The New Orleans Saints will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday evening in the last of the NFL's four Divisional Playoff games this weekend. This is the third meeting of the year between these NFC South rivals, with the Saints taking the first two decisively. This matchup has extra national attention because of the showdown between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tom Brady. New Orleans has been primarily known as one of the league's best offensive teams since the 2006 arrival of head coach Sean Payton and Brees. But it has been the Saints defense that has separated them from the pack this season.
New Orleans owned the league's 4th ranked defense, giving up just 311 yards and 21 points per outing. The Saints ranked among the top-five in pass defense, interceptions, turnovers forced, and ninth in 3rd down conversions. While they've been impressive across the board this season, the team’s rush defense has been formidable for several years.
The Saints ranked 4th against the run in 2020, allowing only 94 yards/game and 3.9/carry. New Orleans surrendered the 2nd fewest rushing touchdowns in the league and held twelve of their 17 opponents to below 100 yards on the ground. They've allowed only two 100-Yd rushers over the last 60 games, and both were during a Week 14 loss at Philadelphia.
Coming to town will be a Tampa Bay offense that ranks 7th in the league, averaging 384 yards and 30.8 points per contest. The Buccaneers have scored at least 30 points nine times this season, eclipsing the barrier in their last four games. Most of their success has been because of quarterback Tom Brady and a dangerous group of receivers, but the Buccaneers have some talent in their running game as well.
BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
Tampa Bay averages 95 yards/game on the ground and 4.1/attempt, ranking 28th in the league. They've been held to less than 100 yards rushing nine times this year, but their 142 yards on the ground in last week's Wild Card win at Washington was their second highest output of the season.
Third-year running back Ronald Jones II led Tampa Bay in rushing with a career-high 978 yards and 7 touchdowns in 13 games while averaging 5.1/carry. Jones has rushed for over 100 yards three times this year, but only once in the last eight contests.
Leonard Fournette is a terrific power complement to Jones and has 367 rushing yards and six scores, but has averaged just 3.8/attempt. He had one 100-Yd outing this year and had 93 yards in relief of an injured Jones against Washington.
Jones has been dealing with a quad injury, but should be able to play this Sunday. The Buccaneers will be without RG Alex Cappa, who fractured his ankle against the Redskins. In two games against the Saints this season, Tampa Bay rushed for a paltry 94 combined yards. They had a meager 8 yards on the ground in a Week 9 loss to New Orleans.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE
The nucleus of the Saints effectiveness against the run has been their dominance along the line of scrimmage. It starts with the defensive tackle spot, where a deep rotation of talent keeps this position fresh late in games. Malcom Brown is one of the league's most underrated run defenders. David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins are outstanding pass rushers, but are just as respected by opponents against the run.
Shy Tuttle and rookie UDFA Malcolm Roach have given the defense quality depth. All the tackles get excellent penetration into opposing backfields to short-circuit the run, but also have the athleticism to pursue along the line to cut a back down at the corner.
New Orleans has just as much depth along the edge as in the middle. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is one of the NFL's best all-around defensive players, able to stuff a runner just as effectively as he rushes quarterbacks. Edge rushers Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Davenport shut down an outside run well on the other side of Jordan, and do a standout job of crashing inside. Hendrickson is questionable with a ‘‘stinger'' that sidelined him last week, but Carl Granderson has provided outstanding depth all season.
The ability of the defensive line to create havoc up front allows the defensive backs to swarm to the ball carrier. Safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins are often used as extra linebackers in the tackle box and do so with extreme efficiency. Aggressive team defense has allowed the Saints to record 81 tackles for loss, among the most in the league.
New Orleans has one of the league's most underrated duo of linebackers. Alex Anzalone reclaimed his starting spot after a season-ending injury to Kwon Alexander. Anzalone is an instinctive player who flows to the ball well. He is a terrific complement to All-Pro LB Demario Davis, one of the NFL's best defenders. Davis has a team-high 119 tackles, 10 for loss, the third consecutive year he’s led the team in tackles. He has elite play recognition skills, coupled with the athletic ability to make big plays all over the field.
The New Orleans rush defense slumped a bit down the stretch, but has rebounded well over their last two games. They stifled a Chicago running game that had been on a roll last Sunday, holding them to 48 yards and just 2.5/rush. The Saints absolutely crushed Tampa Bay's rushing attack twice this season, allowing a combined 94 yards in both meetings.
Tampa Bay's offense revolves around Tom Brady and their wideouts, but the best way to defeat them is to keep constant pressure on Brady. The Saints must eliminate the Buccaneer running game early. That will not only make the Buccaneers one-dimensional, but eliminate the threat of play-action and allow the New Orleans pass rush to focus on getting hits on the 43-Yr old Tampa Bay quarterback.