Run for it: Although Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes in the first half – three of them from more than 40 yards – the touchdown that really caught my eye was Pierre Thomas’ 8-yard run off left tackle on third-and- 7 in the third quarter.
It was an obvious passing situation, and the Saints were lined up in a pass formation, with three receivers spread wide. The Buccaneers were in nickel defense with just four men at the line. And the Saints caught them off guard with the run by Thomas, who cruised into the end zone behind a series of great blocks by linemen Terron Armstead, Ben Grubbs and Brian de la Puente and receivers Kenny Stills and Lance Moore.
I never criticize the Saints for passing the ball too much because they’re so good at it. Sometimes it seems like they’re doing the defense a favor when they line up in a heavy formation and try to run it up the gut for 2 or 3 yards. But these are the situations when I think the Saints should run the ball more – when a defense is practically begging them to do it. The most important aspect of the Saints’ run game is keeping defenses honest. That’s what happened on this play.
Run for it, part 2: The Saints’ other rushing TD came in the fourth quarter, when Brees scrambled for a 9-yard score. Brees actually took off running from about the 15-yard line, and he had a wide open lane up the middle while five receivers were spreading out around the field. The best part of Brees’ touchdown was the dunk afterward, which Brees said tight end Jimmy Graham had been on him to do. Graham was clearly pleased afterward when he lifted Brees off the ground to celebrate.
Some nice throws, too: Before that outbreak of rushing TDs in the second half, we saw a vintage aerial display by Brees in the first half. He threw four touchdown passes before halftime – 44 yards to Moore, 10 yards to Graham, 41 yards to Robert Meachem and 76 yards to Stills.
The pass protection was great on all of them, including an impressive performance by Armstead. Armstead and Grubbs did a nice job of picking up Tampa pass-rushers Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy when they tried to flood Armstead’s side on the Moore touchdown. Meanwhile, Moore just cruised past cornerback Leonard Johnson in single coverage for an easy score. (Safety Dashon Goldson had his eyes on receiver Marques Colston instead.)
Brees fired a nice 10-yarder into a tight window to Graham for the second TD. Brees had plenty of time to throw against just a three-man rush on the 41-yard TD to Meachem, who got a step behind cornerback Darrelle Revis with a double move. Meachem had to turn and wait for the ball just a bit, but he was in the better position to see it coming, so he made the nice catch around waist level.
Last but not least, Stills broke wide open for his 76-yarder. Brees again had plenty of time to throw against a four-man rush, and the Buccaneers' defense obviously had some miscommunication since nobody followed Stills deep.
Brees had a great game overall. His prettiest throw might have been a perfectly-placed swing pass to Darren Sproles over Clayborn in the first quarter that led to a 24-yard gain.
Armstead impressive: Armstead held up well for most of the day. And he was pretty much on his own the whole time, without much help from double teams or chip-blocks off the line. He mostly faced athletic end Clayborn, but he had to tangle with sensational defensive tackle McCoy a few times, too.
Armstead gave up a half-sack when Clayborn beat him and McCoy got free through the middle in the second quarter. Clayborn also got past Armstead one other time to hit Brees after he threw in the second half. But other than that, Armstead held up very well in pass protection. He had at least one missed block on a negative run. But his run blocking also appeared to be mostly solid.
A true tight end? There’s always a popular debate about whether Graham should be considered a true tight end since he lines up out wide so often (a debate that could come up as he heads toward free agency and a possible franchise tag this offseason). For what it’s worth, Graham had a lot of success in this game while lining up close to the line. He motioned inside before the snap on his touchdown. And he was lined up near the line on catches of 33 yards and 17 yards, among others.
‘Feast or famine:’ Saints coach Sean Payton described the Saints’ run game as a little “feast or famine” since the Buccaneers hit them with so many run blitzes. He was right. There were some negative runs of minus-4, minus-2, minus-1, minus-1 and 0 early in the game. But there were also some breakaway runs like Thomas’ touchdown, a 25-yarder and an 11-yarder by rookie back Khiry Robinson and a 15-yarder by Mark Ingram.
Ingram continued an impressive three-game stretch to finish the regular season, again breaking several tackles (three on that one play alone). And he finished the year with an average of 4.9 yards per carry (78 rushes for 386 yards).
Robinson continued to impress, too, showing great balance after he turned the corner on that long run – and great speed once he straightened out.
Spreading the wealth: The Fox broadcast pointed out how many Saints players touched the ball throughout the game. Brees completed passes to 11 different receivers. And six players ran the ball (seven if you count backup quarterback Luke McCown’s kneeldown).
Still not enough: It was funny – but telling - to see Brees get mad at himself after he failed to connect with Graham on a third-down pass in the fourth quarter with the Saints leading by 25 points. He’s obviously an intense competitor.
McCoy outstanding: I couldn’t help but notice how terrific McCoy was playing time and again, even on such a rough day for the Bucs’ defense. He routinely caused problems as a pass-rusher and a run-stuffer. In addition to the sack, he hit Brees once to force an incomplete pass and batted away another pass. He burned guard Jahri Evans to get the first penetration on Sproles’ 4-yard run loss and beat Grubbs on a 1-yard loss by Thomas.