The New Orleans Saints travel to face one of their NFC South rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday to wind up the regular season, along with the 2017 calender year. The Saints (11-4) have clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2013, but still need a victory, or a Carolina Panthers loss against Atlanta, to clinch the division title. Meanwhile the Buccaneers (4-11), losers of five straight and 10 of their last 12, will finish at the bottom of the division, but would love nothing more than to spoil the division title hopes of their rival.
The Saints defeated Tampa Bay handily, 30-10, in a week 9 match up in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Buccaneers were held to just 200 net yards in that loss, and New Orleans safety Justin Hardee blocked and returned a 1st quarter Tampa Bay punt for a touchdown.
Today, we take a look at how the Saints 15th ranked defense matches up against the still dangerous 11th ranked Buccaneers offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
The New Orleans defense ranks 11th against the pass, and their 17 interceptions rank 4th in the league. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been the difference maker in the secondary. The rookie 1st round pick leads the team with 5 interceptions, is the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, a Pro Bowl selection, and has shut down some of the league's best receivers. He held Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who leads his team with 66 catches for 946 yards, to just 1 catch and 13 yards in their first meeting, and frustrated Evans to the point that he took a cheap shot at Lattimore late in the game during an altercation started by Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. Tampa Bay's 3rd year quarterback has not progressed like many expected. He hasn't been bad statistically, the Buccaneers passing attack averages 263 yards per game to rank 4th in the league, but Winston has had his decision making and maturity questioned often this year. He lost a talented receiver, when tight end O.J. Howard was placed on injured reserve, and the Buccaneers running backs contribute little to the passing game. Charles Sims has the only touchdown reception among the backs, and all of their other running backs combined have produced less than Sims' pedestrian 35 catches for 249 yards. Winston still has a few talented targets in his arsenal outside of Evans. Veteran speedster DeSean Jackson, who is questionable with an ankle injury, has 50 receptions for 668 yards and 3 touchdowns, but only 13.4 yards per catch. Talented tight end Cameron Brate, also questionable with a back injury, is a valuable weapon in the red zone and leads the Bucs with six touchdown catches on 45 receptions and 554 yards. Adam Humphries is a solid No. 3 receiver, and has 54 catches for 529 yards. Lattimore gets much of the attention in the Saints secondary, and deservedly so, but often lost is how well cornerbacks Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams have played this season. Both players have supplied tight coverage and aggressive play to give New Orleans among the most effective trio of cover corners in the league. Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell have been more effective in coverage of late, and each have shown playmaking potential, while Chris Banjo has filled in well for the injured Vaccaro.
The Buccaneers have had a difficult time protecting their quarterback, surrendering 38 sacks on the year. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen blitzes as much as anyone in the league, but New Orleans has shown the potential to apply pressure from their front line as well. The Saints have 40 sacks on the season, and are led by Cam Jordan's 12 qb takedowns. Jordan is having the best season of his career, and has been absolutely unblockable at times. Edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha is the latest among the Saints casualties on defense, having been placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. George Johnson (2.5 sacks) has played well at end, and the Saints have moved Rankins and Onyemata on the outside in some situations, while also moving Jordan around with an eye at creating mismatches for their superstar.
SAINTS RUSH DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS RUSH OFFENSE
The Saints have struggled to consistently bottle up the opponent's running game this season. They rank 16th against the run, giving up 112 yards per game, but have allowed 4.4 yards per carry. New Orleans has lost three solid run defenders to injury during the course of the year, end Alex Okafor, linebacker A.J. Klein, and safety Kenny Vaccaro. Despite the losses, the Saints defense held Atlanta's talented rushing attack to just 67 yards and under 4 yards per carry last week. Saints defensive linemen Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison, and George Johnson must continue to get penetration into the opposing backfield, and linebackers Craig Robertson, Manti Te'o need to recognize the available rushing lanes and make plays in the gaps, as they did against Atlanta.
The Tampa running attack has provided very little punch this season, increasing the pressure on Winston and the passing game. The Buccaneers have averaged just 89 yards per game on the ground, averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and have rushed for only six touchdowns, each ranking 27th in the league. Backs Doug Martin and Peyton Barber have each showed solid potential throughout their career, but have combined for only 761 yards and five scores.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
New Orleans allowed Tampa Bay just 200 total yards and 3 of 14 third down attempts in their first meeting, while sacking the quarterback four times and keeping Tampa Bay out of the end zone until the game had been long decided. Despite the fact that this game will be in Tampa, the Buccaneers have shown no indication that this time will be different. Despite their struggles at times against the run, New Orleans is coming off of a solid performance against Atlanta a week ago, and held the Bucs running backs to 57 yards and 2.6 yards per carry in their first meeting.
The second meeting between Marshon Lattimore and Mike Evans will be fun to watch, but New Orleans must pressure Winston heavily to be successful, likely forcing the young quarterback into big mistakes. Lattimore's shutdown of Evans got the headlines, but the Saints defense held Tampa's other talented receivers Jackson, Humphries, and Brate to a combined 5 receptions for 48 yards. The aggressive Saints defense will attack the undisciplined Buccaneers early and often, looking to test what motivation remains for a Tampa Bay squad long ago eliminated from playoff contention.