Three weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints faced off at Raymond James Stadium. Then, they played for the right the division lead. If the Saints won they would lead the division outright, while the Bucs would tie the Saints in record but beat them on the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Bucs won, took the division lead, and then squandered it in London one week later.
But after one bye week, the Bucs are in the same position. They face the Saints next weekend, and the winner of that game will own the division lead. Better yet, if the Bucs win that game they will have a 3-0 record in the division - two wins against the Saints, one against the Atlanta Falcons.
That has all been made possible by one freak game no one saw coming: the Saints lost to the winless St. Louis Rams yesterday. They didn't just lose, they were pummeled. At one point they were down 24-0.
The Rams figured out two things about the Saints: get to Drew Brees and you stop the passing game. Run the ball, and you kill their defense.
That sounds simple, but it isn't. Getting to Drew Brees is hard because he is extremely aware inside the pocket and his guards do an excellent job of giving him space to step up. This compensates for poor offensive tackle play, neutralizing many defensive ends. The key to getting to Brees is to get push up the middle, which allows the defensive ends to make an impact.
This is something the Rams did very well - but it's also something the Bucs can do, especially so if Gerald McCoy comes back for the upcoming game. Adrian Clayborn made New Orleans left tackle Jermon Bushrod look like a sign post last time, and he was a big reason why the Bucs won the last game.
The other factor in the Rams' win was Steven Jackson. He ran for a massive 159 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans. Usually the Saints' defense doesn't need to defend the run, because Drew Brees gives them a sizable lead early in the game - but if Brees can't do that, the Saints' defense is in trouble.
Again, that's something the Bucs can replicate, and did the last time they played the Saints. Earnest Graham had a career day when Tampa Bay last beat New Orleans. Unfortunately, the veteran running back is now on injured reserve. Fortunately, Legarrette Blount should return against the Saints - which should certainly boost their run offense.
The Rams defeated the Saints with simple principles: pound the rock and get Brees on the ground. It's a formula the Bucs could easily replicate on Sunday.