How the Saints became Tom Brady’s worst nightmare

Brady vs Saints
Tom Brady suffered his first shutout in 16 years vs the Saints. Photo from USA Today.

Dennis Allen and the New Orleans Saints know something the rest of the NFL doesn’t. They know how to make Tom Brady look average.

The Saints have won all four of their regular-season meetings with Brady since the GOAT joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. Their most impressive victory came in Week 15 of the 2021 NFL season when the Saints shutout Brady and the Bucs 9-0 at Raymond James Stadium.

It’s impossible to overstate how completely the Saints’ D’ dominated the NFL’s top-scoring offense. The best way to sum up this latest demolition of Brady and Co. is to look at these numbers from Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune:

Just let that sink in. Three plays beyond the Saints’ 35-yard line. This was a still a Tom Brady and Bruce Arians-led offense, right?

Well, there’s the rub. The detractors will try to minimise the Saints’ efforts by pointing to the weapons Brady was missing. Antonio Brown was serving his suspension for having a false Covid-19 vaccination card. Third-down back Giovani Bernard has been placed on injured reserve with knee and hip problems.

Their absences were compounded when Brady’s top targets, wideouts Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, left early with injuries in Week 15. Running back Leonard Fournette also joined the walking wounded during the game.

Brady wasn’t playing with a full clip, but it’s not as if the Saints weren’t stopping Tampa Bay before the injuries mounted. It’s also true Brady had Fournette, Godwin, Evans and Brown available when the Saints won 38-3 on the road in Week 9 last season.

There’s a similarity between that game and the most recent routing of Brady’s Bucs. On both occasions, New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen used an unerringly simple formula.


It only takes three or four

Allen relied on his defensive line for pressure, while dropping seven and eight defenders into densely populated coverage shells. Here’s how well the basic formula worked last year:

Sorry, if you were hoping for a more sophisticated explanation. The fact is, though, it doesn’t matter how exotic defensive schemes become. There’s still no substitute for a relentless four-man rush and a numbers advantage in coverage.

Those two things will always make even the great quarterbacks look ordinary, and Brady is no exception. It’s how the New York Giants beat him in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.

The Saints have doubled down on the same blueprint. They’ve targeted the right areas to bring pressure against Brady.

Notice how the Next Gen Stats highlighted Brady’s struggles against defensive tackle David Onyemata in 2020? Pressure through the middle is always going to be a bane for a quarterback hardly known for his elusiveness in the pocket.

Allen still turned Onyemata loose on Sunday, December 19, but he also shifted defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) inside to great effect:

Jordan was a game-wrecker all night. If he wasn’t lined up next to Onyemata, he took his place next to rush end Marcus Davenport.

This simple ploy put the Saints’ two best pass-rushers on the same side. It also put the Bucs’ offensive line in a bind.

They could either slide protection toward Jordan and Davenport and risk letting a rusher from the other side break free. Alternatively, the Bucs could double team Jordan or Davenport and risk letting the other dominate a one-on-one matchup.

Just by moving his linemen around, Allen created more havoc than he would with any blitz call. It helped Jordan was winning wherever he lined up and toying with already elite offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs:

The Jordan and Davenport double act helped keep Brady under siege all game. Their pressure was just part of the story, though.

Cover the middle

Coverage wasn’t just a matter of outnumbering Brady’s targets. The scheme had to be tailored to taking the away the areas where he likes to throw.

For Brady, those areas are the middle of the field. He’s the master of exploiting spaces between the hashmarks. That means crossing patterns and slants.

The Saints took those in-breaking routes away by flooding the inside zones. Linebackers and safeties often stacked at the line, only to bail into the hook and curl zones or play robber underneath to intercept any late crossers.

This meant zone coverage most of the time, but Allen was smart enough to tweak his scheme. Specifically, he knew Rob Gronkowski demanded special attention.

That attention usually came from middle linebacker Demario Davis or safety Malcolm Jenkins. The latter is one of the few who can effectively body the Gronk.

Jenkins lacks something most defenders have when they face the tight end who is a force of nature. Namely, Jenkins has no fear factor. He mixed it with Gronkowski, jamming him at the line and hand-fighting all the way through his routes.

The Saints’ physical approach meant Brady was rarely able to connect with his go-to receiver in clutch situations. These numbers from NFL historian Dan Daly depict Gronkowski’s night of contested catches and missed opportunities:

As the game wore on, the Saints became content to play man coverage on the outside against the Bucs’ backup receivers. Neither Tyler Johnson nor Scotty Miller were able to win against New Orleans cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Marshon Lattimore.

Shutting down outside receivers meant safeties could cheat into the middle and take away Gronkowski and fellow tight end Cameron Brate. It’s no coincidence Brady’s leading receiver was Fournette, with seven catches. Checkdowns to his running backs were all the Saints allowed Brady.

They didn’t allow him any easy outs when it mattered most, according to ESPN Stats & Info:

There’s no mystery to how or why the Saints have had Brady’s number. They know what it takes to beat him.

Keep the pressure on, but never rush more than four. Drop seven or eight and own the middle of the field. Take away the inside routes Brady loves when the going gets tough.

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