This offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went through arguably the biggest in the NFL. While it was clear last season that they were building something, they went out and added Tom Brady to an offense that already featured two top-tier receiving threats in Chris Godwin and Mike Evan. Then, not content to rest on their laurels, they added a bereaved Leonard Fournette late in the offseason.
The Bucs’ defensive identity, however, has remained largely the same. That’s bittersweet news for the New Orleans Saints’ rushing offense, which will go up against the NFL’s reigning best rushing defense on Sunday. The good news, of course, is that if the rumors are true the Saints will have their bellcow running back Alvin Kamara on the field with a shiny new extension.
The running game, however, doesn’t begin with Kamara. One of the most interesting subplots heading into this season is exactly what Sean Payton is going to do with his offensive line configuration. The Saints, of course, drafted Michigan product Cesar Ruiz after a sterling rookie season for Erik McCoy, and that battle has been ongoing. Meanwhile, at left guard, Andrus Peat is sitting with a large extension, but he’s battling injury. Ruiz’s health is also in the air. While the Saints’ stalwart bookends Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are set, the interior has a lot of question marks for the time being.
This lack of familiarity could spell trouble against a Buccaneer defensive front that thrives on brute strength. Vita Vea is capable of causing chaos on the inside, and Ndamukong Suh settled in nicely as a role player for the Bucs last season. William Gholston did the same for the Bucs, racking up 38 tackles after picking up just 10 in 2018. On paper, outside of Vea, the Bucs’ front can look like a land of misfit toys, but they coalesced nicely last year.
That’s in stark contract to their linebackers, who are simply put extremely impressive athletic talents who make up a very good unit. LSU alum Devin White had 91 tackles in 13 games last year, and he was a turnover machine. White had an interception and three fumbles forced, four fumbles recovered and two touchdowns. White was a good hawking player in the running back, but the real player to look out for there is Lavonte David, who continued to build on a strong 2018 after down years by his standards in 2016 and 2017.
David had 123 tackles last season and 10 tackles for a loss. He also hawks the side of the ball the Saints tend to like to run to — the left side — featuring Armstead and Peat. In a league built around matchups, expect to see David hawking the Saints’ RBs. He can singlehandedly make running the ball difficult.
For the Saints’ part, running the ball into this mess with Latavius Murray may be banging their head against a brick wall. Murray’s upright running style can be effective in space, but it will get him knocked down against cloggers like Vea. The Saints will have to get creative running the ball to be effective.
The nice thing about looking at a team like the Buccaneers in Week 1 is that even though it’s one of the NFL’s most new-look teams, it’s not a complete unknown. The way to run against the Buccaneers is to stack up their interior, create a lane, and always account for White and David at the next level.
If you’re going to run between the tackles, this is the way to do it. McCoy throws an outstanding block to seal Vea, and David is immediately picked up and picked off by the fullback while Larry Warford crashes down to create the seam. Quick, decisive running by Murray nets the Saints a 12-yard gain out of a big formation, and they move the chains.
On the flip side, this is how not to run against the Bucs. Kamara is decisive, but Warford’s upright blocking of Vea and his inability to seal him up lets Vea reach out and get Kamara in an arm tackle for just a two-yard gain. While the play is by no means blown up, it could have been more successful, especially thanks to a fantastic lead block on White.
Regarding what to expect on Sunday, the Saints will likely try to open the Buccaneers up with the passing game early and often. Part of the reason the Bucs had the best rush defense in the league is because they had the worst pass defense, which changes the way teams gameplan for them. With rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. lining up for the Bucs, expect to see the Saints targeting him early and often to try to tire the Buccaneers out before really committing to the ground game.
The Saints lost a bit of their balance in 2019 after losing Mark Ingram to free agency and having Kamara battle an injury. Sunday could be a real tone-setter for them against a very good run defense hungry to make a name for itself. On top of that, arguably the best quarterback of all time is standing on the opposite sideline, so the Saints will want to keep him off the field as much as possible.
This will likely be a game where Kamara gets a lot of touches, but not necessarily just in the running game. As a good deal of the country watches this (mostly) nationally televised game, expect to see the Saints try to make a statement against one of the NFL’s most compelling 2020 stories with some both new and old faces up front.
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