The New Orleans Saints begin their 52nd NFL season by opening with a divisional foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this Sunday at the Mercedes Benz Superdome. The Saints are coming off an 11-5 NFC South championship season a year ago, but one that ended in heartbreak with a last second loss to Minnesota in the playoffs. The Buccaneers came into 2017 as a playoff hopeful, but came crashing down to earth with a 5-11 record. The Buccaneers went 2-2 during the preseason, and struggled on the defensive side of the ball, where many predict their downfall to be in 2018, and will also be without starting quarterback Jameis Winston at the beginning of the season. The Saints on the other hand, went 3-1 this preseason, and are considered to be one of the favorites in the NFC, but they will be without top running back Mark Ingram to begin the year. Today we have a look at some of the things to expect from the Saints offense when they open the year against one of their division foes.
SAINTS RUSH OFFENSE vs BUCCANEERS RUSH DEFENSE
New Orleans powered their way to a division championship in part due to a dynamic running game. The Saints finished 5th in the league in rushing last season, 2nd in yards per carry (4.4), and their 23 rushing touchdowns led the NFL. Gone of course, is leading rusher Mark Ingram, who is suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Taking over duties as the top back is Alvin Kamara, last year's offensive rookie of the year. Kamara rushed for 728 yards and 8 touchdowns last season on an eye-popping 6.1 yards per carry. He is electric in the open field, but showed the ability to pick up the tough yards between the tackles as well. Hoping that Kamara will not have to carry the full rushing load in Ingram's absence, the team expects that rookie sixth round pick Boston Scott or newly signed veteran Mike Gillislee will be able to provide a change of pace. The Saints offensive line, along with fullback Zach Line, dominated opposing fronts last year in the running game, winning both at the point of attack and providing cutback lanes for their rushers. Left guard Andrus Peat's status for this contest is somewhat in question, as he continues to recover from a broken leg suffered during the playoffs. If Peat can't go, his spot will be taken by the recently re-signed Josh LeRibeus, rookie Will Clapp, or Cameron Tom.
Tampa Bay ranked 23rd in the league at defending the run a year ago, surrendering 4.3 yards per rush, and their 17 scores on the ground against them were 30th in the league. They drafted University of Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea with the 12th overall pick of the first round, hoping that he could provide a run-stuffing presence and disruption to couple with Gerald McCoy, one of the league's better interior linemen. Unfortunately, Vea struggled throughout the preseason, missing the last month with a calf injury and putting his availability in doubt. The Bucs also added Beau Allen from the Eagles via free agency this offseason, a solid inside defender. The McCoy/Allen combination will be a handful for opposing offensive linemen, but a question remains if they can hold up during late in games with little depth, especially until Vea returns to form. Tampa also added defensive ends Vinny Curry (Eagles) and Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) this offseason, but each have functioned more as pass rushers than stout run defenders during their careers. The Buccaneers linebacking corps is among the fastest in the NFC, but can be quickly nullified if the defensive line cannot tie up blockers to free them up to make plays. The Saints offensive line is athletic, and gets to the second level of the defense quickly and can overwhelm opposing linebackers and defensive backs. Kamara is a dangerous open field runner, and becomes an immediate gamebreaking threat when given his choice of cutback lanes. New Orleans rushed for 151 yards in a 30-10 week 9 home win against the Buccaneers last year, but were held to 92 yards on the ground in the regular season finale, a 31-24 loss in Tampa. In the two games against the Buccaneers defense last season, Kamara averaged nearly six yards per carry as he rushed for 112 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns.
~Matchup to Watch: New Orleans interior line against Tampa's defensive tackles~
All eyes will be on whether Kamara can handle the bulk of the carries as the team's number one back, but the key to this battle will be whether the Saints dominant guards of Peat and Larry Warford, along with center Max Unger, can wear down Buccaneers tackles McCoy and Allen. Peat's health could be a major factor, and also whether Clapp, Leribeus, or Tom can handle the responsibility if he can't go. If New Orleans can win this battle, it should give them a blocking advantage at the second level against Tampa's linebackers, and spring the Saints running backs into the secondary quickly.
