006.
The line could not protect Brady: Brady was under duress all night, getting pressured on 46.3% of his dropbacks compared to to 14.8% in his first eight games. He completed just six of 16 passes when under duress. The Saints did most of this with stunts rather than blitzing, relying on trickery rather than extra personnel to rattle Brady.
On Trey Hendrickson’s third-quarter sack, the Saints cross-rushed David Onyemata and Malcolm Brown, and ran a stunt with Onyemata and Marcus Davenport on Brown’s fourth-quarter sack. Communication is paramount with offensive linemen when handling stunts, and they have to be on the same page when it comes to their responsibilities. With Donovan Smith playing alongside Joe Haeg instead of Ali Marpet, who missed the game due to a concussion, they weren’t.
When the Saints did blitz, Brady was 2-of-9 for 8 yards with an interception.
Playcalling: The Bucs ran the ball a total of five times -- which included a kneel-down -- the fewest in any recorded game since individual stats were first kept in 1933. Things got out of hand quickly, and because of that, the Bucs felt they had to abandon the run. But they shouldn’t have, unless the intention was to get their 43-year-old quarterback crushed. They needed to maintain a sense of balance. Just because straight hand-offs up the middle and off the right guard didn’t work doesn’t mean those same plays couldn’t have been dressed up with some motion at the snap, or run to the outside. The Bucs are at the very bottom of the league (32nd) in using motion at the snap, having only sent a player running across the backfield at the snap seven times this year, with the last time being in Week 6. The Saints did it five times alone against the Bucs Sunday.
The Saints disguised coverages well: The communication issues that plagued the Bucs in Week 1 against the Saints weren’t just because Brady was playing in a new offense. On multiple occasions Brady and his intended receiving target were on the wrong page and read a look that Dennis Allen’s defense presented differently.
“They’re really good, and they disguise well,” coach Bruce Arians said of the Saints’ defense Monday. “They change after the snap, they’re good at pre-snap, post-snap changing the look.”
On one play, Chris Godwin stopped his route 10 yards shy of where Brady threw it, as the presnap look was Cover-2. But the coverage wound up being Man-2 (with two deep safeties in zone coverage and man coverage underneath) which altered the route. The same thing happened with Scotty Miller on third-and-3, as the Saints showed a presnap Cover-2 look but wound up being in man coverage.
The Bucs got away from their defensive identity: When asked about the Bucs’ defensive strategy, Arians said, “The game plan today was to try to play more zone and get our front four home.” Wrong approach. The Bucs established themselves this season with a blitz-heavy, in-your-face style of defense under Todd Bowles. But instead of sticking with that against the Saints, they sat back and played a soft zone, pressuring with four or fewer. It made little sense against Brees, who has completed five passes of 20 or more yards this season.
The Bucs needed to be active at the line of scrimmage, with their cornerbacks pressing and disrupting the timing of the receivers’ routes, not giving them so much cushion, as Brees is a quick-strike quarterback and relies on timing routes. Yes, their corners played a lot of snaps, with the offensive going three-and-out on the first four possessions, and playing man coverage can make things difficult on an already tired group of corners, but Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting are press corners. Asking them to play a soft zone coverage when the pass rush wasn’t getting home was a recipe for disaster.
The Bucs' young secondary was picked apart: There was confusion on defense. On the Saints’ opening drive, there was a miscommunication between Murphy-Bunting and Dean that led to Tre'Quan Smith being wide open for a 14-yard touchdown. Dean, who was starting on the outside for the second straight week, was also put on skates by Emmanuel Sanders on a 12-yard touchdown.