The New Orleans Saints opened the 2018 season with great expectations on the defensive side of the ball after a 2017 campaign where a disruptive young defense helped propel them to a division championship. An opening day 48-40 home loss to division rival Tampa Bay brought their defensive confidence down to earth a bit, and they would struggle on that side of the ball for the first month of the season, particularly against the pass. The Saints defense would rebound however, and in recent weeks have again been one of the more disruptive squads in the NFL. They have held their last four opponents to under 20 points, eight of twelve opponents to 20 points or less for the year, and have forced 14 turnovers in the last six games. The Saints, fresh off of their first loss in ten games to the Dallas Cowboys, now face the Buccaneers in a rematch from opening weekend. Tampa Bay is first in the NFL in total yardage, and tenth in scoring with nearly 27 points per game. The explosive Bucs offense scorched the New Orleans defense in week one, let's have a look at how the sequel might play out.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans ranks 30th against the pass, surrendering 279 yards per game. The secondary continues inconsistent performances against opposing wideouts, allowing 8 receivers to gain over 100 yards so far this season. Cornerback Eli Apple had an extremely rough start in the team's 13-10 loss to the Cowboys last week, allowing 4 key completions and getting flagged for 3 penalties within the first three Dallas drives. Apple has been a major upgrade over the team's cornerback play from Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams earlier this season since his acquisition from the Giants though. He has teamed with Marshon Lattimore to give the Saints a physical and athletic tandem, with Williams moving primarily into slot coverage. Safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell are active on the back end, and both are capable of taking on man coverage responsibilities. When the New Orleans pass defense has had success, it has been due to producing heavy pressure on the quarterback. The Saints have 37 sacks on the year, led by 10 from Cameron Jordan, the fourth double-digit sack output of his career. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has added a career high 7 quarterback takedowns of his own, and has been unblockable at times while playing at an All-Pro level. The dominant inside/outside force of Rankins and Jordan has been well complimented by the rest of the Saints line. Ends Alex Okafor (3 sacks) and rookie Marcus Davenport (4 sacks) have both rushed the passer well, although Davenport has been a bit slow to return to form following a foot injury. The defense has also gotten excellent push from their defensive tackles in addition to Rankins, and has mixed in timely and effective blitzes from a linebacking unit that has combined for an additional six sacks. The Saints linebackers have been much improved and more athletic from recent seasons, and have been able to capably cover opposing backs and tight ends in zone or man coverage, a big team weakness in the past.
The Buccaneers lead the NFL in passing yardage, averaging 345 yards per game. Their quarterbacks have thrown for 29 touchdown passes, fourth highest in the league, and they have perhaps the deepest receiving talent in the league. That's where the good news ends for Buccaneer fans. Quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston have combined to throw 23 interceptions, the most in the league. Fitzpatrick began the season hot, replacing the suspended Winston, and threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns in the season opening win in New Orleans. After some shuffling between the two, the Bucs have turned back to Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. He has averaged over 300 yards in five starts, completing nearly 68% of his throws with 12 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions, while eclipsing 300 yards passing three times. Winston lost a talented target when tight end O.J. Howard was placed on injured reserve, but still has a dangerous arsenal in which he can deliver the football. Wide receiver Mike Evans leads the way with 66 receptions for 1,121 yards and five touchdowns, and may be headed towards another Pro Bowl berth. Deep threat DeSean Jackson has caught 40 passes for 750 yards and 4 scores, but is questionable for this game with a thumb injury, meaning that the underrated Chris Godwin will take a more prominent role. Godwin has 49 receptions for 676 yards and five scores, and joins productive slot receiver Adam Humphries (53-606, 5 td) to give opposing secondaries fits. The Buccaneers don't heavily involve their running backs in the passing game, but tight end Cameron Brate (23-221, 4 td) is a dangerous threat down the middle and near the goal line.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints CB's vs. Buccaneers WR's ~
