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Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints: Key Matchups

Each week we’ll take a look at a few of the key matchups for the Bucs’ upcoming game.

As you all should know by now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints this Sunday. The Saints are the current favorites with most lines giving the Bucs a field goal, but since this is the opening game, it really could go either way. Although a team game, individual matchups are very important in football, so I’m going to go over some of the big ones.

When the Bucs have the ball…

Earnest Graham vs. Jonathan Vilma

The Bucs got more than they ever expected out of Earnest Graham last year, who came in for an injured Cadillac Williams and rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 49 receptions. While those are good numbers, the problem is Graham was far from consistent, mixing great games with subpar ones. Not all of that can be put on the back himself as other factors weigh in of course – blocking, the defense he was going up against, etc. – but the Bucs will need more reliability out of Graham if they plan on having him be the primary runner all year.

In his first game of the season, Graham will face one of his biggest tests: going up against the Saints’ linebackers and more specifically, Jonathan Vilma. When healthy, Vilma is one of the best – and quickest – middle linebackers in the league, and although he missed some time last year, he appears to be back to 100%. Graham doesn’t have the breakaway speed of someone like Michael Bennett, and instead relies mostly on pounding the ball carry after carry. He must make sure he can hold onto the rock and take a pounding, because Vilma will be coming at him all day.

Tampa Bay Receivers vs. New Orleans’ Secondary

Our beloved Bucs do not have a top-ranked receiving corps. As much as we love Joey Galloway, cheer for Ike Hilliard, hope Michael Clayton locates his missing hands, want Dexter Jackson to live up to the hype, and think Antonio Bryant can turn his career around; Tampa does not have elite receivers. The unit is actually thought to be one of the weak links. Galloway has stood the test of time but he – along with Hilliard – is getting older and injuries may be catching up with him. Either way, he is still the primary option and has plenty of speed. Paired with Bryant – who has been named the other starter – the two could be a decent tandem. We will mostly see Hilliard on third downs and Clayton, Jackson, and Maurice Stovall should see some time, but it’s hard to strike fear into opponents until this unit starts performing when it counts.

According to the Saints’ team site, New Orleans will start Jason David and Mike McKenzie at the corners and Roman Harper and Kevin Kaesviharn at the safety spots. There isn’t necessarily a big star among the bunch, meaning this matchup could go either way. McKenzie is the most consistent performer of the group and in the past has lined up against the opposing team’s best receiver. The key for the Bucs will be to run efficient patterns and make the easy catches. New Orleans only had 13 interceptions in 2007 and isn’t a team that takes risky chances a lot. The Bucs can’t give them the chance to get an easy turnover by a poorly thrown ball or a bobbled catch.

When the Saints have the ball…

Reggie Bush vs. Bucs’ Linebackers

Okay, try to stay with me on this one. 2.6, -0.5, 2.7, 4.9. Those are Reggie Bush’s yards per carry numbers each time he’s faced the Bucs during his career. Sounds pretty good for the Bucs, right? Bush only averaged over 2.7 yards a carry once. Well there’s a problem. In the games 2 games where Bush had lower yards per carry averages, the Saints actually won. In the games were he did better, the Bucs won. So what does that all mean? Who the heck knows?!?!? Even I’m confused after reading it over again. All we do know is the Saints will figure out a way to get Bush the ball and no matter how good or bad he plays might have no difference whatsoever on the outcome of the game.

Right about now you’re saying to yourself "then why is he on this list?" For one reason: the big play. Big plays sway momentum. Big plays turnaround games. And out of all the players on either team, Bush is the one with the most big play potential. During his short NFL career, we haven’t seen as much of it as we did when he was in college, but it’s still there and it will come out more than once this season. The key is for the Bucs’ linebackers to not let it happen.

Tampa Bay has very good linebackers. Derrick Brooks is nearing the end of his career, but hasn’t seen a real decline in his production yet. Cato June will only be better during his second season in Tampa. And Barrett Ruud is a future star. They all have the talent and ability to stop Bush from having an all-around good game, but they need to be sure they are aware of him on every play because it only takes one to turn everything upside down.

Jammal Brown vs. Gaines Adams

The Saints allowed only 16 sacks last season – the least in the league – while attempting 652 passes – the most in the league. Basically that means they throw the ball A LOT and their offensive line is really good. Being the left tackle and protecting Drew Brees’ blindside, Jammal Brown is the anchor. Since coming to New Orleans, Brees is 2-2 against the Bucs. In the 2 wins, he was not sacked at all. In the 2 losses, Tampa Bay brought him down 5 times. So the moral of the story is, GET PRESSURE ON BREES!

The Bucs will be looking for Gaines Adams to be the one to do it. Adams showed tremendous improvement during the second half of his rookie year. Now he needs to take it to the next level. Adams has the potential to be one of the league’s premier pass rushers and this first game is definitely a proven ground for him. Going up against Brown will give Adams the chance to shine and he needs to if the Bucs don’t want Brees to pick them apart. Not that the rest of the defense can’t stop the pass, but it’s much easier for a quarterback to succeed if he has all the time in the world to find the open receiver.

Obviously these aren’t the only matchups that will play an important role in Sunday’s game, so let us know what matchups you think are important and what the Bucs need to - and will - do to beat the Saints.