Its been an interesting week watching the pundits talk about Sunday's game. Most are picking the Saints to go on the road and beat Tampa Bay. Oddsmakers even made New Orleans the road favorite. For the life of me, I can't figure out why. Yes, Drew Brees is great. Always has been, probably always will be (unless he goes all Favre on us). The Bucs will be without Aquib Talib, their top cornerback and have been torched in the past. 1+1=2 right?
But these aren't the Sean Payton Saints. Essentially Drew Brees is his own offensive coordinator, meaning there's not much balance on offense. The Saints have always been bad on defense - but they're at 2011 Bucs bad on defense this season.
Plus, they'll be without their best pass rusher in Will Smith, who begins his suspension this week.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are coming off their most complete game of the season. An excellent defensive performance combined with a good day by Freeman and the Bucs running game led to a dominant victory over Kansas City. Yes, many of the pundits said - that's just the Chiefs. Indeed, the same Chiefs that went to New Orleans and beat the Saints.
It seems the experts just expect the Saints to be the Saints - but even when they have been one of the best teams in the NFL, the Bucs have always given them fits.
Let's take a look at the matchups and you can decide for yourself who should really have the advantage in this ballgame.
Series: New Orleans Leads 23-17
Last Meeting: November 6th, 2011 - New Orleans 27, Tampa Bay 16
Statistically speaking, the Bucs passing offense appears anemic. Ranked 25th overall in passing, the Bucs haven't offered up much of a challenge in the passing game. That's quickly changing. For consecutive weeks, Josh Freeman has finally put up numbers you would consider quality by NFL standards. While he'll definitely not make anyone forget Drew Brees, Freeman is developing into a "big play quarterback". Consider this: Tampa Bay's passing offense has 24 plays of more than 20 yards. The prolific Saints with all world quarterback Drew Brees? They have 25 plays.
Even more interesting is the Buccaneers actually have more plays over 40 yards than the Saints. Tampa Bay is actually second in the league with 7, behind (oddly enough) the Cincinnati Bengals by one. So if Tampa Bay has such a big play offense, why are their overall passing numbers so down? Freeman struggles with the intermediate routes. Passes 1-20 yds, Free is 49 of 92 (53% comp pct.), 433 yds, 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions of his 5 interceptions. He actually has a higher completion percentage with the deep ball.
The good news for Freeman and the Bucs is they're playing the Saints. New Orleans is 26th in the NFL against the pass and have surrendered 23 plays of twenty or more yards. New Orleans doesn't put a lot of pressure on the quarterback (although they did have a big night against San Diego, sacking Phillip Rivers 5 times). Defensive end Junior Galette leads the team with 3 sacks.
As we mentioned earlier, they'll be without their pass rushing specialist Will Smith, who begins his suspension for BountyGate.
New Orleans isn't very opportunistic in the secondary either, tied for 3rd worst in the league with just three interceptions.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Game vs. New Orleans Saints Rush Defense
As bad as the Saints are against the pass, they are that much worse against the run. New Orleans surrenders a whopping 172.8 yds per game. Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were supposed to help the Saints improve there and steady the waters while Jonathan Vilma wages war with the Commissioner. Lofton leads New Orleans with 54 tackles but Hawthorne has played in just two games this season. Vilma could be activated from the PUP list for this week's game.
Tampa Bay's running game got back on track against Chiefs, but overall has been a bit disappointing, averaging a pedestrian 101.8 yds per game. After going exclusively with rookie Doug Martin for the first few games, the Bucs have shared the load between the dual threat Martin and the powerhouse workhorse LeGarrette Blount the past couple games and the results seem to have been more effective. Blount has scored a touchdown in each of his last two games and is averaging 5.1 yds a carry.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
New Orleans Saints Passing Offense vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
Drew Brees. Need we say more? Brees continues to destroy NFL records as the Saints prolific quarterback may be the only reason New Orleans has even been competitive in their first five games. The answer for any problem is Brees. Your running game sucks? Their answer: we have Brees. Your defense couldn't stop West Virginia? We have Brees. Behind by two scores? We have Brees.
