The New Orleans Saints (13-4) host an NFC South rival, the 12-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this Sunday afternoon in a Divisional Round Playoff matchup. New Orleans took the first two meetings between these two, a 34-23 win at home on opening week and a 38-3 victory at Tampa Bay in Week Nine. This game has two of the league's best offenses led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but both teams have a complete unit capable of winning the Super Bowl.
The Saints have the league's 12th ranked offense. They average 376.4 yards per game and 30 points per outing, fifth most in the NFL. Injuries to Brees and the receiving corps caused the team's normally prolific passing attack to slip to 19th. The Saints remained one of the NFL's most successful offenses through those injuries because of tremendous balance. New Orleans had the league's 5th best red-zone efficiency (72%) and 8th highest 3rd down conversion rate (44.7%) with a +9 turnover differential.
The Saints maintained offensive balance because of a rushing attack that averaged 141.6 yards per contest, ranking 6th in the NFL. New Orleans scored 30 touchdowns on the ground, most in the league, and averaged 4.6 yards/carry. Only four opponents held the Saints below 100 yards on the ground, and they surpassed 200 yards rushing in three games this season.
New Orleans hosts a Tampa Bay team that had the league's 6th ranked defense. The Buccaneers allowed an average of 327 yards and 22 points per game and have held five opponents to fewer than 20 points. They've forced the fifth most turnovers in the league, but ranks 20th in red-zone defense and 14th in 3rd down efficiency. Tampa has shown some vulnerability against the pass down the stretch, but they remain one of the most difficult defenses to run against.
BUCCANEERS RUN DEFENSE
The Buccaneers rank 1st against the run, allowing only 80.6 yards per game and 3.6 per carry. They've held 13 of their 17 opponents below 100 yards on the ground, and the 10 rushing touchdowns against them are the fewest in the league. Only one running back has a 100-Yd outing against them this year.
Tampa Bay has 91 tackles for loss this season, led by 15 from LB Devin White and 12 from LB Lavonte David, their top two tacklers. The defense's success is funneled through the athletic skills of these playmakers, two of the best linebackers in the league. Both have terrific play diagnosis and elite sideline-to-sideline athleticism.
The Buccaneers are stout up front, tying up blockers and setting up free paths to the ball carrier for David and White. Ndamukong Suh has always been a respected pass rusher, but also an underrated interior run defender throughout his career. William Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaquil Barrett have performed well against the run along the edge. Nose tackles Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon have clogged the middle well in place of the injured Vita Vea.
Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. often drops into the box as an extra defender against the run and is third on the team in total stops and fourth in tackles for loss. The entire Tampa secondary rallies to the ball quickly and tackles well in space.
Tampa Bay held New Orleans to 82 yards rushing when these teams met in the season opener. The Saints picked up 138 yards on the ground during their November 8th rematch, the second highest rushing output against the Buccaneers all season.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
Alvin Kamara led the team in rushing with a career-high 932 yards and 16 rushing scores, averaging five yards per carry. He had six games with at least 75 yards rushing and one 100-Yd outing, a career-high 155 yards and NFL-record six touchdowns against Minnesota in Week 16. Kamara is one of the league's most dynamic open field runners, but can also pick up tough yards between the tackles.
Latavius Murray is an outstanding complement to Kamara, picking up 656 yards and 4 touchdowns with one 100-Yd game this season. Murray is a powerful runner between the tackles with the speed to get around the edge or break big gains in the open field. He suffered a quad injury in the Wild Card victory over Chicago that's limited him in practice all week and has his status against the Buccaneers in question.
Taysom Hill is one of the NFL's most versatile offensive weapons and a valuable tool for the New Orleans attack. Hill runs with the power of a fullback between the tackles and has a great open field burst. He has a career-high 457 rushing yards and 8 scores on the ground. Hill suffered a knee injury against the Bears last week, an injury that has forced him to miss practice time and casts doubt on his availability against Tampa Bay.
If either Murray or Hill can't go, then the Saints will turn to veteran RB/WR Ty Montgomery for depth. Montgomery has seen limited action this year, but had 105 yards rushing in the season finale win at Carolina when Kamara, Murray, Dwayne Washington, and FB Michael Burton sat out because of COVID-19 protocols.
A dominant offensive line is the major key to the Saints rushing success. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead seal the edge for outside runs. Center Erik McCoy is an outstanding interior blocker and is joined by big-bodied Andrus Peat and 1st round choice Cesar Ruiz at the guard spots. This offensive line not only gets a tremendous push at the point of attack, but all are athletic enough to pull to either side for outside rushes, trap plays, or screen passes. They also effectively open up cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray, perfect for the running styles of both backs.
The New Orleans offensive line must be able to establish a running game for balance against the formidable Buccaneer defense. Drew Brees and the passing game should be able to have effective moments, but will have more success if they can wear down the pass rush and freeze safeties with play action.
Kamara has averaged just 48 yards on the ground in eight career games against the Buccaneers, but has rushed for 6 touchdowns and added 3 more receiving scores. He’ll face a stiff challenge in open space from Devin White and Lavonte David, two of the few linebackers able to match Kamara's athleticism.
The Saints must also establish the run between the tackles, possibly opening up chances for Kamara along the edge. In a marquee showdown of Hall of Fame passers, the New Orleans rushing attack might be the deciding factor in a conference championship appearance.