Two NFC South rivals clash in the last of the four NFL Divisional Playoff games this weekend when the 13-4 New Orleans Saints host the 12-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday afternoon. The Saints have beaten the Buccaneers twice this season; a 34-23 triumph at home in the season opener and a 38-3 rout on the road in Week 9.
This showdown features a duel between two legendary quarterbacks: Drew Brees of the Saints and Tom Brady of the Buccaneers. Each Hall of Famer has plenty of talent around them on both sides of the ball, capable of taking home a Super Bowl title.
New Orleans had the league's 12th ranked offense this season, averaging 376.4 yards and 30 points per game, the fifth-highest in the NFL. A rib injury to Brees that sidelined him for four games and several injuries through their receiving corps all season caused the normally top-ranked New Orleans passing game to slip statistically.
A 7th ranked rushing attack helped the team maintain balance and remain effective on the offensive side. That balance allowed New Orleans to finish in the league's top-10 in 1st downs, red-zone efficiency, 3rd down conversions, and turnover differential.
The Saints ranked 19th in passing offense. Taysom Hill went 3-1 during Brees’ absence and completed 72% of his pass attempts for 209 yards/game, but the team relied more on its running game in those four contests.
Wideouts Deonte Harris and All-Pro Michael Thomas returned to the lineup last week in a Wild Card round win over Chicago, and the Saints could get WR Tre'Quan Smith back from injury this Sunday. New Orleans will come into this game the healthiest on offense they've been since the season opener against Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers come into this Divisional Round matchup with the league's sixth-ranked defense, allowing 22 points and 327 yards per contest. Tampa Bay has held five opponents to fewer than 20 points and has allowed over 30 points just three times, but two of those were against the Saints.
The Buccaneers have forced the fifth-most turnovers in the league, but rank 20th in red-zone efficiency and 14th in 3rd down conversions. Their top-ranked rush defense has been stout all season, but they've shown some vulnerability against the pass down the stretch.
BUCCANEERS PASS DEFENSE
Tampa Bay has surrendered an average of 246.6 passing yards per game and 29 touchdown passes, ranking 21st in the league. The Buccaneers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 69% of their throws and eight games of at least 280 yards passing, five of them 300-Yd outings. Tampa Bay has intercepted 15 passes, seventh-most in the league, but has allowed eight 100-Yd receivers and sixteen outings of at least 75 yards receiving.
Third-year CB Carlton Davis is the team’s top corner and leads the defense with 4 interceptions and 18 passes broken up. Davis has allowed a 62% completion percentage when targeted but is an extremely physical defender with the athleticism for man coverage.
He suffered a groin injury in last week's Wild Card win at Washington that could leave him hobbled this Sunday. The Buccaneers have decent depth at cornerback with Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Ryan Smith, but they have just 2 interceptions combined and have been vulnerable down the field recently.
Rookie 2nd round pick Antonio Winfield Jr. has made a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year and elevated the entire pass defense with his play at safety. Winfield is an outstanding tackler with terrific range and the athleticism to cover receivers or tight ends in the slot. Jordan Whitehead is an athletic safety with an excellent range on the back end. The team has experienced depth at safety with Andrew Adams and Mike Edwards.
Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are among the league's best coverage linebackers. Both have terrific sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability, along with the athletic skills to stay with even the most elusive backs or tight ends down the field. Edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul (2 interceptions, 6 passes broken up) and Shaq Barrett are more feared for their pass rushing skills, but each have been effective when dropping into zone coverage. White has been a bigger part of the team’s pass rush in his second season, giving opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks one more concern against a pressure oriented Tampa defense.
