Sometimes in this league, one play can change everything. It’s a mental game after all, at its core, and it is this mental aspect which is often mistaken for in-game “momentum”. This was the case in the stunner in the Dome Sunday. The Saints defense allowed 41 points to the Bucs, at least in large part due to the fact that the Bucs believed they could.
It was the fifth play of the Bucs first offensive drive, right around midfield, safety Marcus Williams was playing single high, with some underneath and middle zones. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson streaks past Patrick Robinson who settles into a zone in the flat, running past linebacker Alex Anzalone who settles in the middle. Fitzpatrick uses his eyes to manipulate Williams into a false step which gives Jackson a clear path past the last line of what figured to be an improved Saints pass defense: touchdown.
This followed a highly impressive opening drive by the Saints, who marched down the field themselves, in about four minutes, to score the game’s opening touchdown on a 5-yard Alvin Kamara touchdown run.
But for Williams, there had to be some familiarity. His last drive ended the exact same way, him failing as a last line of defense and allowing a touchdown. A strong offseason, a renewed focus, everything was supposed to be different this season. This Saints defense were pushovers no longer. And yet, the fifth play left some creeping doubts.
On the other side, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, bolstered by a strong group of skill position playmakers and a stout offensive line, was told all offseason how his team would finish last in the NFC South after presumed starter Jameis Winston was suspended the first three games for an incident with an uber driver.
After the big play, this young Saints defense had to be a little rattled. They’ve seen this story before, just last year when another wily veteran quarterback carved them up in week 1 last year. On the other side, it had to feel like vindication for a unit that was embarrassed in their last visit to the Dome, a 30-10 Saints victory in which receiver Mike Evans was so frustrated, he took a harder-than-necessary shot on cornerback Marshon Lattimore in retaliation to Lattimore poking Winston.
Make no mistake about it, this game was personal, for a lot of people involved. Fitzpatrick now had the confidence to uncork several deep shots and tight-window throws. The receivers, having seen Jackson’s breakthrough fed off the energy. Wide receiver Chris Godwin’s insane diving grab for a first down on an early third down in the first quarter illustrated this. As did Godwin’s touchdown, beating near-perfect coverage by cornerback Ken Crawley.
Throughout the day, Jackson beat Crawley twice on deep routes, once for a touchdown. Mike Evans constantly got the better of Lattimore in their one-on-one matchups. The exclamation point coming when Evans streaked by Lattimore, who lost his footing and allowed his first career touchdown. Miscommunications between safeties Williams and Kurt Coleman didn’t help on either of those touchdown catches, as both corners were one-on-one with no safety help.
To make those touchdowns happen required pinpoint deep ball accuracy, after nailing the early touchdown, Fitzpatrick’s deep ball touch and accuracy was nearly flawless. He only missed one shot play in the entire game, an unprecedented success rate.
It certainly helped that Fitzpatrick’s quick trigger effectively eliminated the Saints pass rush, which finished with zero sacks and two quarterback hits. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton explained it well: “You have to disrupt the timing of the passing game on one end or the other.”
Fitzpatrick not only had a masterful performance through the air, he was highly efficient on the ground, constantly scrambling to turn neutral and negative plays into positives.
The Saints offense with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas leading the way, was highly efficient as well, outside of Thomas’ fumble, drop and running back Mike Gillislee’s fumble. The mistakes happened at bad times, as all three resulted in what might have been at least a ten point swing, and potentially as much as 21 points.
The script turned quickly into a track meet, which has been a bit of a specialty in the Payton-Brees era, but those mistakes compiled a lead for the Bucs that was ultimately insurmountable.
It all started with that one play, that well-designed, well-thought out, ego-shattering, reality-inducing deep strike. Fitzpatrick and the Bucs offense never looked back, and the Saints defense in particular, could never stop looking back.
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