The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the first of two times over the next three weeks. We had the chance to talk to JR Ella of Canal Street Chronicles about the game and the Saints, and he was kind enough to answer the traditional five questions.
1. Unless something magical happens, this will be the third straight season without a playoff berth for the Saints. Is Sean Payton's job at risk because of that, or will they continue shuffling defensive coordinators?
Unfortunately, I don’t believe that Sean Payton’s job is at risk at all, despite the fact that the Saints will indeed miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Saints owner Tom Benson is 89 years old now and has considerably ceded the reins to the franchise to general manager Mickey Loomis and to Payton himself. I think that is why Payton and Loomis have felt completely free to mismanage the organization for the past three to four years now.
Payton is still a good head coach, especially when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. As a talent evaluator and a “mini-GM” he is very simply terrible. I don’t think the Saints will continue to shuffle coordinators, but I’m hoping that if this trend continues one more season into 2017, Benson will finally wake up and make Payton take his job more seriously and show some sense of urgency, both of which have been missing for the last three years.
2. The last couple of years it seemed like Drew Brees was slowing down a little, but he's back to being one of the very best quarterbacks in the league this year. How long do you think he can keep going as the Saints' franchise quarterback?
The idea that Drew Brees had been slowing down is one of those false narratives that take a life of their own. Because the Saints have been mediocre and thus irrelevant in the playoffs picture for the past couple of years, Brees’ play has been completely overshadowed.
Yet in 2014, Brees was 6th in the NFL in passer rating (97.0), 5th in touchdowns passes (33) and tied for 10th in yards-per-attempt (7.5). In 2015, Brees again was 6th in passer rating (101.0), 7th in touchdowns (32) and 6th in yards-per-attempt (7.8). He had 17 interceptions in '14 and only 11 in ‘15, the number he already has this year.
As you can see, 2014 and 2015 were hardly bad years for Brees, especially when considering how much the Saints throw the ball. This season, Brees is simply continuing to play at a high level, his 105.0 rating ranks 4th in the league, at this point he leads the league in touchdowns (30) and has the same yards-per-attempts (7.8) that he had last season, which ranks 7th this year.
He’s been the one constant for the Saints over the years and given how he takes care of his body, his effectiveness in releasing the ball quickly and avoiding big hits, I think he’ll play at this level for another two to three years. The biggest question in NOLA is whether Payton and Co. will take their collective heads out of their proverbial derrieres and surround Brees with the amount of talent that will help him take the Saints back into serious contention.
3. Why is the Saints defense struggling again? This seems to be a recurring problem for New Orleans despite constant changes.
The more things change on the defensive side of the ball in New Orleans, the more they stay the same: bad talent evaluation, leading to bad draft selections. To make things worse, add a lot of bad free agent signings to the mix, shake well et voila: another putrid defense.
The illustration this year is guys like James Laurinaitis, who isn’t even with the team anymore, Paul Kruger who has clearly come to New Orleans just to enjoy some Po’Boys and a fat paycheck, Jairus Byrd who has been enjoying Po’Boys and a fat paycheck for some time now, while last year’s starter at middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, a high draft pick in 2015, has had the worst sophomore slump ever seen in football and has been benched for most of the year.
This has indeed been going on for quite a while in New Orleans and Sean Payton has somehow failed to realize that through all the different defensive coordinators, he and Mickey Loomis are the constant, thus are probably at the root of the problem.
4. The Saints running game has been surprisingly strong this season. What's been the key to their success?
Credit first goes to the offensive line, which was an area that worried Saints fans a lot this offseason, yet these guys have played out of their minds. Second-year tackle/guard Andrus Peat has made leaps of improvement, especially in the running game. You’ll often see the Saints running to his side of the line.
What’s more, that line has done it all year while missing perhaps their best element, in left tackle Terron Armstead who has been battling injuries all season-long. Secondly, Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram have been a surprise dynamic duo at running back. Ingram struggled a bit to start the year, and Payton started challenging him by playing Hightower a bit more.
That seemed to rejuvenate Ingram and he has been absolutely beastly since then. So far this year, Ingram is 2nd in the NFL in yards-per-carry (5.3) and is approaching 1000 yards (758) which is a rarity in Sean Payton’s brand of football, where everything revolves around the passing game.
5. Can you give us a prediction for the game?
The Saints have been all but predictable this year, but interestingly, New Orleans hasn’t lost at Tampa Bay since October 16, 2011 and has thus won four in a row in Tampa. For whatever reason, the Saints play well at Raymond James stadium and for whatever reason, I expect that trend to continue.
I think it’ll be a close game, that the Saints find a way to win, just to spoil things for the Bucs and spoil their own draft position. I see a 23-20 type of game in favor of New Orleans.