The last time Tom Brady faced the Saints, everyone watching was wondering two things: Has Brady finally reached his final decline, and if not, would the marriage between Brady and Bruce Arians ever make sense? Tampa Bay lost a Week 9 embarrassment 38-3, allowing New Orleans to take the season series. Brady completed 22 of 38 passes for 209 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 40.4 — the third-worst of his career.
That loss put the Bucs at 6-3, and there were serious doubts about Tampa Bay’s postseason viability. More worrisome was the idea that the decision to sign Brady to a two-year, $50 million contract with an additional $9 million available through incentives was a major mistake. Brady was not throwing deep well, he was collapsing under pressure, and there was no part of that offense that was working well from week to week.
In Weeks 1-9, per Pro Football Focus, Brady attempted 48 passes of 20 or more air yards, completing just 17 for 583 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 94.4.
A lot of those deep shots were lost on the field. That Week 9 game was the nadir for the Arians/Brady combination in terms of Arians and his offensive staff, especially offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, refusing to do some of the things that have helped Brady in the past. It also didn’t help that Brady and his receivers struggled to communicate on the field to an embarrassing degree.
Check out this deep boundary throw to receiver Chris Godwin. Problem is, Godwin is running a switch release with receiver Antonio Brown, and he completes a comeback at the boundary while Brady clearly thinks his target will run up the field. New-guy route yips are not what you want to see in Week 9.
One of Brady’s three interceptions came on a play in which Brady thought Antonio Brown was running deep, but Brown stopped along the way, and two Saints defenders were fighting for the ball instead. Safety Marcus Williams was the lucky recipient.
Finally, there’s this airball in the general vicinity of receiver Scotty Miller, in which — guess what! — Brady throws deep, and Miller stops too soon to be part of the concept.
When was the last time you saw this happen three times in an NFL game?
“It kind of was with Scotty [Miller],” Arians said of the various miscommunications, where Brady and his targets were seeing different things in coverage. “The interception to A.B. – that was just a poor throw. The one to Chris [Godwin] – Chris read the route properly, [but] Tom thought he was going deep. He stopped, [and] those things can happen sometimes when you’re doing it on the run.”
Besides the miscommunication, another common characteristic of these three plays is a lack of pre-snap motion. All three of those plays are static before the snap, and Arians was stubbornly hanging onto that idea.
Bruce Arians on pre-snap motion pic.twitter.com/JYYKox0hRL
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 3, 2020
Thing is, Brady and his receivers have figured it out. Brady and his coaches have figured it out, and the results bear out on the field. As a result, when the Buccaneers travel to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the third matchup of the season — this time in the divisional round of the playoffs — this time, the Saints will have to deal with the Tom Brady the Buccaneers hoped he would be.
Let’s start with the deep ball. From Week 10 through Tampa Bay’s wild-card win over Washington, Brady attempted 50 passes of 20 or more air yards, completing 23 for 768 yards, a league-leading 10 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 107.1. Quite an uptick from the first half of the season. And while the reliance on pre-snap motion for impact and information has been streaky all season, it has seen a more robust presence of late.
If we're looking at overall motion (motion at snap and motion and set) they've been higher than they normally are last three weeks! pic.twitter.com/D4G3yDDPM6
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) December 30, 2020
This touchdown from Brady to Chris Godwin in Week 17 is a perfect example of how motioning a receiver across the formation not only gives Brady a zone indicator, but also creates an unfavorable matchup for the Falcons’ defense. Safety Keanu Neal checks linebacker Foyesade Oluokun to trail Godwin on the slot fade, and that’s… not the best call.
This 29-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin reflects everything going right with the Buccaneers' offense right now. PA flash-fake, 12 personnel, motion to create matchups, boom. Foyesade Oluokun is a good player, but I don't know why the check is for him to trail Godwin. pic.twitter.com/ZU5CKCCkyK
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) January 9, 2021
Add in the specter of ’12’ personnel, which is the personnel on this play, and another advantage becomes clear — with two tight ends in the formation, there are more blockers. This is especially true when one of those tight ends is Rob Gronkowski, the best blocking tight end of his era. It’s one reason Brady has been more willing to take deep shots out of ’12.’
With ’12’ personnel and play-action since Week 13, Brady completed 12 of 20 passes for 239 yards, 108 air yards, five touchdowns, one interception. On attempts of 20 or more air yards in those same circumstances, Brady had five attempts, four completions, two touchdowns, one interception. If you see the Bucs in ’12,’ the deep shot is coming.
