METAIRIE, La. -- What exactly will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense look like when quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski join wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and sprinkle in some of coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy?
The New Orleans Saints will be the first team to find out.
"I think it’s a challenge for us opening up the season and playing these guys because you really have a couple of things that you’re looking at," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Monday. "There’s the study that we’ve got to do of Tom in New England and the things that he was doing there as well as studying Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich, their offense, their philosophy and then trying to merge those two together to find out or see exactly what we’re going to get to open the season."
Get your popcorn -- and your notebooks -- ready.
“People will catch up once you get a couple games to scout,” ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “But there’s no OTAs, no minicamp. And whenever preseason starts, Tom Brady might not even play. It’s gonna be the backup quarterback handing off. So you can’t even see what this offense is gonna look like.
“You can go off Bruce Arians’ previous offense. But in my opinion, you don’t bring in Tom Brady to drive the ball down the field for 17 weeks. I just don’t see that.”
One thing that is evident from speaking with Bowen and former Saints safety Roman Harper -- and from watching tape of the Saints' games against Tampa Bay last season, their most recent game against Brady and Gronkowski with the New England Patriots in 2017 and other relevant matchups -- is that the Saints will need to rely on the versatility of the defensive players they've been collecting in recent years.
They’ll need to prepare for an Arians offense that led the NFL with more than 300 passing yards per game, thanks to a heavy dose of deep throws by former quarterback Jameis Winston (who is now Drew Brees' backup). They’ll also need to prepare for Brady, who has thrown more passes to running backs than any other quarterback in the NFL the past three years. Finally, they’ll need to prepare for a three-headed monster at tight end that now includes Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Even with Evans and Godwin forming one of the most dynamic receiver duos in the NFL, Bowen said he expects to see a lot of two-tight-end sets. Harper said he expects to see some three-tight-end sets to try to create mismatches.
Godwin already causes matchup problems by lining up in the slot. Bowen and Harper identified the Buccaneers’ rookie running back, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, as a wild card because of his pass-catching ability.
“Space! Not even so much man-to-man, but guys who are able to play in space,” Harper said of the key to matching up against the Buccaneers -- and most teams in today’s NFL. “[Saints linebacker] Demario Davis is great in space. He’s a space-type player. Malcolm Jenkins is great in space. He’s smart, he gets people lined up, he plays really good in space. That’s why you like [second-year safety] C.J. Gardner-Johnson, too, because he seems like he’s at his best when he’s in space.”
Defending Bucs receivers
Bowen said he expects the Saints’ two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, Marshon Lattimore, to keep traveling with Evans on both sides of the field, as he has done throughout their three years of facing off.
“That’s gonna be the matchup twice a year for the next five, six years,” Bowen said. “You buy a ticket, you want to see that matchup.”
Lattimore has mostly gotten the better of that matchup so far, including when Evans was held to zero catches in Week 5 last season. But Evans had his moment when he went off for 147 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 of the 2018 season.
Godwin is harder to shadow and caused problems for the Saints last season, with 10 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns in their two meetings. But Gardner-Johnson did a nice job when he matched up against him in the slot in Week 11, and the Saints have since added another proven cornerback in Janoris Jenkins, who should match up against Godwin when he is on the outside.
The bigger challenge will come when Tampa Bay lines up in bunch formations or floods one side with three receivers/tight ends. That’s how the Bucs had the most success forcing defensive breakdowns against New Orleans last season, resulting in some of Godwin's big plays. Now Arians has an even more dangerous player to use in those formations in Gronkowski, who caught a 53-yard TD pass against the Saints out of a similar look in 2017.
Malcolm Jenkins' savvy should help. But it's also essential to have versatile defenders who can handle being matched up against a variety of players in zone coverages.
“The player I think is most important is Gardner-Johnson,” Bowen said of the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder, who was drafted in the fourth round last year. “I like him a lot. I think he is that multidimensional defensive back. He can play in the post, he can play the deep pass, he can play quarters, he can roll down in the box, he can cover tight ends and running backs -- everything you want.
“Malcolm Jenkins is good for that, too. And don’t forget about Demario Davis. Davis might not be a true matchup guy. But in [coordinator] Dennis Allen’s defense, they’ll play their zones where they get matched up. And you saw it last year on a play Demario Davis made against O.J. Howard [for an interception]."
Defending Bucs tight ends
Davis, a first-team All-Pro in 2019, made two of his most impressive plays of the season against Howard. He ran deep down the field with Howard to break up a pass in Week 5. Then in Week 11, Davis snagged an interception out of the air after Howard bobbled the ball behind his back. Another of Davis’ best plays came when he dropped back and batted down a pass intended for Evans in the end zone.
Malcolm Jenkins is good against tight ends as well. However, the only time the three-time Pro Bowl safety faced Gronkowski was when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, and they barely matched up. Jenkins spent more time covering running back James White in that game.
Gardner-Johnson did some nice things when he matched up against San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle in Week 14 last season. However, the Saints allowed their biggest play to a tight end all season when Gardner-Johnson slipped while trying to tackle Kittle near the line of scrimmage on San Francisco’s winning drive. That allowed Kittle to break free for a 39-yard catch, with Marcus Williams drawing a face mask penalty while trying to bring him down.
Overall, the Saints were a top-10 defense against tight ends in 2019, based on yards per game and opponents’ passer rating, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They allowed Brate to catch 11 passes for 84 yards in Week 11. But Brate caught only one pass in Week 5, and Howard caught just one pass combined in their two meetings last season.
Defending Bucs running backs
Both Bowen and Harper identified the Saints’ linebacker depth outside of Davis as the team's biggest question against tight ends and running backs alike.
Veterans Kiko Alonso and Alex Anzalone have battled injuries. Baun will have to make a quick transition from college, in which he primarily served as an edge rusher at Wisconsin. But Baun held his own when dropping back in zone coverage, and Harper said he really likes the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder and was surprised he fell to the Saints in the third round.
The bigger question might be how much the Buccaneers plan to use running backs in their passing game in Week 1, whether that be Vaughn or third-year pro Ronald Jones, seeing as that wasn't a huge part of the offense last season.
“I don’t think Tampa has the pass-catching running back out of the backfield that Tom Brady’s so used to having in New England,” Harper said. “But I’m sure [Bucs offensive coordinator] Byron Leftwich and those guys in Tampa will implement a lot of things Tom Brady’s comfortable with. And as we all know, the greatness of Tom Brady will always shine through."