The New Orleans Saints begin their 2018 season with a division showdown at home this Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints are coming off an NFC South winning 11-5 season, and are considered to be a Super Bowl favorite. One reason why is because of a vastly improved defense that finished 10th in points allowed, and that looks to have gotten better this offseason. Opposing New Orleans will be the Buccaneers, who were expected to push for a playoff berth a year ago, but instead stumbled to a 5-11 finish. Tampa's weakness is expected to be on the defensive side of the ball, and they do have some dangerous weapons in the passing game. Unfortunately for Bucs fans, they will also be without starting quarterback Jameis Winston for this game, and the first three games of the season due to violation of the league's personal conduct policy. Today, let's have a peek at how the New Orleans defensive unit matches up against the Buccaneers offensive weapons.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS RUSHING OFFENSE
The Saints ranked 16th in the league at defending the run last year, and had their struggles against rushing attacks at times. They surrendered 4.4 yards per opposing run attempt, ranking just 28th, and often gave up big runs early in games. Despite great improvement up front and in the secondary, the New Orleans linebacking corps still had some struggles last year, and the unit dealt with some injury problems. Rookie 3rd round pick Alex Anzalone went down for the year in the season's third game, and A.J. Klein missed four games, along with being limited in others. Anzalone and Klein both return, rejoining versatile defender Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o, who was a solid run defender for the New Orleans defense last year. The Saints upgraded their linebacking corps by adding Demario Davis in the offseason. Davis has had at least 100 tackles in four of the last five seasons, including an NFL 3rd-best 135 stops a year ago. He is a fast and aggressive sideline to sideline every down defender capable of playing any linebacking spot, and should give the team a playmaker at the position that's they've lacked. The Saints cornerbacks are good tacklers and solid run defenders, but they are often employed in man coverage, and could at times be taken away from a run play. They're ability to lock down opposing wideouts one on one however, could allow a safety such as Vonn Bell to play closer to the line of scrimmage as an extra defender against the run. Cameron Jordan has been best known for his pass rushing ability, but the truth is that he is one of the best all-around defensive ends in football. Both Alex Okafor and Trey Hendrickson are very good run defenders at end opposite Jordan, but the Saints have to answer some questions inside. Tackle Tyeler Davison is an outstanding run defender, and both Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata are solid inside as well, but were guilty at times of getting caught off balance, giving opposing blockers the advantage.
Tampa Bay ranked 27th in rushing yardage (1,448) and yards per carry (3.7) a year ago, and ran for just 8 scores. Third year back Peyton Barber returns as the starter, and led the team in rushing last year with 423 yards and 3 scores. Jacquizz Rodgers comes back as well, but the Buccaneers hope that second round pick Ronald Jones will add a dynamic element to their running game after three straight seasons of over 980 yards rushing for the University of Southern California. Bucs running backs failed to rush for a single score in two meetings with the Saints last year, averaging less than four yards per carry and less than 100 yards on the ground.