Here’s another example against the Lions’ hapless pass defense in Week 16. The Bucs have Gronk and Cameron Brate aligned to the right side. Subtle pre-snap motion moving Brate inside tells Brady that Detroit is playing man coverage (which Detroit should never do), there’s inside zone play-action to suck the linebackers down, the stack creates coverage confusion off the snap, and then it’s yet another Brady-to-Gronk deep fade in which Gronk bodies the poor defender for the 33-yard touchdown.
It’s almost like those two guys have been there before.
So, how do the Saints counter all of this — the Tom Brady they’ve not seen as opposed to the guy who threw five of his 12 picks in 2020 against their defense this season?
Let’s start with pressure, because that is of paramount importance. Even when you factor in the improvement in the second half of the season, Brady has completed just 62 of 141 passes under pressure this season for 791 yards, four touchdowns, five interceptions, and a passer rating of 56.8, When your passer rating under pressure is worse than that of Ben Roethlisberger, Kyler Murray, and Andy Dalton, that’s not ideal.
This season, the Saints rank third in the league in total pressures, behind the Steelers and Buccaneers, with 298. Per Sports Info Solutions, they also have nine sacks, 46 quarterback hits, 58 quarterback hurries, 21 knockdowns, and 80 total pressured from their defensive tackles. As has been the case throughout his career, interior pressure is Brady’s Kryptonite, so this is something to watch. The Bucs have a healthy Ali Marpet at left guard and Ryan Jensen at center, but right guard Alex Cappa is out for the rest of the postseason with a fractured ankle. Cappa hadn’t allowed a single sack all season, and he’ll be replaced by Aaron Stinnie, a third-year undrafted free agent who has 46 career regular-season snaps.
The other thing the Saints must do is to reverse their preferred coverage concepts. The Saints play a ton of man coverage, and they’re not that bad in coverage when they do it, but Brady has absolutely ripped man coverage to bits this season — 128 completions in 211 attempts for 1,591 yards, 1,019 air yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a Total QBR of 119.4. More notably, only one of Brady’s five picks against the Saints this season came in man coverage — the other four were against zone.
This Janoris Jenkins pick-six in Week 1 against a Buccaneers speed-out concept the Saints were sitting on all day was a pretty good example.
“Well, we knew they hadn’t run it all game,” Jenkins recalled. “And as we were watching film earlier during the week, we noticed that they like to run it. And me and Latt [cornerback Marshon Lattimore] were on the sideline talking to each other, telling each other what was going to come out in the second half. And in the second half of the first drive, that’s what they did, ran double out.
“That was a Tampa play. Something Tampa ran a lot last year, speed outs. We just knew that they were going [to] add [that] in the second half. And that’s what they did coming out on the first drive. And I just read it and broke on it.”
There are variants of plays like this in which Arians will use stacks, trips, and bunches to take one receiver inside the formation, leaving another receiver open for the speed out. “Bunch Right 62 Split-Em Sink” is an example Arians had with the Cardinals as their head coach from 2013 through 2017. There isn’t motion to trips here as there was motion to stack on the Brady play, but the idea is pretty much the same — to split the secondary and give the quarterback one-on-one matchups. Here, the “Y” receiver at the top of trips takes the sink route inside or the outlet option, leaving the “Z” receiver ostensibly open for the quick out.
Problem was, Jenkins and Lattimore saw this stack variation, and read it all the way.
“Anticipation, communication, knowing what came early in the game, and what is coming late in the game,” Jenkins concluded. “You got to know that when playing defensive back. And me and Latt [Lattimore], we’re very experienced. We talked about it and communicated it on the sideline. And it came.”
Arians said after the game that this play was a screen pass with an outlet called, and while the coach blamed Brady’s first pick on receiver Mike Evans, he had the pick-six on Brady all the way.
“It speaks for itself,” Arians said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “If you’re throwing an out-route, you don’t throw it low and inside. And that hadn’t been the case up until that one. He was a little late on it and probably [a] better decision to go somewhere else with the ball.”
So, the Saints will have to face the Tom Brady they managed to avoid the first two times around this season. Not so much anymore, for multiple reasons. There are ways to mitigate the damage, but the margin for error — especially if the Saints have to engage in an offensive shootout — is far thinner than it was before.