Saints Defense vs. Buccaneers Offense
The New Orleans Saints kick off their 2020 season with a home showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an NFC South rival. New Orleans has won three straight division titles, is coming off a second consecutive 13-3 season, and enters 2020 as one of the league's top favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Saints have always had a formidable offense since head coach Sean Payton took over the franchise in 2006, but a major reason for this team's success in recent years has been an improved and aggressive defense.
Like their offensive counterparts did for so long, the Saints defense can now shoulder the burden of winning a football game themselves. New Orleans finished 11th in total defense in 2019, allowing 333 yards per contest and surrendering 21 points per game. They also forced 23 turnovers, tenth best in the NFL, often giving their potent offense a short field to operate.
The New Orleans defense squares off against a Buccaneers offense that ranked 3rd in both total yards (344 yds/game) and points (28.6 pts/game) last season on the strength of an explosive passing game, but one that was one-dimensional and prone to mistakes. Tampa Bay turned the ball over a league-worst 41 times in 2019 and could not establish control of the line of scrimmage, prompting head coach Bruce Arians to make some major changes.
The most significant difference is at the quarterback position, where former 1st overall draft pick Jameis Winston, now with the Saints, was allowed to leave as a free agent. Last season, Winston threw an NFL-high 30 interceptions despite over 5,000 yards passing and 33 touchdowns. Replacing Winston was the biggest free-agent name in NFL history, former New England Patriots QB and six-time Super Bowl champion, Tom Brady.
The Buccaneers used their 1st round pick (13th overall) on OT Tristan Wirfs to protect their 43-Yr old signal-caller, who also coaxed his former New England teammate TE Rob Gronkowski out of a one-year retirement to join him in Florida. Tampa Bay also brought in two high-profile running backs in Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy, to inject life into their listless running game.
The offensive overhaul has made the Bucs Super Bowl favorites in some circles but triggers three questions:
- Do Brady and Gronkowski have anything left after both showed signs of decline in their last seasons?
- How will Arians adjust his aggressive downfield attack to suit Brady's style of play?
- How quickly will the new offensive pieces and system gel together, particularly without the benefit of offseason workouts and preseason games?
THE PASS: SAINTS DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
The Saints pass defense allowed an average of 242 yards/game through the air in 2019, ranking 20th in the league, while giving up 27 touchdowns and intercepting 13 passes. New Orleans has a pair of top-tier CBs in Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, who can shut down the league's best wideouts, but lack of depth at this spot makes them vulnerable against deeper receiving corps.
Second-year S Ceedy Duce is an emerging star and takes on slot coverage duties. At the same time, veteran CB P.J. Williams is valued for his versatility and off the ball recognition. The safety spot seems in excellent hands with Duce, the playmaking ability of FS Marcus Williams, and the experience of SS Malcolm Jenkins. The entire secondary has struggled with consistency in crucial moments and must create more turnovers this season.
New Orleans generates heavy pressure with their deep and talented defensive line, often forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. The Saints sacked opposing passers 51 times in 2019, led by a career-high 15.5 from Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan, one of the league's best all-around defenders at his position. Jordan's bookend, third-year DE Marcus Davenport, added six sacks as both ends provided a disruptive force for the defense. The Saints are equally effective inside at DT, where a rotation of David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, and Shy Tuttle combined for 10 sacks and 25 QB hits in 2019.
The defensive line should be even better this year with a healthy Rankins and contributions from DE Carl Granderson and Trey Hendrickson. New Orleans has an athletic LB unit that can blitz effectively and lockdown on an opposing RB or TE in coverage. All-Pro Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone can stay on the field in every situation, and coaches expect big things from second-year LB Kaden Elliss and rookie 3rd round pick, Zack Baun.
Even before all the offseason changes offensively, Tampa Bay possessed the league's most talented WR/TE combination. Wideouts Chris Godwin and Mike Evans combined for 153 receptions, 2,490 yards, and 17 touchdowns in 2019. Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard had a small dip in their production last season but still combined for 70 catches, 770 yards, and five scores as each provide an athletic mismatch against most defenses, especially now with Gronkowski's presence. Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, making him difficult to sack, but the Buccaneers must prove that they can protect their quarterback better than they have in recent years.
Tampa Bay surrendered 47 sacks of Winston in 2019, contributing to some of the turnovers and often putting the offense in long-yardage situations. Wirfs, one of the highest-rated tackles in the draft, should help fortify the front line, but Brady will need better protection than this team ever gave to Winston for success.
(NOTE* WR Mike Evans is questionable for Sunday's game with a leg injury)
THE RUN: SAINTS DEFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
New Orleans had the league's 4th best-run defense in 2019, their second straight year with a top-five ranking in that category. They allowed only 91 yards/game on the ground and have held 24 opponents under 100 yards rushing over the past two seasons. The Saints' defensive line dominates the point of attack, not only clogging rush lanes and tying up blockers but also slicing into the backfield to make plays themselves.
That play upfront allows Demario Davis and his LB corps, along with the defensive backs, to fly to the ball carrier unencumbered. The results have caused the Saints to make opposing offenses one-dimensional. New Orleans has not allowed a 100-Yd rusher in 43 consecutive games, dating back to the midway point of the 2017 season.
Tampa Bay's rushing attack averaged only 95 yards/game and a paltry 3.7 yards per carry in 2019, ranking 28th in the league. The Buccaneers were held below 100 yards rushing in eight games last year and have failed to crack the 100-Yd mark as a team in 33 games over the previous three seasons. That should change with the recent addition of 25-Yr old RB Leonard Fournette, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in two of his three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, scoring 19 touchdowns in those three seasons.
Fournette is a bruising runner, and even at 6’0” 228-Lbs has a terrific speed in the open field. He has also improved his receiving skills and can be an effective check-down weapon, definitely important in a Tom Brady-led offense. Expected starter Ronald Jones II will be counted on for improvement in his third season after leading the Bucs with 768 yards and 7 scores last year. The Bucs also added veteran LeSean McCoy and spent a 3rd round pick on promising RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn to give Brady a talented unit of backs.
Tom Brady's presence behind center guarantees that the Buccaneers will cut back on the turnovers that crippled them in recent years, but Brady must gel quickly with his new weapons and offensive system. Keeping the 43-Yr old QB upright will be critical to Tampa's success. The Bucs hope that Wirfs is an upgrade at RT against Saints DE Cameron Jordan, who has destroyed Tampa Bay blocking throughout his career. In 18 career games against the Buccaneers, Jordan has 14 sacks, 27 QB hits, and has forced 3 fumbles, including 6.5 sacks and 15 pressures in his last six games.
Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and the New Orleans safeties must contain Tampa Bay's frightening trio of tight ends and hold their running game in check to keep them one-dimensional and force Brady to hold on to the ball longer. If they can do that, it sets up a must-see matchup between the Saints CB duo of Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins versus the Bucs WR tandem of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to be Tampa Bay's only hope of offensive success.
If he's able to play with his injury Lattimore vs. Evans has always proven to be immensely entertaining. Save for one disastrous outing in the 2018 season opener, Lattimore's coverage has often made Evans irrelevant in the outcome of games between these two, holding the Tampa great to two catches or fewer in three of six games against each other and without a touchdown in all but one contest.
The addition of Brady has made the Buccaneers a Super Bowl contender in the eyes of many, while one of the Saints' only weaknesses in recent years has been against teams with a deep corps of pass-catchers despite a fierce pass rush and an elite pair of corners. These two division rivals will now provide the ultimate test for one another in the NFL's most anticipated matchup of Week 1.