Last year, the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers traveled to New Orleans to play a Super Bowl-bound Saints team in their home stadium. The Saints had lost their first game of the season the week before, but were still perfect in their home stadium. Moreover, a win would guarantee them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bucs, on the other hand, had long been eliminated from playoff contention and had essentially nothing to play for except their honour. Everyone expected this to be a quick and easy victory for the Saints, and for most of the first half that's what it looked like. But somehow the Bucs managed to tie the game, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed a last-minute field goal and the Bucs drove downfield in overtime to grab the victory in New Orleans. The Saints would rest their starters for their last regular season game, to then go on to smash the Cardinals, Vikings and Colts to win the Super Bowl.
So what were some of the reasons for that win? I could point to Michael Spurlock's electrifying punt return for a touchdown, or the missed field goal by Hartley, or the fact that the Bucs ran the ball in overtime to beat up a weary Saints Defensive Line. Instead, I'll highlight something else because there's a clear parallel with the upcoming game: Saints injuries. They were missing star cornerback Jabari Greer, starting rookie Malcolm Jenkins in his place. Jenkins has since moved to Free Safety, a position more fitting to his skills. Their starting outside linebacker, Scott Shanle, was injured that game as well. And perhaps most importantly Jeremy Shockey wasn't playing. Shockey's absence made the Saints offense more one-dimensional and prevented them from effectively dictating coverage and causing as many matchup issues as they usually could. Despite the Bucs' tendency of giving up big plays and the Saints' tendency of connecting on big plays, the Saints' longest play of the day was just a 30-yard pass.
And at this point, the Saints face a similar problem: injuries have sapped strength and versatility and have left this team significantly weaker.
The most important injury is the one suffered by Reggie Bush. Reggie Bush has never had great production, but he's been a key cog in Sean Payton's offense, as he used him to dictate the coverage the Saints would see. This allowed him to shuffle around the other players on offense to create favourable matchups, and it was those schemes and matchups that created a lot of the big pass plays.The further loss of Pierre Thomas has exacerbated this problem as the Saints now have no running game to speak of: they are rushing for just 75 yards per game, 31st in the league.
Without Bush and Thomas, the Saints have turned an exciting and very productive offense into a low-scoring affair, concentrating on short passes. This is reflected in Drew Brees' stats: he completed a staggering 70.6% of his passes last year, but he's completing 71.4% of them now. On the other hand, his yards per attempt have dropped from 8.5 to 7.1. He is completing more passes but for fewer yards - clearly the symptom of a short passing game.
But offense isn't the only area where they've suffered injuries as star safety Darren Sharper has not been healthy this season either. While Malcolm Jenkins hasn't played badly at free safety, the offense seems to have lost some ballhawking skills: the turnovers that floated this defense last year have disappeared.
The interesting thing about all these injuries is that they play to the Bucs' strengths. The Bucs' weaknesses on defense lie in defending the deep ball and defending the run - the exact dimensions the Saints offense is currently lacking. The strength of the Bucs defense lies in defending short passes - they're ranked 1st, 5th and 28th in the league on defending passes to the short left, middle and right respectively. If the Saints are going to stick with the short passing game, they will be playing right into Tampa Bay's hands.
On offense, we can see a similar trend. While the Saints major weakness last year was defending the run, that has changed this year. While they're still not good against the run, they are not nearly as bad as they were last year. Football Outsiders ranks them as the 18th run defense in the league. Their defensive weaknesses lies in the deep pass: they're ranked 30th, 16th and 24th defending against passes to the deep left, deep middle and deep right respectively. And what the Bucs have done a lot this season is throw deep: 25% of all their pass plays are deep throws. While the Bucs have not been dominant, they've been fairly decent on these plays, ranking 23rd, 16th and 11th for the deep left, deep middle and deep right respectively.
To summarize: I think the Bucs have a good chance of winning the game this weekend if the Bucs exploit the Saints' weakness against deep passes, and the Saints stick to their short passing game. This should allow for Freeman to connect on a few big plays down the field, and it should force the Saints to put together very lengthy drives to try to get any points, if they can put them together at all. If things go our way, the Bucs can win this game. And if they do, they'll be one step closer to their goal of 10 wins.