Sunday marks the third consecutive road game for the 2011 New Orleans Saints, when they travel to Tampa to face the Buccaneers. While they're racking up frequent flyer miles, the Saints have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the NFC South.
A win against Tampa gives the Saints at least a two game cushion over all three NFC South opponents. Conversely, a loss drops them to second in the division.
Taking care of business now will come in handy as the post-season rolls around. To do so, the Saints will have to survive what is sure to be a slugfest.
Tampa may not have looked impressive in any of their three wins (they sure looked horrid and outmatched in both of their losses), but the Buccaneers are a very dangerous team right now. They were humiliated against the 49ers after coming off a short week, and they'll be looking to get some of their manhood back.
You see this in most every competitive contact sport; a player or team will get completely dominated in one match, only to come out swinging in their next contest. In a nutshell, that's what you can expect from the Buccaneers: balls to the wall effort that says, "we're better than what you saw last week."
The Buccaneers are a young team that doesn't know it isn't supposed to be good yet. They aren't intimidated by the bully because they don't yet know their place. They believe they can go toe to toe with anyone because their youth hasn't learned to expect a loss when outmatched. They simply have little experience at sucking. Their key to success is playing through the whistle, trying to physically dominate the opponent each play while paying no attention to the score.
Josh Freeman plays fearless at times, and once the talent at the skill positions catches up to him, they'll be a perennial force. They've got a good foundation and they're building the correct way (aside from paying a punter $19 million). Lucky for the Saints, Cam Newton and the Panthers provided the perfect warm-up for facing Tampa. The two teams are very similar in their approach and mentality.
Another factor that may swing the game in the Saints favor is the possible absence of LeGarrette Blount. The Niners put the Blount out, and it doesn't look like he'll be able to play against the Saints.
Tampa lacks that explosive player on offense. They've got no Steve Smith or Darren Sproles. It's the biggest missing piece to their offense. Their wide receivers have slumped this year while looking promising last season (Freeman is in a bit of a slump as well). They still have a decent offensive line, and Earnest Graham is on pace to catch 70 passes out of the backfield at running back. Kellen Winslow is still one of the better tight ends in the NFL and Mike Williams still has a size advantage over our the Saints defensive backs.
On defense, Tampa still runs their brand of Cover 2, better known as "Tampa 2." The defensive line has the potential to be scary good in a year or so. Gerald McCoy will be out for this game, which should only benefit the Saints. Their defense is vulnerable when caught in over-pursuit with screens, draws and counter plays. The vertical seams of the field - the hash marks, the numbers, the sidelines at about 20 yards downfield - is the weak spot in their coverage. They have speed with the front seven to run sideline to sideline, so the short pass may be tough sledding when it comes to yards after the catch.
What both sides lack in talent, they make up for in physical play.
It may seem like the Saints should win this handily, especially considering how unimpressive the Bucs have looked thus far in addition to the guys who'll be out with injury, but make no mistake, the Saints still need to man-up and take care of business. It won't be a cake walk. Tampa is sure to come out highly motivated knowing a win here erases the embarrassment from last week and sets them on top of the NFC South.
As good as it has been (second in the NFL), the Saints offense still needs to improve. While they've made more trips to the red zone than any other team, the Saints are fourth in red zone touchdowns. They're settling for way too many field goals. Sean Payton seems to get it backwards and call obvious plays, like a draw with Sproles or a fade to Graham or pound it with Ingram while in heavy personnel. In short, the play calling looks predictable once the Saints get inside the 20-yard line.
The other area the offense needs to improve upon is balance. In 2009, the Saints went into the last game of the regular season with a top five rushing attack and a top five passing attack (they rested many starters in the final game so they finished the season sixth in rushing). Many times the Saints were up by multiple scores heading into the fourth quarter after throwing it all over in the first three quarters, whereupon they did nothing but run for the final 15 minutes. So maybe we should look at balance a different way, specifically on first down.
The Saints have thrown the ball a league leading 91 times on first down, while only running it 58. The Saints need to be more balanced on this down, it will pay dividends when trying to run on 3rd and short, as well as when the offense makes it into the red zone. Simply put, while the Saints have the 2nd best offense in the NFL and lead the league in 3rd down conversions, they'd be more dangerous and unpredictable if they got the running game going on first down.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Saints need to get more penetration from their rotation of defensive tackles. Cam Jordan is coming along just fine, and Will Smith is starting to find his groove. The play at linebacker looks horrible in coverage and average in run support and pass rush. The secondary looks to be improving, perhaps they could use a little time after practice a few days a week with the JUGS machine catching balls. Personally, while the Saints have a few liabilities in coverage (Shanle and Harper), I think the defense will get better as the season progresses. Until then, watching the Saints defense will be like getting teeth pulled when the offense keeps settling for field goals and the other team is still within ten points.
As for special teams, I'll give the Saints the edge thanks to Darren Sproles and the improved coverage units. While I think the Saints will come away with a win here, the margin of victory could just as easily go either way, it just depends on how well the Saints handle the body blows. That said, I think the game stays close until the third quarter, where the Saints gain separation from the Bucs and the NFC South with a 34 - 17 win.
2. Saints - 31.4 points per game, 452 yards per game, 6.2 yards per play, 59% 3rd down success, 33:00 time of possession, -3 turnover margin
20. Bucs - 17.4 ppg, 337 ypg, 5.2 ypp, 44% 3rd down, 30:47 TOP, -1 TO margin
2. Saints - 337 ypg, 8.1 yards per attempt, 69.4% completion, 12 tds, 5 ints, (20) 20+ yard pass plays, 11 sacks given up, 102.3 QB rating
20. Bucs - 226 ypg, 6.4 ypa, 63.4% completion, 3 tds, 6 ints, (9) 20+ yard pass plays, 9 sacks given up, 73.3 QB rating
14. Saints - 115.4 ypg, 4.3 yards per carry, 4 tds, 1 fumble lost, (4) 20+ yard runs
16. Bucs - 110.8 ypg, 4.3 ypc, 5 tds, 1 fumble lost, (3) 20+ yard runs
16. Saints - 25 ppg, 355 ypg, 5.7 ypp, 42% 3rd down conversions allowed, 5 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
23. Bucs - 25 ppg, 378 ypg, 6.1 ypp, 33% 3rd down, 10 ff, 5 fr
16. Saints - 247 ypg, 7.0 ypa, 52.1% completion, 10 tds, 3 ints, (17) 20+ yard passes allowed, 14 sacks, 85.6 qb rating
20. Bucs - 255 ypg, 8.3 ypa, 58.6 % completion, 9 tds, 2 ints, (17) 20+ yard passes, 10 sacks, 99.0 qb rating
15. Saints - 107.6 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 4 tds, 1 fumble recovery, (3) 20+ yard runs allowed
23. Bucs - 123.4 ypg, 4.5 ypc, 4 tds, 5 fumble recoveries, (5) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Analysis: The biggest noticeable difference is Drew Brees and the Saints passing offense. Both teams are about even par in rushing the ball, and both are pretty even on defense. Take note of how each week both the total offense and total defense rankings pretty much mirror how each side does in the passing game. It's fortunate the Saints have Drew Brees and a handful of receivers who are on the same page. Tampa has forced quite a few fumbles, so the Saints need to do a good job of taking those body blows.