The NFC Süd is currently being warmed up.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2) and New Orleans Saints (5-2) were already embroiled in one of the NFL’s most exciting divisional battles as it headed for the crucial showdown on Sunday night in Tampa (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Now they’ll add two of the biggest recipients of the last decade for the second half of the season: Antonio Brown and Michael Thomas.
Brown will make his debut with the Bucs and appear in his first game in 14 months. Thomas appears likely to be playing for the first time since he sustained a severe ankle sprain at the end of week one victory over the Buccaneers in New Orleans.
Thomas is officially classified as questionable. But he practiced on a limited basis all week, and a source told ESPN’s Dianna Russini that he is expected to play.
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said Brown could play anywhere from 10 to 35 snaps on Sunday. Saints coach Sean Payton, who respected Brown’s talent enough to move him to a test in New Orleans late last season, said that could be enough for the first-team’s four-time all-pro to make an impact .
“You know, a big chunk could be at the wrong time [be a game-changer]. And it doesn’t require 11 catches, “Payton said.” He’s explosive and smart. He understands soccer.
“The challenge this week is not having a clue: ‘Is he coming out and playing the Z or the X? How much?’ So you have to be prepared for where to put it in your scheme. “
Matthew Berry and Field Yates discuss Antonio Brown’s fantasy relevance and why Tom Brady is key to his success in Tampa Bay.
The buccaneers should have a better idea of what to expect when New Orleans gets its full number of offensive playmakers back. (Recipient Emmanuel Sanders was also activated from the reserve / COVID-19 list this week after missing the last two games.) But that won’t make defending the Saints any easier.
The Saints have found an offensive rhythm during their recent winning streak in four games, led by Alvin Kamara’s historic start as a runner and receiver.
“Without giving him the ball, you have to consider Mike Thomas,” said Kamara. “Defense is a predictive game. You have to foresee what will happen when Mike Thomas is on the field. … And of course, when you put the ball in his hands and get him to move and run, like he’s used to running and if he does the things he’s used to, not many players, not many defenses, can stop him. “
Here’s a look at just how much influence Brown and Thomas could have on the route – and what else the buccaneers and Saints need to do to win the South over.
Brown calls for the attention of the defense
Unlike Thomas, Brown won’t be the focus of the Bucs’ passing game. But his presence distracts attention from players who did the heavy lifting, like Mike Evans, who said he was just feeling 100 percent after an ankle injury at week 4. The injury had an impact on Evans’ ability to cut, but he’s also seen a lot more double coverage when Chris Godwin was off the field, which significantly affected his production. Godwin’s status for Sunday is uncertain, and much of it will depend on pain, but Arians said on Friday after Godwin caught passes for the first time since his operation on October 27, “I would expect him to probably play.”
What puts Brown on the Bucs’ offensive, which can help the team do not just a playoff push but also a Super Bowl push, is that he can do anything as a route runner. It is just as dangerous on the stretches and deep routes used with Scotty Miller as it is on short to medium passes under and over intersection routes that are used with Godwin. He has a Godwin-like versatility that Arians has described as invaluable.
“He’s a dynamic player. What you always knew about him was his ability to cut in and out of cuts, definitely his forte,” Payton said of Brown.
The Bucs will make some packages for Brown versus the Saints, but Arians is keeping it close to the vest. In Brown and Brady’s only game together last season – a 43-0 win over the Dolphins in Week 2 – Brown stood on 12 snaps and 12 others outdoors.
While he didn’t run one for the Patriots, Brown’s ability on mail routes cannot be overlooked, which has become a defining feature of Brady’s move on the Arian offensive. Brown has caught 67% of his mail routes since 2017. Brady has made as many post route attempts this season (14) as he did all of last season, with only Matt Ryan and Patrick Mahomes throwing 15 more each. The Bucs have had four of the 15 best players in destinations on postal routes since 2017.
Brown doesn’t have to play a lot of snapshots to cause damage. In his only game with the Patriots, Brown was targeted eight times over 14 routes (57.1%), and he caught four passes for 56 yards and one touchdown. According to ESPN Stats & Information Research, there have been over 2,300 instances of a WR running more than 10 routes in one game since the start of last season. Only one has been targeted more frequently than Brown in this game.
