Every Tuesday, Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders writes a piece called "Any Given Sunday." In it, he dissects one of the biggest upsets from the previous weekend in the NFL. For Week 16, he looks at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints and what it may mean for the Saints going forward into the playoffs. For a better understanding of the FBO metrics used to arrive at these conclusions, please click here.
The New Orleans Saints opened the 2009 season on fire. Even as they rattled off 13 wins in a row, however, they showed signs of serious decline as the season progressed. Over the past two weeks, those weaknesses exposed in October and November were finally exploited, first by playoff-bound Dallas, and then this Sunday by the pitiful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Some of those weaknesses are fixable, but some are going to haunt the Saints throughout the playoffs.
Recent opponents have found success against New Orleans by taking away the deep pass. In the first eight weeks of the season, the Saints averaged 14.9 yards per reception; since Week 9, that average has dropped to 11.6. Even that low figure is deceiving, boosted by one big game against New England. Taking out the anomalous Patriots game, the Saints are averaging just 10.7 yards per reception in the season's second half.
This is a sound strategy because Drew Brees' quick release makes him almost unsackable. In seven years as a starting quarterback, Brees' teams have finished in the top 10 in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate six times; the Saints are fourth this year. Since Brees is going to throw the ball quickly no matter what, there's not much sense in sending extra blitzers at him; better to drop defenders into coverage and take passing lanes away. Forcing Brees to check down can work; the Saints went three-and-out in their first series against Dallas, even though Brees completed passes on all three plays.