The Saints secondary, and cornerbacks in particular, played putrid football when these teams met in early September. Fitzpatrick threw for 417 yards on just 21 completions, and made the New Orleans defensive backs look helpless. Evans caught 7 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, and Jackson added five catches for 146 yards and two scores, as Fitzpatrick repeatedly found them wide open down the field. When these teams met in the 2017 season finale, Winston riddled the Saints secondary for 363 yards and a game winning touchdown in the final seconds. In that game, Godwin and Humphries ripped through the New Orleans backfield, combining for 14 receptions and 213 yards. A physical rivalry has developed Marshon Lattimore and Mike Evans. In their first meeting last year in New Orleans, Lattimore held Evans to only 1 catch, and greatly frustrated the Pro Bowl wideout. The second meeting between the two resulted in Evans catching five passes, but for only 55 yards. Evans exploded for 147 yards on seven catches in this year's opener though, many of those with Lattimore in coverage. Both players are extremely physical, and their one on one battles could be a major key to the game for each team. Even without the injured DeSean Jackson, the Buccaneers have a deep and talented corps of receivers, but the Saints have added Apple to their defensive backfield since these teams last met. Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell must take better angles and make better decisions than they did in the season opener to better support their cornerbacks, who will be tested early and often.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints hold the league's top ranked run defense, allowing only 3.5 yards per carry and 75 rushing yards per game. They have held 9 of 12 opponents under 100 yards rushing, and have held talented backs such as Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, Cincinnati's Joe Mixon, Los Angeles' Todd Gurley, and New York's Saquon Barkley to their lowest outputs of the year. Defensive tackles Rankins, Tyeler Davison, and Taylor Stallworth have blown up plays from the start by dominating their interior match ups. Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor are two of the better edge run defenders in the league, and safety Vonn Bell has been outstanding in run support. The standout play of the defensive line has allowed the athletic Saints linebackers to run free to the ball carrier, resulting in a number of plays made in opposing backfields. Demario Davis leads the team with 87 tackles, as he along with Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein have formed one of the better New Orleans linebacking units in quite some time.
The Buccaneers have struggled to establish a consistent running game most of the year. They've averaged just 88 yards per game on the ground, have scored just 9 rushing touchdowns, and average only 3.9 yards per carry. Tampa Bay's 112 yards rushing against New Orleans in week one has been the highest output any opponent has had against the Saints all year. The team's leading rusher is Peyton Barber, with 635 yards and 4 scores. The athletic Winston is the Bucs second leading rusher with 197 yards. He doesn't have many designed runs during the course of a game, but he will not hesitate to make plays with his legs if defensive containment breaks down.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Buccaneers offensive line ~
Tampa's offensive line opened just enough room in the Saints defense for Barber to rush for 69 yards and maintain a balance during their first meeting. In addition, Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick went unsacked and rushed for 36 yards and a score. Cam Jordan has been dominant in fifteen games against Tampa Bay, totaling 56 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 2 recoveries. Jordan had at least a partial sack in four straight games and six of seven meetings against the Bucs before being shut out in the season opener. He will most likely be matched up against right tackle Demar Dotson the majority of the time, and could have another standout performance. David Onyemata exploded for 3 of the team's 7 sacks last week against Dallas, and the Saints have recorded 24 sacks over their last six games. For the New Orleans defense to be successful, this line must continue their disruption, snuffing out a low ranked Tampa rushing game and applying heavy pressure on Winston to force mistakes.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
It would be surprising if Tampa Bay was able to establish any kind of sustained running attack against the formidable New Orleans front seven. That means that the onus for success will fall onto Winston's arm and the talents of his receivers, a unit that has done well against the New Orleans secondary in the past. The Saints will need to pressure Winston heavily to win this match up. The Tampa Bay quarterback has been prone to turnovers throughout his career, and the Bucs 30 turnovers this season is the worst in the league. The weather may be a factor, with potentially heavy storms in the forecast for Sunday's game. Poor field conditions could definitely favor the Saints powerful defensive tackles, a group that has created havoc much of the year. The key battleground is likely in the secondary though, where New Orleans has been vulnerable at times. The team has caused 14 turnovers in it's last six games, after only 5 in their first six games. A secondary that many had high hopes for entering 2018 now has an opportunity to prove that they will not be a weak link in a potential championship push against one of the league's most prolific passing attacks.
What is the biggest key matchup for the Saints defense against the Buccaneers?
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Saints DE's vs. Buccaneers OT's
Saints DT's vs. Buccaneers interior line
Saints LB's vs. Buccaneers RB's/TE's
Saints CB's vs. Buccaneers WR's
Saints safeties vs. Winston/deep coverage