The New Orleans Saints were supposed to return from a bye week last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Someone forgot to tell this to a large portion of the team, however, as the Saints floundered their way to a 26-9 loss to their arch-rivals. Particularly troublesome was the lack of offensive balance and overall production against Atlanta. New Orleans had just 11 rushing attempts in a game that was well within reach until late in the fourth quarter and struggled to protect quarterback Drew Brees. The 7-2 Saints have the NFL's 14th ranked offense coming into this one, averaging 22.7 points per game. They now travel to Tampa Bay in another important divisional game to take on a 3-6 Buccaneers team that they defeated handily in week five. The Buccaneers come into this game giving up 31 points per game, ranking last in the league. The Saints had a similar mismatch last week though and would play poorly. Let's take a look at how they match up in this division rematch.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS PASS DEFENSE
Drew Brees attempted 51 passes in last week's loss to the Falcons, highly unnecessary for a game that was close until midway through the fourth quarter. He completed 32 passes for 287 yards, but was held without a score and was sacked six times. Brees has completed 74.3% of his attempts for 1,068 yards in essentially three games of action and had only been sacked once before the Atlanta game. He and Teddy Bridgewater have combined to spur the Saints passing game to rank 9th in the league. The team's offensive line has normally been stout in pass protection and should bounce back after a subpar performance. They must do it without left guard Andrus Peat though, who could be out for six games after breaking his arm against the Falcons. Peat's spot will be taken by either second year lineman Will Clapp or veteran Nick Easton at a position that is vital in giving Brees a clean interior pocket. Left tackle Terron Armstead had an off game last week, but teams up with right tackle Ryan Ramczyk to shut down most opposing edge rushers.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the NFL with 86 receptions and 1,027 yards and has scored four touchdowns. While Thomas has been nearly unstoppable, the rest of the Saints pass catchers have been largely unimpressive. Running back Alvin Kamara is second on the team in both receptions (41) and receiving yards (326) and is one of the league's most versatile weapons. Tight end Jared Cook is coming off his most productive game as a Saint, catching 6 passes on 10 targets for 74 yards last week. Cook has been the only target outside of Thomas and Kamara to have any consistent production. Veteran Ted Ginn Jr. has caught 20 passes for 296 yards, but has been invisible for long stretches of games. The lack of separation from the other New Orleans wideouts have often forced the quarterbacks to check down, contributing to one of the lowest yards per attempt average in the league.
Tampa Bay's pass defense ranks last in the NFL, surrendering an average of 291 yards per contest and allowing 22 touchdowns. The Bucs' have allowed six of their nine opponents to throw for over 300 yards, including 345 to Teddy Bridgewater in a week 5 Saints victory. Tampa Bay's Shaquil Barrett has had a standout season as a pass rusher to help somewhat, notching a career-high and league-leading 11.5 sacks. The rest of the Buccaneers defense has only a combined 10.5 takedowns of the quarterback, however, increasing the pressure on their struggling secondary. Tampa Bay released cornerback Vernon Hargreaves this week, the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft, further thinning a porous unit that is also without injured defensive back M.J. Stewart. Cornerback Carlton Davis is the best in coverage on their defense and will likely draw Michael Thomas often if he returns to the lineup after missing last week with a hip injury. Safety Jordan Whitehead leads the Buccaneers in pass breakups. He, linebacker Lavonte David, and rookie linebacker Devin White will be responsible for containment of Cook and Kamara, hoping that the rest of the subpar secondary can prevent the Saints receiving corps from making plays.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints offensive line vs. Buccaneers pass rush
Barrett may have the bulk of Tampa Bay's sacks in 2019, but the Buccaneers have two capable power rushers inside with Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. They also welcomed Jason Pierre-Paul, who has 72.5 career sacks, back to the lineup two weeks ago at an edge spot where they also have an underrated Carl Nassib.
Saints tackle Ryan Ramczyk has been arguably the most dominant lineman in the league this season and shut down Barrett when these teams played last month. Peat's absence will put the New Orleans interior under a microscope though, as Tampa will undoubtedly test his replacement along with rookie center Erik McCoy and veteran guard Larry Warford. Michael Thomas had 11 receptions for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns when these teams last met, and New Orleans has several mismatches they can exploit within the lowly Buccaneers secondary. The Saints must be able to protect Brees to allow him to find his targets, however, something that they failed to do against Atlanta last week.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS RUN DEFENSE
Possibly the most shocking statistic from the team's loss to the Falcons was the fact that the Saints attempted just 11 rushes. New Orleans has averaged 107 yards per game on the ground this season, a slightly deceiving ranking of 17th in the league that was lowered by the paltry production last Sunday. The Saints have a lethal 1-2 combination at running back with Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, who have combined for 768 yards on the ground and five scores. The Saints offensive line has taken control of a number of games in the second half, allowing the team to maintain balance, dictate pace, and set up play action passes.
Tampa Bay has been solid against the run, ranking first in the league and allowing only two teams to rush for over 100 yards against them. Defensive lineman Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh have done a nice job getting penetration inside, while linebackers David and White are lightening fast in getting to the ball carrier.
Matchup to Watch:
Sean Payton vs. Sean Payton
One of the things that allowed the Saints to have success over the first half of the year was their offensive balance and patience in their playcalling. Drew Brees is still great, but this offense is no longer built to win consistently without a balance provided by a successful running game. Tampa Bay's top ranked run defense is a bit misleading because their opponents have had so much success throwing the ball. The Saints proved this earlier this year against the Buccaneers when they rushed for 112 yards on 31 attempts. Staying patient with the run in this game will help protect Brees from pressure and will make the New Orleans passing attack more effective by keeping the pass rush off balance. Ginn and Michael Thomas have historically had big games against Tampa Bay and look to have favorable matchups again this week. Expect the Saints to get both Kamara and Murray heavily involved this Sunday though, returning to the balanced formula that they had so much success with over the first half of the season.
Which is the most important match up for the Saints offense against the Buccaneers?
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Sean Payton vs. Sean Payton
Saints offensive tackles vs. Buccaneers edge rush
Saints interior line vs. Buccaneers DT's
Alvin Kamara/Latavius Murray vs. Lavonte David/Devin White
Saints WR's/TE vs. Buccaneers secondary