The Buccaneers have 48 sacks and 116 QB hits this season, among the most in the NFL. Pro Bowl edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul led the team with 9.5 sacks and added 22 QB pressures. Shaquil Barrett is a lethal complement to JPP at the other edge, adding 8 sacks and 41 pressures. Eleven-year veteran Ndamukong Suh remains a force inside and had 6 sacks and 28 pressures. Defensive end William Gholston had just 3 sacks but led the defense with 20 QB hits.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is one of the league's most aggressive play-callers. The Buccaneers blitzed on nearly 43% of their snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Safeties Winfield and Whitehead have a combined five sacks, but LB Devin White has been the biggest beneficiary from the aggressive scheme. White had 9 sacks and 19 pressures, giving the Buccaneers another facet to their pass rush.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
Drew Brees has averaged 261 yards/game in the 12 full contests he’s played, completing 70.5% of his throws with 26 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions. The 42-Yr old Brees doesn't have the deep arm he used to, but he still dissects defenses better than anyone that’s ever played. In 29 career outings against Tampa Bay while with the Saints, Brees has averaged 277 yards/game with 59 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, and eleven 300-Yd games.
Running back Alvin Kamara led the Saints in receiving with 756 yards and five scores on a career-high 83 receptions. He caught at least five passes in nine games and had one 100-Yd outing with six games of over 65 yards receiving. More than just a check-down option, Kamara is used all around the offensive formation and can be effective on any route. In eight career games against the Buccaneers, Kamara has 52 receptions for 465 yards, has averaged 106 yards from scrimmage, scoring 10 touchdowns.
After being battered by injuries most of the year, the New Orleans wide receivers are the healthiest they've been since the season opener against the Buccaneers. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris returned to the lineup in last week's Wild Card win over Chicago, and Tre'Quan Smith was activated from injured reserve this week.
Veteran Emmanuel Sanders stepped up as the top wideout amid the injuries and had 61 catches for 726 yards with 5 touchdowns and one 100-Yd outing. The eleven-year vet gives Brees a trusted target underneath and still has the speed to get deep.
Michael Thomas has played in only eight games this season after leading the league with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019. Thomas has 45 catches for 511 yards in those eight contests, surpassing the 100-Yd mark twice. He is one of the league's sharpest route runners and is nearly unstoppable through the intermediate zones. Thomas has averaged 8 receptions for 100 yards, with seven games of over 90 yards receiving, in nine career meetings against the Buccaneers.
Deonte Harris, one of the league's most dangerous kick returners, has become a bigger part of the New Orleans offense in his second season. Despite missing seven games, he pulled in 20 passes for 186 yards and was the team's leading receiver against the Bears with 7 catches for 83 yards. Undrafted rookie WR Marquez Callaway also emerged as a viable target amidst the rash of injuries at the position, grabbing 21 passes for 213 yards.
Tampa Bay has struggled against tight ends this season, and the Saints have one of the league's best receivers at the position in Jared Cook. The 33-Yr old Cook had a quiet year by his standards, but led the team with 7 touchdown receptions and had 37 catches for 504 yards. Cook has been a dangerous threat down the field and near the end zone for defenses to contend with, and rookie TE Adam Trautman has been more involved in the team’s short passing game over the second half of the year.
Brees has been sacked only 13 times in 13 games this season, none against a formidable Chicago pass rush last Sunday. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead have eliminated the NFL's best edge rushers throughout their careers and have had outstanding success against Tampa Bay pass rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
New Orleans must give Brees a clean interior pocket to find his receivers. Erik McCoy has developed into one of the league's better centers, but all eyes will be on guards Andrus Peat and rookie 1st round choice Cesar Ruiz. Peat and Ruiz have struggled in pass protection at times and will be challenged by Ndamukong Suh and blitzes from Devin White inside.
The New Orleans wideouts had some success in the second matchup between these teams this season and must give their quarterback a quick open target, while Kamara faces a key matchup against the Buccaneer linebackers in the open field. There has been much speculation that Brees will retire at season’s end. If the Saints are to extend that season at least one more game, they must protect their legendary quarterback against the fierce Tampa Bay pass rush to allow him to find his now healthy playmakers.