Later this afternoon, the New Orleans Saints will take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their bid to stay undefeated and in control of the NFC South.
The teams appear to be headed in opposite directions, as the Saints officially closed the door on a tumultuous 2012 by winning a tough, close-fought game (against one of the favorites to win the division and the NFC in 2013) with their head coach firmly at the reins and roaming the sidelines for the first time since January of 2012. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has alleged team captain election fraud, a crisis of confidence by and in their starting quarterback, and just choked against the hapless Jets last week with a late hit out of bounds that allowed New York to hit the game-winning field goal. Yipes!
But in my mind, this game is far from a gimme, and it's going to take the Saints' best effort to come out on top on the road, in hot, humid, and possibly rainy conditions.
Let's take a look at what I think it'll take for the Saints to make it to 2-0, one bleeping Hot Read at a time...
With the running game in the shambles that it's in right now, PROTECTING BREES has been and continues to be the singlemost important job on the team. Last week, they did ok, allowing a pair of sacks and three quarterback hits, but then Jahri Evans and Charles Brown went and accounted for half of the team's penalties against the Falcons, costing the offense 30 total yards and a possible four points when a drive that had reached the Atlanta seven-yard line ended in a field goal. The line will have their hands full this week (but hopefully not full of Tampa Bay jerseys) as the Buccaneers defense rung up Geno Smith for five sacks and eight hits.
What I'd Like To See: The offensive line slice at least one off each of those bad statistical categories, giving up no more than one sack, two hits on Brees, and two holding penalties.
Checkdown # 1
And on the flipside, the defense needs to do everything they can to FACILITATE JOSH FREEMAN'S FREE FALL FROM GRACE. This guy's on the hot seat with his performance and standing as the starter, and is dealing with rumors of his coach rigging the vote to keep him from being a team captain - WTFIGOH???? While some folks are known for turning adversity into resolve and success, I have a sense that Freeman is a fragile wilter under pressure.
What I'd Like To See: Put some pressure on him early with the resurgent defensive line, and give him difficult downs and distances to deal with all day long as his team falls behind. This will cause him to take everything on his own shoulders and that will be his downfall as he throws multiple picks and fails in crucial situations late in the game.
Checkdown # 2
CAGE THE HAMSTER (or at least keep him running in circles on his exercise wheel) - Second-year running back Doug Martin, who set numerous team records in his rookie year (earning the nickname Muscle Hamster), has got to be snuffed out. He is all of their running attack (last week he took 24 of the team's 25 total carries in the game), and with him limited in effectiveness, that will put even more pressure on Mr. Freeman, too. This could prove difficult with injuries knocking Brodrick Bunkley, Glenn Foster, and Tyrunn Walker out of the playing rotation and Akiem Hicks and Tom Johnson listed as questionable for today's game. FF Jonathan Jenkins better be in shape for LOTS of snaps.
What I'd Like To See: Martin held to less than 80 yards rushing/receiving and ZERO scores. Yeah, that's pretty optimistic, considering what they let Steven Jackson and the Falcons get away with last week (6.3 yards per carry for pete's sake!), but so what? I'm reaching high!
PAYTON'S POISE vs. SCHIANO'S SCURVY - The final determining factor of this game will come down to what the respective head coaches exude and promulgate from their positions of power on the sideline. Sean Payton's known for his cool, steely demeanor and "that's exactly what I expected to happen" body language. Greg Schiano's rep is that of a Jersey hot head who has guys diving at player's knees when in the victory formation, and his team racked up a league-high 13 penalties last week.
What I'd Like To See: These stereotypes continue as per their previous trajectories indicate with the Saints playing smart, and not making as many obvious mental errors as the Buccaneers, while Payton stays cool on the sidelines and Schiano erupts with fury multiple times as his players commit penalties and have epic failures on the field early and often.
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I've shown you mine, now you show me yours. What do you think needs to happen for a Saints win? Who will you be watching closely in the early games as you wait for the Saints-Bucs to kick off? And here's my favorite strand of discussion - what are you wearing, what are you eating, and what are you drinkng for today's game? Let's make this pre-pre-pre-game open thread hum!