“He’s efficient in everything he does … there isn’t a lot of wasted exercise so with one small move or a mistake he will definitely leave you in the dust,” said Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis. “You have to be on your Ps and Qs with AB.”
As for the Bucs’ title hopes, a lot depends on the success of their defense, which has made some unusual mistakes in the past two weeks, missing the one-on-one battles with the Raiders and giving up 100 rushing yards for the first time this season, the Giants. They dropped 347 and 357 scrimmage yards against the Raiders and Giants, respectively – their highest two-game total for two straight weeks this season.
“Some of them were just like they had the perfect game call for the situation we were in and they just took advantage of it and they just made a better game than us,” said Pro Bowl outside of linebacker Shaq Barrett . “But if we just watch the film we know we’re in the right position. We just have to be able to do the pieces.”
Will Thomas’ return bring the deep ball back?
Thanks to Kamara’s sensational game and the skill of Payton and Drew Brees, the Saints have retained their efficiency on the offensive even without Thomas and Sanders.
But the team could certainly use a spark in downfield passing. Who better than Thomas, who broke the NFL record with 149 receptions last year?
As Kamara said, even if Thomas isn’t the one getting the ball, he could open things up for others.
“He’s a big influence on the game,” said Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles of Thomas. “Kamara was enough, but they all got their guns back in Thomas and [Emmanuel] Sanders – they’ll be fully charged, of course – and you have [tight end Jared] Cook too. …
“We can’t favor one or the other. We have to be solid in our technique, be solid in everything we do and just try to slow him down. He’s dangerous and probably one of the best in the league.” “”
When asked what makes Thomas a defensive challenge, Bowles said, “I’m sure he has a great work ethic. He can catch them under. He can catch them over the top. He has strong hands. He blocks for them. He can do the route tree for you. He can do many things that make him very dangerous. “
Barrett added, “You just have this chemistry. You have it. [Brees] knows exactly where 13 will be, and when he put the ball on him it got a huge catch radius. He’s a great player. “
The Bucs had Davis, their top cornerback in the middle of a breakout season with four interceptions, Shadow Thomas in Week 1, and Davis limited Thomas to three catches for 17 yards.
When asked why he was so successful against Thomas, whom he’s expected to tailor again this week, Davis said, “I like to get practical. I like to be physically off the line and shifting the timing. Some of his routes are a bit like timing routes. This is my game. “
As usual, Brees leads the NFL with a percentage of completion of 73.1%. After a sluggish start in the first two games, he has the third best passerby rating in the league since week 3 at 111.2, only behind those of Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
The Saints are top 10 in the NFL in yards per game, points per game, third-down conversion rate, and lowest sales.
But as already checked, Brees throws the ball even less than usual into the field. According to a study by ESPN Stats & Information this season, only 3% of Brees passes have traveled at least 20 meters in the air – the second-lowest rate of any player in eight weeks since ESPN began collecting these statistics in 2006.
Now Brees is dealing with an unspecified injury to his right shoulder that restricted him from practice earlier this week.
When Payton was asked if he thought the Saints’ offense should find its groove once all the playmakers are together, he cautiously replied, “We’ll see.”
“There are some things that I think we can do better, but we still have a lot of work to do to be as efficient as we’d like,” he said.
Probably the most noticeable problem for New Orleans’ title hopes is finding consistency on the other side of the ball.
The talented defense of the Saints has repeatedly sabotaged itself by allowing in-depth games against breakdowns in reporting. New Orleans has allowed an astonishing seven passes of 48 yards or more in their last five games.
Defending the Saints ranks eighth in yards per game and third against the run in the NFL. But they have stalled in areas like defending the red zone (most recently 83.33%) and defending the third zone (22nd at 47.92%).
Next, they face one of their toughest tests against an even deeper and more diverse crime in Tampa Bay.
“It’s just a focus thing for us. We have the talent,” said Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who played his best football against Evans and kept him to zero catches on 54 tracks over the past two seasons. “Every week we go in there like we’re dominating. But some little things become big things. That’s exactly what it is. We just have to fix those things, be consistent, and we’ll be fine.” “”