Of course, Brees hasn't been enough this season. While he's been putting up huge numbers again, he is missing the ingenuity and guidance of head coach Sean Payton. After starting the season with 5 interceptions, Brees has calmed himself, throwing just 1 pick in the past two. His completion percentage, while not at Drew Brees' standard, has also improved in the past couple weeks.
He'll be facing a Buccaneer defense that is 31st in the NFL against the pass and without their best player in the secondary in Aquib Talib. While on the surface, the Bucs appear to be ripe for the picking, the truth lies within the numbers. Of the 1561 yds the Bucs have surrendered this season, 501 of those yds came on a terrible day in New York where the Bucs surrendered nearly 300 yds in the final six minutes of the game. In the other four games, the Bucs have been more decent at 265 yds a game, which would put them around 24th.
Of course, you can't take away that game and without Talib, there's a chance we could see a repeat this week.
The important thing for the Bucs defense is to keep it within the 20's. In the Red Zone, Tampa Bay is one of the best in the NFL in opponents red zone scoring defense (touchdowns), allowing just 25% (good for 2nd in the NFL).
Tampa Bay is also tied for 5th in the NFL with 8 interceptions.
Advantage: New Orleans
New Orleans Saints Running Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Run Defense
In their victories against Tampa Bay, New Orleans had balance, getting big games from Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, among others. The Bucs are no longer giving up the run like they have in the old days.
Tampa Bay is third in the NFL, surrendering 75.0 yds a game on the ground, which aligns perfectly with the Saints - who average just 75.2 yds a game rushing - good for 30th in the NFL.
Be it play calling, game situation or what have you - the Saints have run the ball the least of any team in the NFL.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Saints kicker Garrett Hartley has made 7 of 9 kicks this season with a long of 53. Thomas Moorstead is one of the league's best power punters, averaging a whopping 51.2 yds a punt. Oddly though, he's only placed 5 punts inside the 20. Darren Sproles handles both kick and punt return duties. He has put up some pedestrian numbers thus far.
Tampa Bay kicker Connor Barth saw his streak of 25 consecutive field goals come to an end when his 55 yd attempt clanged off the left upright. Barth began a new streak later in the game. While Michael Koenen hasn't put up the distance numbers he has in the past, he's still averaging 44.3 yds a kick and has had pin point accuracy inside the 20, with 12 and only 3 touchbacks. Regus Benn has been handling kickoff duties while Roscoe Parrish has been handling punt returns for the Bucs. Neither have wowed.
By the Numbers
- New Orleans is 3-3 after the bye since 2006 but have won three straight.
- Tampa Bay has won 6 of the last 10 meetings with the Saints
- Josh Freeman has won two of his last three starts against New Orleans, with 5 touchdowns and no picks.
- Tampa Bay has won three of the last five meetings against the Saints in Tampa
- New Orleans is 10-7 all time in Tampa.
- New Orleans is 0-2 on the road this season.
- New Orleans is 0-2 against NFC South opponents after the bye.
- Tampa Bay is 1-0 within division, New Orleans is 0-1.
- The Saints defense surrenders 30.8 points per game, 31.5 ppg on the road.
- Tampa Bay is +3 in giveaway/takeaway, New Orleans is +1.
- Tampa Bay is 2-1 at home this season.
- The Bucs will be wearing their orange throwback uniforms on Sunday. Since retiring "Bucco Bruce", Tampa Bay is 1-2 wearing the creamsicle.
As we've illustrated, there's plenty of reason to believe either team could win this game. It will come down to what nearly every game in the NFL comes down to - who will make the most mistakes. While the perception is the Saints are vastly superior team, the reality doesn't bear that out. The Bucs are better defensively, surrendering 10.6 points a game less than the Saints and are averaging just 4 points less than the Saints on offense.
They can match the Saints in big plays. Can the Bucs sustain the running game and limit Drew Brees' opportunities at Tampa Bay's undermanned secondary?
I think they can. I expect another big game from Freeman and the offense and the Bucs will win an exciting duel at Ray Jay on Orange Sunday.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 30, New Orleans 24