NEW ORLEANS — For all the extraordinary talent the Saints and Buccaneers have at quarterback, running back, and receiver, defensive end Cameron Jordan figures that what happens in the trenches will be the decisive factor in their divisional-round playoff clash on Sunday night.
Recent history backs him up.
The Saints’ defensive front was in Tom Brady’s face constantly in both meetings during the regular season. The Saints won each by double digits, the last a 38-3 rout in Tampa Bay in Week 9.
“If you say, ‘What’s the most important part of any game,’ I’m going to say, ‘Physicality with the D-line and how we affect the quarterback,’” Jordan asserted after practice this past week.
Five of the 12 interceptions Brady threw in his first season with Tampa Bay came against the Saints. One came on a ball deflected at the line of scrimmage by defensive ends Marcus Davenport and Jordan before being caught by defensive tackle David Onyemata. The Saints also sacked Brady six times this season.
Saints coach Sean Payton called the effect New Orleans’s defensive line had on the previous victories over Tampa Bay “significant.”
With quarterbacks such as Brady and the Saints’ Drew Brees, “the clock in their heads is so important,’' Payton said. ’'Trying to disrupt that position is going to be important.”
When asked about his club’s turnovers against New Orleans this season, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians started by talking about his offensive line and expressed hope they’d fare better this time.
“We’ve got to block them better,” Arians said. “I think we know what we’re doing a whole lot better now than we did then.”
The defensive front has been a strength for both teams this season.
The Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL in stopping the run and the Saints fourth.
Tampa Bay sacked opposing quarterbacks 48 times this season, which tied for fourth most in the NFL. The Saints had 45 sacks, which ranked eighth.
Both teams also credit pressure from their defensive fronts with causing opposing QBs to make rushed, inaccurate throws, which are prone to being intercepted.
The Saints tied for first in the NFL with 18 interceptions and the Buccaneers had 15.
“I do believe the defensive line, any time they take the field, has the ability to take over a game,’' Jordan said. “If the outcome comes out like any of the last two games we’ll be fine. But we do know that they have one of the top greatest quarterbacks ever and we have to be able to have a game plan that affects him.”
In previous meetings, the Saints were able to get pressure with just four defensive linemen, allowing more players to drop into coverage.
“When we can line our four guys up against their five offensive linemen and we can get guys winning their one-on-one and sometimes guys beating two to disrupt the quarterback’s rhythm and then knock him off his spot, hit him. Those things take a toll,” said Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who had a sack in New Orleans’s playoff victory over Chicago last week. “We take pride in being able to do that . . . We’re going to be the ones to change the game.”
The Saints have a deep rotation along the defenisve line, with Malcom Brown, Rankins, and Onyemata the top players in the interior, while Jordan, Davenport, Trey Hendrickson, and Carl Granderson have rotated effectively at defensive end.
Hendrickson and Granderson have been a major boon to the pass rush. They are both young players who entered this season as unheralded reserves, but combined for 18½ sacks in the regular season, with Hendrickson tying for second in the NFL with a career high 13½.
Hendrickson missed last week’s game with a neck injury, but was back at practice on a limited basis this past week.
Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White said the Buccaneers hope they, too, can rely largely on their defensive front to disrupt the Saints.
If not, the alternative could be trying to blitz Brees, whose ranking as the NFL’s all-time leader in yards passing stems in no small part from his ability to read pressure and quickly deliver the ball to an open receiver.
“We’ve got Jason Pierre-Paul and we’ve got Shaq [Barrett], so we’ve got to let those guys get after [Brees’ because that’s what they do,’' White said. ’'That’s what we pay them to do. We need to let them do it.”