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Buccaneers vs. Saints: Three key matchups on defense

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to win these three matchups on defense to beat the New Orleans Saints.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

CB Leonard Johnson vs. WR Marques Colston

We haven't talked about Leonard Johnson much, which is a good sign for a cornerback. Johnson's been the Bucs' nickel cornerback and has played an overwhelming number of snaps, but he hasn't really been exploited much. He hasn't exactly been perfect, but he's held up well -- well enough to earn the praise of Lovie Smith in yesterday's press conference.

"Leonard Johnson played his best game last week," Lovie Smith said. "Very pleased with how Leonard played. He needed to. He’ll tell you he hadn’t played his best ball – like our football team though. But it takes a while at that position too – the nickel position. I was talking about the safety position. Nickel has to be able to play in the box, guard one of the receivers man-to-man. He may have the toughest duty on our defense. But Leonard has played it well. And again, if last week was an indicator of where we’re heading with him, we’re pretty excited about that."

Johnson will face a big test this week: he'll have to stop Marques Colston, who plays a large number of his snaps in the slot as a receiving threat down the middle of the field. Physically, the 6'4" Colston should be able to dominate the 5'10" Johnson, so the Bucs' cornerback will be tested to his limits.

DE Michael Johnson vs. T Terron Armstead

The key to beating Drew Brees isn't really getting pressure off the edge, it's getting pressure up the middle. But we know that pressure's going to be there: the Bucs have Gerald McCoy, after all. What they need most of all is complimentary pressure off the edge, to actually exploit Brees' limited space to step up.

That's where Michael Johnson comes in. The defensive end was the Bucs' biggest free agent signing, but he's been limited by an ankle injury through the team's first three games. Last week he played 51 snaps and while he was still affected by that injury, he managed two sacks and brought some consistent pressure that the Bucs had been missing for the previous three games.

Johnson still isn't fully healthy, but he's getting there. And he should be just a little bit more effective this week. Hopefully, that'll be enough to get Drew Brees uncomfortable.

WR Brandin Cooks vs. Tackling

The Bucs have struggled to bring down ball carriers before they reach a first down. It's kind of amazing how often a long third down situation was converted by the Bucs' opponents simply because they couldn't tackle.

Enter Brandin Cooks.

The rookie receiver has been everything the Rams expected Tavon Austin to be. Plus, they have a competent offensive coach managing him. That does wonders. Cooks hasn't averaged huge production, but he's brought an element of speed and elusiveness to an offense that is otherwise more about size and physicality.

If the Bucs want to stop the Saints, they'll have to find a way to get Tavon Austin down on the ground before he breaks the defense's back.