~Matchup to Watch: Saints LB's vs. Buccaneer RB's~
The Saints linebackers were still somewhat inconsistent this preseason, and will continue to be the defense's weak link until they prove otherwise. Athletically and talent-wise, they appear to be the best linebacking corps the team has had in quite some time, but they must be able to prevent opposing runners from breaking off big gains, or from being major contributors in the passing game. The Saints ability to shut down what looks to be a weak Tampa Bay running attack will make them one dimensional, which wouldn't bode well for a team that will be missing it's starting quarterback.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans ranked 17th in pass defense in 2017, but more importantly than that ranking was the fact that they created pressure on their opponents. The Saints sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times, and intercepted 20 passes, good for third in the NFL. Cam Jordan had the first All-Pro season of his stellar career, and was the focal point of the team's pressure up front. His 13 sacks were a career high, and he was often able to deflect or alter throws when he didn't bring down opposing signal callers. The Saints finally found an answer at defensive end opposite Jordan last season. Alex Okafor was having the best season of his career when he went down with an Achilles injury in the team's tenth game. His 4.5 sacks was still good for second on the defense, and he looks to be fully recovered. Trey Hendrickson got off to a slow start during his rookie year, but had a very strong preseason to make many believe that he is primed for a strong 2018 campaign. New Orleans also traded up in this spring's draft to select edge rusher Marcus Davenport with the 14th pick. Davenport was limited through the preseason with injury, but showed exciting potential over the last two exhibition games. Rankins and Onyemata only combined for 4 sacks last season, but showed the potential to be a disruptive tandem inside, and each had a fine preseason to promote those expectations. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen likes to employ an aggressive scheme that relies on man coverage and at times a high percentage of blitzing. That strategy is successful, of course, only with solid coverage in the secondary, and New Orleans has one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Marshon Lattimore. The 11th overall draft pick a year ago, Lattimore led the Saints with five interceptions and 18 pass breakups, along with shutting down some of the best wideouts in the league. Ken Crawley blossomed into a solid cover man to compliment Lattimore in his second season, and the team expects the same sort of improvement from Arthur Maulet and P.J. Williams this season. New Orleans also added Patrick Robinson this offseason as a free agent this offseason. Robinson, who played for the Saints from 2010-14, was one of the better slot corners in the league last season with Philadelphia. The team's cornerbacks benefit from solid play behind them at safety. Vonn Bell is an outstanding blitzer, finishing tied for second with Okafor in sacks last year, and can also provide effective slot coverage. Kurt Coleman was added in free agency from Carolina to give the Saints another veteran player on the back end, and second year free safety Marcus Williams is a ballhawking playmaker who looks to be on the verge of stardom.
The Saints coverage will be tested by a Buccaneers receiving corps that is as dangerous as any in the game. Wide receiver Mike Evans is a big, physical target considered to be one of the top wideouts in the conference. DeSean Jackson is a veteran deep threat still capable of blowing the top off a defensive coverage, and Chris Godwin looks like a breakout candidate after a good rookie season. Adam Humphries is an underrated wideout from the slot, and the Bucs have two dangerous threats at tight end in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Tampa Bay's passing game ranked 4th in the NFL last season, but they will be without starting quarterback Jameis Winston for the season's first three games. Replacing him is veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has shown the potential throughout his career to get hot and tear a defense apart. Tampa's offensive line must do a better job keeping their passers upright after giving up 40 sacks a year ago. The Saints recorded six sacks in their two games against the Buccaneers a year ago, including two on Fitzpatrick when he stepped in for an injured and ineffective Winston in the team's first meeting last year while holding them to just 135 net yards through the air.
~Matchup to Watch: Marshon Lattimore vs. Mike Evans
This is a marquee showdown between two of the top players at their respective positions. Lattimore held the pro bowl receiver to just one catch for 13 yards in their first meeting last season, frustrating Evans to the point of a physical confrontation. Evans had some success in the season finale against New Orleans with 5 receptions, but was still contained to just 55 yards. The 25-yr. old Evans just signed a contract extension with the Bucs this offseason, setting the stage for an intense personal rivalry with the Saints star cornerback for years to come.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The Saints ability to shut down a pedestrian Buccaneers rushing attack early is key to their defensive success. Despite the receiving talent that the Buccaneers possess, the strength of the New Orleans defense looks like their pass defense, especially against a backup quarterback that has been prone to turnovers throughout his career. Lattimore has the ability to contain Evans again, leaving the rest of the Saints secondary to focus on the other Tampa threats. New Orleans will put heavy pressure on Fitzpatrick, increasing the likelihood of turnovers or big plays. The Saints defense was impressive throughout the preseason and training camp, particularly against the pass. The team has both the talent and athleticism to potentially be one of the top defensive units in the NFL, and will look to make a strong statement to open what they hope will be a championship run in 2018.
What will be the biggest defensive key for New Orleans success against Tampa Bay?
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Lattimore vs. Evans
The Saints pass rush
New Orleans run defense vs. Buccaneers rushing attack
Saints secondary vs. Tampa's wideouts and tight ends