The New Orleans Saints are coming off of an awful offensive showing in a listless 13-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last Thursday. It was their worst offensive production since the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era began in 2006, finishing with just 178 total yards. The Saints still possess one of the league's most balanced and productive offenses, ranking in the top ten in all major categories and averaging nearly 35 points per game. Thursday's game was the first time New Orleans had been held under 30 points in five games, and only the second time they had scored less than 24 points all season. They now face a Tampa Bay team that has been hit hard by injuries defensively, has allowed nearly 30 points per game and almost 400 yards an outing. The Buccaneers defeated the Saints in New Orleans on opening day, but the Saints still scored 40 points and passed for well over 400 yards. Let's take a look at how well the New Orleans offense matches up against a battered Tampa defense in this rematch.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints offensive struggles against Dallas started up front, with an offensive line that had dominated opponents all season. Quarterback Drew Brees was sacked twice, took multiple hits, and was under constant pressure. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and center Max Unger struggled in particular, but the entire line will be looking for a bounceback performance. They have still allowed their quarterback to be sacked only 12 times on the year, and often gives him a clean pocket to operate. Brees is still completing his passes at an almost 76% clip, well on pace to surpass his own single season completion percentage record of 72% set last year. Despite a game ending interception last week, Brees has still thrown 30 touchdown passes against just 3 interceptions for a passing attack that averages 272 yards per outing. The team's top receiver, and one of the best wideouts in the NFL, is Michael Thomas, who has 91 catches for 1,120 yards and 8 touchdowns. Thomas is a physical target who makes a nearly impossible catch look routine, and is a focal point of the Saints attack. When Thomas is contained, as he was last week due to constant muggings from Dallas' Byron Jones, the Saints other receivers have not stepped up consistently. The team's second leading receiver is running back Alvin Kamara, who has 65 receptions for 555 yards, but the dropoff in production after that is concerning. Tight end Benjamin Watson has the third most receptions on the team with 28, but has just two catches in the last four games. Rookies Tre'Quan Smith (22 catches, 371 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Keith Kirkwood (7-113, 2) have each had some bright moments, but have been inconsistent. Kirkwood and backup tight end Dan Arnold were the only two wideouts or tight ends other than Thomas to even have a reception against the Cowboys. New Orleans did sign productive veteran Brandon Marshall last month, but he has yet to be activated for a game.
Tampa Bay has one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They've surrendered over 274 yards per game and a league second-worst 28 touchdown passes. They have the talent up front to pressure quarterbacks though, and have 33 sacks, along with 77 quarterback hits on the year. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul leads the Bucs with 11.5 takedowns, but can pressure well with ends Vinny Curry, William Gholston, and Carl Nassib, along with getting good interior rush from tackles Gerald McCoy and Vita Vea. The units behind these talented linemen have been handcuffed by injuries, poor play, and bad game plans however, leading to the dismissal of coordinator Mike Smith before the midseason mark. The Buccaneers expected to come into the season with one of the most athletic linebacking units in the league, but have been without Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith, who are on injured reserve. Lavonte David is still one of the better linebackers in the league, but the unit has been somewhat disappointing. The Buccaneers secondary has been plagued by injury and poor play as well. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and safety Chris Conte have been on injured reserve since early in the the year, M.J. Stewart has missed the last five games, and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Carlton Davis are questionable this week after missing the last game with leg injuries. Tampa Bay has just 7 interceptions this season, with 4 coming in last week's victory over Carolina. Safety Andrew Adams had three of those picks, and the Bucs have a talented safety tandem in Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead to go along with solid corner Ryan Smith.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive line vs. Buccaneers defensive line ~
The Saints offensive line has bullied opponents most of the season, usually taking complete control of games early and setting the tone for the offense. Brees' two sacks suffered against Dallas were from the edge, but he was under constant duress up the middle. Michael Thomas looks to have a big advantage against a beat up Bucs secondary, and opportunities should be there for the other receiving weapons. The offensive line must give Brees a clean pocket to work through his reads, something they've struggled with against the Bucs in the past. Left tackle Terron Armstead is expected to miss another game with injury, so Bushrod will look to rebound, and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk injured his arm late in the Dallas loss. They will look to contain Tampa's talented edge rushers, but the Saints need improvement from their interior. Unger and guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford must win their battles with McCoy and the big Bucs tackles to not only allow Brees a clear pocket to work, but also open holes for the team's talented running backs.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS RUN DEFENSE
For the first time since week two, the Saints were held to under 100 yards rushing last week, finishing with just 65 on the ground against Dallas. They have still averaged 127 yards per game rushing, and their 19 scores on the ground are first in the league. Alvin Kamara leads the way with 742 yards rushing yards and 11 scores, and Mark Ingram has added 467 yards and 4 touchdowns. The two have averaged 4.7 per carry, and can threaten a defense both outside and between the tackles.
Tampa Bay has allowed five yards per carry and 121 rushing yards per game, ranking in the bottom third of the league. They've allowed six consecutive opponents to rush for well over 100 yards, and have given up over 145 on the ground in the last three games. Tackles McCoy, Vea, and Beau Allen are big bodied defenders in middle, and linebackers David, Adarius Taylor, and Kevin Minter flow to the ball carrier well. The Bucs defense struggles to keep edge containment though, and their tackles have not been consistently winning the inside battles, often allowing runners to break into the open field.
~ Matchup to Watch: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram vs. Buccaneers LB's ~
The Buccaneers have had no answer for Kamara, one of the most versatile players in the NFL. He has averaged 140 yards from scrimmage in three games against Tampa Bay, while scoring 7 touchdowns. Ingram is the team's power runner, but has the athleticism to make plays in the open field. Lavonte David is Tampa Bay's leading tackler, and is an incredibly athletic defender. Adarius Thomas, Kevin Minter, and Devante Bond have replaced the injured Alexander and Beckwith, but have struggled to keep up with athletic backs. In five games against versatile backs such as the Panthers Christian McCaffrey, Giants' Saquon Barkley, Bears' Tarik Cohen, and Bengals' Joe Mixon, the Bucs have allowed an average of 156 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
New Orleans suffered a surprising loss at home to Tampa in week one, but the offense still put up 40 points, as Brees completed 82% of his passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns. Thomas caught 16 of those throws for 180 yards and a score, while Kamara added 9 receptions for 112 yards and another touchdown. The Saints passing attack has been much more productive at home than on the road. Brees has thrown for over 300 yards four times at home, but only once on the road, during a week three win at Atlanta. He has thrown for 20 of his 30 touchdowns at home, while averaging 320 yards passing per game. On the road, Brees has still competed 73% of his passes, but has only averaged 223 yards and thrown for 10 scores. The New Orleans offense is most successful when they've been able to establish a running game early, but particularly so on the road. The Buccaneers defense has shown some improvement since Mark Duffner replaced Smith as defensive coordinator in October. Tampa Bay has allowed less than 20 points in three of the last four games, and has forced six turnovers in the last two contests. The offenses they faced were far less explosive than New Orleans, however, who has the capability to beat opponents in a variety of ways. The Saints may look to test the Bucs corners early with play action passes. We should see another heavy dose of both Kamara and Ingram, both in the running game and through the air, and the Saints will certainly expect to return to the powerful balance that has made them so successful this season.
What is the most important match up for the Saints offense to rebound against Tampa Bay?
This poll is closed
Kamara/Ingram vs. Buccaneers LB's
Bushrod/Ramczyk vs. J.P.P./Curry/Gholston
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. McCoy/Vea/Allen
Michael Thomas vs. Brent Grimes
Saints WR's vs. Buccaneers CB's