A 4-2 New Orleans Saints team hosts the 6-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday in a battle of top NFL contenders. The Buccaneers defeated the Saints, in New Orleans, during last years Divisional playoffs on their way to a Super Bowl title. It would be the final game in the illustrious career of QB Drew Brees.
The Saints have been uncharacteristically inconsistent on offense this season, but have won games by flexing the muscles of a strong defense. They are second in points allowed (16.8/game), and rank seventh in total defense in giving up 331 yards per outing.
New Orleans gives up yardage through the air, but those numbers are somewhat deceiving. They have a pass defense that ranks 20th, giving up 250 yards/game.
The Saints stiffen on third downs and near their goal line. New Orleans owns the league's top-ranked red-zone defense and rank seventh on third down conversions.
Tampa Bay comes into this game with one of the league's most highly touted offenses. Led by future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady, the Bucs rank second in total yardage with an average of 423 yards/game.
Brady and a deep crew of receivers average 324 passing yards per contest, best in the NFL. While Brady's gaudy passing numbers have the focus of the national media, this is a complete team with an underrated crew of running backs.
Defense and physical play propelled the Buccaneers to a title last season. Nowhere was that more true than during their postseason win over the Saints.
New Orleans has had one of the league's most formidable run defenses for the last four seasons. However, the Buccaneers had some surprising success on the ground in the playoffs. Will they be able to duplicate that success on Sunday?
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE VS. BUCCANEERS RUSHING ATTACK
New Orleans Run Defense
The Saints give up less than 81 yards per game on the ground, ranking third in the league. They surrender a measly 3.3 yards/carry, best in the league.
New Orleans held Seattle to under 100 yards rushing last week. It was the fifth time in six games they've accomplished the feat this year, and the 45th time in their last 59 contests.
The Saints defensive tackles haven't contributed much to the pass rush this season, but they've gotten nice interior push against opposing rushing attacks. Shy Tuttle and Christian Ringo have been especially effective. The entire defensive gets a major boost with the return of DT David Onyemata from a six-game suspension.
Defensive ends Marcus Davenport, Cam Jordan, and Tanoh Kpassagnon have been terrific against the run. They maintain outside responsibilities to keep a runner from getting around the corner and crash down on inside runs for containment.
Star LB Demario Davis is having another All-Pro campaign. He leads the unit in tackles and has a team-high 8 of the squads 31 tackles for loss. Davis is one of the league's best at play recognition and has the athleticism to explode into the backfield or chase plays down along the sideline.
New Orleans has a deep linebacking corps around Davis. Rookie second-round choice Pete Werner has been a standout in coverage but has also been a solid run defender.
Veteran LB Kwon Alexander has the athletic ability to run down ball carriers in space. Zack Baun and Kaden Elliss aren't strong in coverage, but are downhill defenders strong against the run.
The Saints use safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson as extra defenders near the line of scrimmage. Both are excellent tacklers and create disruption inside the tackle box. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, and Bradley Roby lead a swarming secondary that cuts down runners when they bounce to the outside.
Tampa Bay Rushing Attack
The Buccaneers average 99 yards/game on the ground, ranking 21st in the league. Brady and the passing game garners most of the headlines, but the Bucs have a rushing attack capable of winning a game. They've averaged over 131 yards rushing over their last four contests.
RB Leonard Fournette leads the team with 413 yards on the ground and four scores. Fournette is also a reliable receiver out of the backfield and has 27 catches for 222 yards. He’s a powerful runner who hits the hole hard and has good breakaway speed.
Fourth-year RB Ronald Jones has had a quiet year so far with just 181 yards and a score. Jones, who had 978 on the ground in 2020, had led the Buccaneers in rushing each of the previous two years. He isn't as explosive as Fournette but has proven he can shoulder the load when asked.
Veteran RB Giovani Bernard came on this offseason to add quality depth. He hasn't seen many carries, but has been an effective receiver out of the backfield. There aren't many snaps available for promising second-year RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, but he provides strong depth for the position.
Tampa Bay has quietly built one of the better offensive lines in the league. Second-year RT Tristan Wirfs is already one of the best linemen in the game. Veteran LT Donovan Smith seals the outside effectively. Guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa, along with C Ryan Jensen, form a powerful trio of interior blockers.
What to Watch
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians is notorious for abandoning the run if it doesn't have early success. Contrary to popular belief, it was defense and a strong running game that fueled the Buccaneers playoff run last year.
In two regular season losses to the Saints in 2020, Tampa Bay had a total of just 79 rushing yards from their backs. In the playoff game between the teams, the Buccaneers picked up 127 yards on the ground.
Tom Brady uses the short passing game as an extension of the rushing attack as well as any quarterback who’s ever played.
The Saints must be able to take that option away from Brady and force him to hold the ball for routes down the field. It’s equally important for New Orleans to win their battles in the trenches and eliminate the threat of the run early.
The major showdown will certainly be between the Saints pass rush and coverage against Brady and his receivers. An underrated key to the game is whether New Orleans can win the physical battle up front to force the Buccaneers into a one-dimensional attack.