The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently missing their best defensive player (Gerald McCoy), their best offensive skill position player (Legarrette Blount) and they're about to face the best team in the NFC South (the New Orleans Saints). Sounds like a recipe for a disaster. And honestly, it is.
Since Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik took over the team, the Bucs and Saints have faced each other four times. Twice the Bucs won in close games, both times in New Orleans near the end of the season with the Saints at less than full strength. And twice the Bucs lost in blowouts, both times at home earlier in the season. Looking at the circumstances a blowout loss is a lot more likely than a victory this time.
Drew Brees is going to destroy this pass defense.
There is a simple reason for that: the Bucs have really fallen off as a pass defense. While they've been relatively strong at stopping the run, they are currently ranked as the single worst pass defense in the NFL by Football Outsiders' numbers.
Particularly problematic is their complete inability to stop tight ends. The New Orleans Saints have one of the best tight ends in the league in Jimmy Graham, who has exploded onto the scene this year with 32 catches for 496 yards. He is second in the NFL for receptions, and fourth for receiving yards behind only Wes Welker, Steve Smith and Mike Wallace. So one of the worst pass defenses in the league, one that has struggled to stop tight ends, faces the most productive tight end in the league. Sounds perfect.
Another area of concern: Darren Sproles. The Bucs have struggled to pick up running backs out of the backfield. They've struggled to do for three years on end now. And Darren Sproles? Why, he's just the second-most prolific pass-catching back in the league right now, behind only Matt Forte. He has 31 catches, which does rank first, for 264 yards, ranked second.
If the Bucs want to win on Sunday, they need a lot of things to go right. They need Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn to beat the Saints' sub-par tackles silly and put constant pressure on Drew Brees. They need Aqib Talib and company to finally play well. They need to find a way to shut down Jimmy Graham. And they need to figure out a way to get things going on offense.
That's a tall task for a young team, but it's not impossible. The Saints defense has had real problems stuffing the run, and I've seen a lot of blown coverages in their secondary. They are not a bad defense by any means, but they can be beat. Specifically, safety Roman Harper can be attacked in the passing game. Of course, with TE Luke Stocker out isolating him may be difficult.
On defense, the Bucs haven't shown the ability to stop a good passing game all season. Missed tackles, coverage mistakes and lackluster safety play has plagues the Bucs. A good pass rush masked some of those problems, but with Gerald McCoy out that pass rush takes a real hit.
This isn't something that can be fixed over night, either. Unless it's through the addition of safety Tanard Jackson. All indications are that the talented but troubled safety will be on the field on Sunday, but it's unclear if he will start or how much he will play. If he starts he could be the catalyst the Bucs need on defense. It's more likely he will be rusty and Drew Brees will be able to pick on him.
Ultimately, I think the New Orleans Saints win this game fairly comfortably. Yes, this is the first time this year I am predicting a Buccaneers loss. I can see the Saints winning 32-16, as the Bucs fail to stop Brees while they can't get in the endzone themselves. There will still be standouts on both sides of the ball: Kellen Winslow and Michael Bennett both have favorable matchups they could exploit.
What do you think the score will be, and who do you think will stand out on either side of the ball?