NEW ORLEANS -- Just as the New Orleans Saints shut down Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys' ground game last week, they found a way to neutralize the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' star players -- two-time Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans on offense and NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett on defense.
Barrett -- who had been on a historic pace, registering nine sacks in the first four games -- did not record a sack. He also produced zero quarterback hits and just two tackles, going primarily against Terron Armstead.
“I didn’t see anything [different]. Me and Carl [Nassib] were talking about it -- we were trying to figure it out, but we were on the field playing,” Barrett said. “We gotta watch the film and figure it out, because how many passing yards in consecutive weeks? We’ve gotta fix that.”
Barrett was double-teamed on six of 26 rushes (23%), per ESPN pass-rush metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. In his previous four games, he was double-teamed on 17% of his rushes, so there was a slight uptick. The Saints did use an extra offensive lineman on 10 out of 34 passing attempts. With his success, Barrett can expect to see only more chipping from running backs and tight ends too.
How can the Bucs help him remedy this? For starters, the rest of the defense has to step up. Barrett can’t be their lone star. They’ll need to move him around. Nearly 70% of his snaps Sunday came rushing from the right side. Heck, if defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is going to line up linebackers Nassib and Anthony Nelson together on one side, have linebacker Devin White (when healthy) come off the edge next to Barrett to overwhelm one side of the formation.
The Bucs rushed with four or fewer on 21 of 36 dropbacks so as not to leave the secondary vulnerable against a dangerous Saints offense -- especially without starter Carlton Davis, who was ejected early. At times, they did rush with more (41.6% dropbacks). Last week against the Rams, they brought an extra rusher 47% of the time. Even when it’s not possible to blitz, using zone blitzes -- where quarterbacks must discern who’s rushing and who’s dropping into coverage -- can be effective at creating the illusion of pressure.
The Bucs this week face the Panthers, who have given up the 10th-most sacks in the league through five games (14).
Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore shadowed Evans for much of the game, lining up against him on 43 of 53 total snaps, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. But that wasn’t all the Saints did, often rolling coverage Evans’ way to eliminate the threat of a big play downfield.
“They just clouded to his side,” quarterback Jameis Winston said of the rolling coverage. “Every time he was in singles, he was getting a cloud. Every time he was on the [outside] of the field, he was in a cloud. Every time he was in the slot, it resulted in them doubling him in the slot.”
Said Bucs coach Bruce Arians, "It was a poor job on our part. ... We’ve just got to do a better job of moving him around.”
The Bucs did move him around on the outside (29 snaps on the left, 19 on the right), but they seldom put him in the slot (five times). That’s one of the reasons the Saints have so much success with Michael Thomas -- he’s just as much of an asset underneath.
“Mike’s one of the best players in the league,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “When Mike’s not getting the ball, that’s not good for us.”