The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like the worst team in the NFL last week, but they have a chance to right the ship today against the New Orleans Saints. Here are five matchups they have to win to beat Drew Brees and company.
Bradley McDougald, Chris Conte and D.J. Swearinger vs. Sean Payton
The Bucs' biggest problem on defense that can't be fixed by telling players to simply play better is the lack of speed at safety. Despite Ronde Barber's preseason insistence that Conte was the best athlete he'd ever seen at the position (what?), the safeties lack the speed to compensate for poor positioning or any hesitation in executing their assignments. That means the Bucs have no room for error from their safeties, which in turn led to a lot of short plays turning into big gains for the Titans last week.
Sean Payton will look to relentlessly exploit that defensive deficiency today. The good news is that he doesn't quite have the weapons to do so: Marques Colston is slow and lumbering, and Brandin Cooks is explosive but doesn't really have the size to be a quality weapon down the field. Their best bet to threaten the safeties is to get the ball into the hands of C.J. Spiller or Cooks and hope they can turn short catches into long gains -- but that's something the Bucs can keep in check with disciplined defending. The question is: can they keep up the discipline for a full game?
Kwon Alexander vs. play-action
This is the other big thing the Saints will look to exploit: Kwon Alexander and at times even Lavonte David biting incessantly on play- and run-action, leading to vacated coverage zones and easy throws for the opposing quarterback. That was a big part of Marcus Mariota's big day, and it'll be a big part of Drew Brees' big day -- if he has one today. The good news is that last week was Alexander's first game in the NFL, which means there's reason to believe he'll have learned and will do better today.
Jameis Winston vs. Rob Ryan's blitzes
The Bucs faced a very experienced and creative defensive coordinator last week, but Dick Lebeau isn't quite the mad blitzer that he's reputed to be. It showed, too: he rarely sent more than five rushers, and mostly relied on movement and dropping expected rushers into coverage while sending unexpected ones to confuse Winston. It worked, helped by Winston's losing all semblance of disciplined mechanics and looking uncomfortable all game. The latter shouldn't be as bad this week, given that Winston should be adjusting to the NFL a little more in his second game.
But Winston will actual be facing someone who loves to send overload blitzes this week, and he's going to have to be on point in his reactions. He'll have to diagnose the blitzes, call the right protections and find his hot reads when a free rusher slips through. The upside is that those overload blitzes will leave bigger holes in coverage, which means Winston should have a few easier reads.
In truth, Winston won't be the only one responsible for adjusting to blitzes. Part of the issue on offense last week was the offensive line's failure to adjust to movement by the Titans defensive line, particularly between Ali Marpet and Gosder Cherilus. Winston can call the right protections all he wants, if Marpet doesn't pass off the defensive tackle to Cherilus when the defensive end loops inside, it really doesn't matter: someone's going to be free to run at Winston.
Gosder Cherilus vs. Cameron Jordan
Here's another thing that'll make all of the above irrelevant: offensive linemen losing their individual matchups. That happened a few too many times last week, with Gosder Cherilus and Donovan Smith struggling in particular. The good news is that the Saints have only one capable pass rusher in Cameron Jordan. The bad news is he's going against Cherilus, who isn't the reliable pass blocker he used to be. At times, Jordan may line up over Ali Marpet --which will not help the Bucs.
Doug Martin vs. the score
The Bucs had two big bright spots on offense last week: Doug Martin and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The latter will be involved regardless of what happens, but Martin is reliant on one thing: the score. He had eight carries in the first quarter last week, but was practically absent the rest of the game as the Bucs went to a pass-first offense to catch up with the Tennessee Titans. That may have been the wrong tactic, as it took their most consistent offensive performer out of the game. The Bucs will want to keep Martin in the game this week, but they're likely to abandon the run if they go behind early.