SAINTS PASSING ATTACK vs. BUCCANEERS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints finished with the league's 5th best passing attack a year ago, but the New Orleans offensive attack was not as reliant on the pass as it had been in past years. Quarterback Drew Brees' 4,334 passing yards and 23 touchdowns were the fewest of his 12-yr tenure in New Orleans, and his 536 attempts and 386 completions were the second fewest. The passing game was certainly still productive, Brees' 72% completion percentage was a league record, and he threw only 8 interceptions, the lowest of his New Orleans career. The Saints offensive line did a spectacular job protecting their veteran quarterback, allowing only 20 sacks. Wide receiver Michael Thomas established himself as one of the top wideouts in the NFL, recording his second straight 1,000-yd season (1,245), and setting a team record with 104 receptions. Kamara was one of the league's most versatile weapons. He was second on the team with 81 catches for 826 yards, and his five touchdown receptions tied Thomas for the team lead. Veteran Ted Ginn Jr. was solid in his first year as a Saint, finishing third on the team in receiving yards. Unlike in years past, the New Orleans receiving corps wasn't deep. No player outside of Thomas, Kamara, Ginn, and Mark Ingram had as many as 25 receptions, and the Saints got no receiving production from the tight end position. Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson and wideout Cameron Meredith were added this offseason to bolster depth, and the Saints also drafted receiver Tre'quan Smith in the 3rd round. Smith looked like a potential star during the preseason, and could be a lethal compliment to Thomas and Kamara in the passing game.
Despite the presence of McCoy and talented pass rushers Noah Spence and William Gholston, the Buccaneers managed a paltry 22 sacks in 2017. Their pass defense ranked 32nd in the league, as did their overall defensive ranking, and they surrendered 260 yards per game through the air. The lack of pass rush put an already suspect Bucs secondary at an even larger disadvantage. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the 16th overall pick in 2016, has struggled with outside coverage, but seems to have stabilized his career by playing well in the slot. Twelve year veteran Brent Grimes is still a fine player, but Tampa will need either Ryan Smith or rookie Carlton Davis to give the team another solid coverage option. Safety Justin Evans showed impressive range as a rookie, but veteran Chris Conte has struggled in coverage down the field. Linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are stars, and must be accounted for in both the run and the pass, but the Bucs will be missing Kendell Beckwith to begin the year, as he recovers from injuries suffered in an offseason car accident. In two games against Tampa Bay last season, Brees completed over 77% of his passes, averaging 254 yards in those games while throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. Michael Thomas carved up Tampa's intermediate coverage, with 14 total receptions for 159 yards. Kamara tortured Buccaneer defenders, catching six passes for 84 yards in each game, including a 33-yd. touchdown strike from Brees.
~Matchup to Watch: Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk vs. Buccaneer pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul, Gholston, Spence, and Vinny Curry~
Tampa Bay added Pierre-Paul and Curry in hopes that they could attract double teams away from the talented McCoy, disrupt opposing passers, and reduce pressure on their secondary. Armstead and Ramczyk are among the best offensive tackle duos in the game. If they are able to handle pass protection duties one on one, then the Saints interior line will be able to focus squarely on McCoy, allowing Brees the time to carve up the Tampa Bay coverage.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There is no doubt that New Orleans will miss the talented Ingram during his suspension, but the Saints are still an extremely dangerous offensive team. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are next to impossible for any defense to contain. Kamara in particular was too much for the Buccaneers defense a year ago, accounting for 280 yards from scrimmage and 4 of the Saints 7 touchdowns in the two games against Tampa a year ago. Don't be surprised if New Orleans attacks their division rivals through the air early on, spreading out their secondary with quick passes to Thomas, Kamara, Ginn, Tre'quan Smith, and Cameron Meredith. The Saints must be able to also show that they can still effectively run the ball even without Ingram, and will look to improve on last season's 37.6% 3rd down conversion rate. The New Orleans Saints cannot afford to get off to a slow start to the 2018 season, and division games are usually the biggest key to success. The Saints are considered a Super Bowl contender, but face a daunting schedule in a powerful conference. Coach Sean Payton realizes that his squad must come out strong, and typically relies on his prolific offense and future Hall of Fame quarterback to set the tone.
What is the Saints biggest offensive key to success against the Buccaneers?
This poll is closed
New Orleans O-line vs. Tampa's D-line
Thomas/Smith/Meredith/Ginn vs. Buccaneers secondary
Kamara's versatility vs. Tampa LB's David and Alexander
New Orleans must rush for at least 120 yards