Overview: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to action Sunday following a disheartening and controversial loss to the Miami Dolphins last week. This week, the New Orleans Saints come marching into Raymond James Stadium as the talk of the NFL. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the Saints come into Ray Jay at a pristine 9-0 mark and are rolling towards the #1 seed in the NFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Buccaneers look to play spoilers this week, as well as continue the development of their young football team and wash the bitter taste out of their collective mouths of last week's last second loss.
The Saints are the definition of a big play team on both sides of the ball. On offense, their big, versatile offensive line sets them up to do pretty much whatever they want. Give Drew Brees time to look deep. Pound the ball ahead with their own three-headed rushing attack. Whatever they want to do on offense, this team is built to do it. Simply an impressive bunch. The Buccaneer defense will have its hands full Sunday, to be sure. However, one of the best ways to "defend" a powerful offense is to......
3 KEYS TO A BUCCANEER VICTORY
1. Employ a balanced, ball-control offense.
It's a tired cliche to say it's essential to keep the ball away from the opposing team's offense.........but it's true. 2nd and 4's. 3rd and 2's. Extended drives. Wear down that defense and control the ball in the 4th quarter. To do that, the Buccaneers will have to....
2. Run the football effectively, early and often. The Saints' defense that has been pushed around up front the past 3 weeks. Part of that has been due to the absence of big DT Sedrick Ellis, who will again be missing this game. Unless the Bucs fall behind, they'd be foolish not to slam ahead with the running game.
3. Get some pressure on Drew Brees. He's made a few more mistakes lately than usual against the Rams and Panthers, but he's still managed to avoid getting the Aaron Rodgers treatment from opposing defensive lines. The Bucs will need to get a little bit more aggressive in their blitzing schemes and hopefully put the Saints in some long-yardage situations. You just can't always stand pat with 4-man rushes.
3 KEYS TO A SAINT VICTORY
1. Bloody dem defenders noses. Similar to Miami last week, this team actually runs the ball a helluva lot...albeit in a more traditional set. Yes, the Saints can throw, but they do they need to? Pound the ball like you have been. Although Reggie Bush is out, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell are more than capable of running the ball right up the middle of the Buccaneer defense.
2. Don't put the Bucs in a position to succeed............. by losing the kicking game. Corner Clifton Smith and maintain your responsibilities in coverage. The Bucs have come out and shown that they can move the football and hit some big plays, but they've still been mistake-prone since Freeman has taken over. Force them to go the long field in order to......
3. Be aggressive and blitz Freeman like he still hasn't seen. I'm starting to buy the idea that if you give Josh Freeman enough time, he's going to find a receiver and make a play. Green Bay did blitz him, but they did up the middle mainly with their linebackers and he was able to sidestep the blitz. Corner blitzes. Stunt inside followed by delayed LB blitz. Bring the nickel CB off press man coverage. Make him look at who's coming for him before he can go through his reads.
Saint Offense vs. Buccaneer Defense
What makes this team so absolutely difficult to prepare for? Like Mama used to say....the Saints offense is like a box of chocolates.... you never know what ya' gonna get. A truly versatile football team, this group can pound the ball out of the I-formation or it can (and loves to) drop Drew Brees back in shotgun formation, spread the defense, and.....create one-on-one matchup nightmares with Shockey, Colston, and Reggie Bush. Fortunately, Reggie Bush is out Sunday, but that just means more opportunities for their other playmakers.
Really, what can you do when Drew Brees drops back with 4 WRs split out with Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas (or heck, I just watched video with Jeremy Shockey lining up near Brees!) coming out of the backfield? You can't single cover each of these guys in man coverage or employ a standard zone coverage scheme. Drew Brees WILL find the open receiver if you give him time. You have to disguise your blitzes, change your coverages, and take Marques Colston out of the game, which requires a physical, lockdown corner. Fortunately for the Bucs, Aqib Talib fits that bill and can hopefully continue to keep Colston out of the equation in the Saints' offense for at least one more week.
In traditional power sets, not only do they have the ability to get a push, but they come at the opposing defense with the bulky, low-center-of-gravity Pierre Thomas. He runs with a low pad level and is tough to bring down on first contact. He reminds me of a taller Earnest Graham with better quickness and speed. They spell Thomas with Mike Bell, who's managed to run with power himself. That's part of what makes the Saints' running attack so effective in the 2nd half of games... they keep their running backs fresh. Reminds me of what Dallas has done the past 2 years with spelling Barber by committee and letting him finish games off. Pretty heady.
The Saints tend to be trendy one way or another during a ball game. They can hit the home run ball, or they can bleed you. When they go on extended drives, it may be... Pierre Thomas for 7 yards, Thomas catch short right for 4 yards, Thomas up the middle for 5 yards, Reggie Bush short right for 11 yards, Pierre Thomas for 1 yard.... etc, etc. They're patient. They're perfectly happy to pound you and play physical football.
What could be a significant matchup problem for the Buccaneers would be Jeremy Shockey on Barrett Ruud and Geno Hayes. If the Saints are having success running the ball, you could see Shockey chip block his blocking responsibility, peel off, and go up the seam or cut off an out route, creating one-on-one coverage with a linebacker.... advantage Shockey and the Saints. The Bucs would be wise to cheat their safety up from time to time in power sets and give him help-responsibility on Shockey, with the safety being already in the box to help the run if indeed the Saints forego play action and run the ball.
Buccaneer Offense vs. Saint Defense
#1WR Antonio Bryant might be back, but the key for this game will be Derrick Ward, Cadillac Williams, and the interior of the Buccaneer offensive line. DT Sedrick Ellis will miss his fourth consecutive game. Since his initial absence, the Saints have given up a massive amount of yards to Michael Turner, D Williams/J Stewart, and Steven Jackson. Caddy could be in line for a big day...IF our coaches have the patience and wisdom to understand that the offense needs to control the time of possession and go on extended drives to keep the Saints' offense grounded.
Although Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams employs a 3-4 front, they've been running out a 4-man defensive front recently. With Ellis going down, DT Anthony Hargrove has stepped into his position. While Hargrove has provided a nice push up front (3 sacks in 4 games and forced fumble that he returned for TD against CAR), he's somewhat undersized at 272 and can be blocked one-on-one in the running game. NT Remi Ayodele is a load at 318 lbs and mans the responsibility of filling the gap between LG and C. Although he's a big space-filler, he's not had the best time getting off his blocks and getting involved in the action, totaling 1.5 sacks and averaging a paltry one tackle per game.
Gentlemen, if there's ground to be gained, it's straight up the middle. Run the ball early and often. Get Derrick Ward involved and wear down that defense. As we discussed earlier today in UNFNOLE's post, the Bucs like to run out of one-back 3 WR sets, which I have no problem with because it's such a versatile formation. You can check down to a run or a pass. If the Buccaneers can get rolling on the ground, they could really hit some big plays in play action to Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow in single-coverage situations.
What will happen:
The Saints have had several close calls this season, including the past 4 games, and it will finally catch up to them this week. Without Sedrick Ellis, the middle of the Saint defensive line will give up large gains, creating even more opportunities for Josh Freeman in the passing game. It'll be a high-scoring game and both quarterbacks will make big plays and mistakes, but Josh Freeman to Kellen Winslow, Jr. will be the connection of the day, culminating in a late scoring drive to give the Buccaneers an improbable victory.
Final Score: Tampa Bay 30, New Orleans 27.