A huge NFC South showdown takes place on Sunday when the 4-2 New Orleans Saints host the 6-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers ended the Saints 2020 season, and the iconic career of QB Drew Brees, when they defeated New Orleans on this same field in the Divisional Playoff Round.
A new era at quarterback began in New Orleans when QB Jameis Winston took over for the retired Brees. Winston, the first overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, was Tampa Bay's signal caller from 2015 to 2019.
Winston's new offense has had some growing pains, especially without All-Pro WR Michael Thomas in the lineup at all this season. The Saints are a lowly 29th in total offense, averaging 297 yards per game. They've relied on the elite skills of RB Alvin Kamara and an 11th ranked running game that averages 120.5 yards/game.
A New Orleans offense still finding themselves now face a Tampa Bay defense that has forced 14 turnovers and ranks ninth in total yardage. The Buccaneers have surrendered 332 yards per outing and have held three of their last four opponents under 20 points.
Tampa Bay, like the Saints, have had one of the NFL's best run defenses over the past few seasons. The Buccaneers eliminate an opponent's running game and make them one-dimensional, but injuries in their secondary have led to struggles against the pass.
The national media will hype this up as a duel between the former Buccaneer Winston and current Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl winner. Each quarterback will face one of the league's best defenses.
Can Winston and an underwhelming passing game be effective against what has been a vulnerable Tampa Bay pass defense?
SAINTS PASSING ATTACK VS. BUCCANEERS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans Passing Game
Perhaps the most surprising statistic of the NFL season so far is that a team coached by Sean Payton is dead last in the league in passing attempts. Only the Chicago Bears average less than the Saints output of 176 yards per game through the air.
The Saints have begun to get into a better rhythm over their last three games, averaging a more respectable 242 yards passing. Winston has completed 59% of his attempts on the season, throwing 13 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions.
As Winston gets more comfortable in the offense, we’ve slowly started to see his passing numbers improve. His receivers haven't done him any favors.
Seven New Orleans wideouts have caught passes, but only two have double-digit totals in receptions. The group has failed to get separation from defensive backs or provide their quarterback a consistently reliable target.
Second-year WR Marquez Callaway leads the team with 254 yards and is second with 16 receptions and three touchdowns. Callaway has made some plays over the last four weeks and seems to be the player Winston looks to first when a play breaks down.
Explosive kick returner Deonte Harris has been the team's most reliable wideout. Harris has 12 receptions for 236 yards and is a scoring threat anywhere on the field. He’s missed the last game and a half with a hamstring injury that has him questionable for this week.
Veteran receivers Kenny Stills, Ty Montgomery, and Tre'Quan Smith have failed miserably to provide any kind of threat for a passing game severely limited without Thomas. The tight end position has been just as ineffective as the wideouts.
Second-year tight ends Juwan Johnson and Adam Trautman have combined for only 16 catches and 172 yards. Johnson, a converted wideout, has three touchdowns on his seven receptions. Trautman has been perhaps the team's biggest disappointment over the first part of the year.
Superstar RB Alvin Kamara leads the team with 25 catches and four receiving touchdowns. He has 241 receiving yards, but 128 of that on 10 receptions came last week against Seattle. Kamara, the league's best pass catching back, has finally developed a good chemistry with Winston.
The Saints have had some uncharacteristic issues with pass protection this year. Winston, who also has a tendency to hold the ball, has been sacked 11 times and hit 34 times. The line got a big boost last week with the return of LT Terron Armstead and C Erik McCoy from injury last week after missing several weeks.
Armstead and RT Ryan Ramczyk are the best duo in the league and have routinely shut down the league's best edge rushers. McCoy is one of the NFL's better centers. New Orleans lost starting LG Andrus Peat to a season-ending injury against Seattle.
Calvin Throckmorton will replace Peat, while Cesar Ruiz moves back to right guard with McCoy's return. Throckmorton, McCoy, and Ruiz will be challenged to set a clean interior pocket against a powerful Buccaneers defensive front.
Tampa Bay Pass Defense
The Buccaneers are giving up an average of 235 yards per game through the air, ranking 23rd in the league. Buccaneers coverage has allowed four 300-yard games and 70% completion percentage against them.
Injuries have battered the Tampa secondary, but they still have one of the most disruptive pass rushes in the league. The Buccaneers have 16 sacks and 49 QB hits in seven games. They can pressure quarterbacks from multiple angles.
Edge rusher Shaquil Barrett leads the team with 5.5 sacks and 8 QB hits. Barrett is complemented by Jason Pierre-Paul (2.5 sacks, 4 QB hits) on the other edge. Pierre-Paul and Barrett are perhaps the league's best outside tandems, a spot bolstered further with the addition of explosive rookie first-round choice Joe Tryon-Shoyrinka.
Tampa Bay's 3-4 base defense tests offenses along the edge, but a physical defensive line also causes havoc up front.
Nose tackle Vita Vea and backup Rakeem Nunez-Roches powers a pass pocket back into a quarterback's face. Veteran DE Ndamukong Suh is still a force inside, and DE William Gholston is one of the league's most underrated rushers.
Barrett has one of the team’s 10 interceptions, but he and Pierre-Paul don't drop into coverage often. Inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are spectacular in coverage, have elite range and athleticism, and are effective blitzers.
David has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. He returned to practice this week on a limited basis and could be a game-time decision.
Injuries have sidelined cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and veteran addition Richard Sherman. A short-handed crew has forced the Buccaneers to play more off coverage to keep the ball in front of them.
Third-year CB Jamel Dean is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, has broken up 7 passes, and has given up just 39% completion percentage when in man coverage. Veteran CB Ross Cockrell gets targeted often and allows over 64% completion percentage when in man, but has five passes defensed.
Mike Edwards (2 interceptions), Andrew Adams, and Pierre Desir are used as extra defensive backs. Safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead have also been banged up, but are one of the NFL's best pair at the position. Both have excellent range and can take on a receiver in the slot.
What to Watch
Devin White and Lavonte David are two of the few linebackers that can match Alvin Kamara's athleticism out of the backfield. If David misses the game, White will have to shadow Kamara as much as possible instead of blitzing.
Kamara has had some huge games as a receiver in nine meetings against the Buccaneers. He’s scored 10 touchdowns and has averaged over 117 all-purpose yards, including 52 receptions for 485 yards.
The Saints will need to establish balance, but rushing yards will be hard-earned for both teams. Kamara will be the primary offensive focus, but it’s crucial that wideouts Deonte Harris or Marquez Callaway make plays against a depleted Tampa Bay secondary.
Jameis Winston will be hyped up to play well against his former team. If Winston can contain his early nerves and avoid turnovers, don't be surprised to see him have his best statistical outing of the year.
The New Orleans offensive line has not had a dominant pass blocking performance since the opening game, but has played better in recent weeks. For Winston to have success and give time for the receivers to make plays, this offensive line needs to shut down the hard charging Buccaneers pass rush.