The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers meet this Sunday in an NFC South showdown. The game is in the Ceasars Superdome, where the 4-2 Saints have played just once in six games this year. Tampa Bay, who comes in with a 6-1 record, leads the division and are the defending Super Bowl champions.
The New Orleans offense hasn't been the highly productive as we've been accustomed to under coach Sean Payton. They're averaging over 23 points per game, but their 297 yards of total offense per outing ranks just 29th in the league.
A lingering injury to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas and lack of talent through the rest of the receiving corps has caused the Saints passing attack to plummet to a lowly 31st ranking. New Orleans has relied more on their running game this season but now faces one of the league's most formidable run defenses.
The Buccaneers own the NFL's ninth-ranked defense. Tampa Bay has surrendered an average of 332 yards and 21 points per game. They've held three of their last four opponents under 20 points. The Bucs have been vulnerable against the pass but have forced 14 turnovers and have been the league's top-ranked run defense for three consecutive years.
During the waning years of QB Drew Brees, the Saints had one of the NFL's most balanced attacks. Will they be able to move the ball on the ground against a rugged Tampa Bay squad?
SAINTS RUSHING ATTACK VS. BUCCANEERS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans Running Game
The Saints rank 11th in rushing offense, averaging 120.5 yards/game. They've only managed 3.9 yards per rush, ranking just 24th in the league.
The offense has revolved around the versatile skills of dynamic RB Alvin Kamara, but even more so this season because of shortcomings at receiver. His workload is even greater because of injuries to the running back position.
Kamara has rushed for at least 70 yards in four of six games and has one 100-yard outing. He's averaging over 23 touches per game, a career-high.
Backup RB Tony Jones Jr. is on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Additionally, Taysom Hill is questionable after missing last week with a concussion.
Kamara has 419 yards and a score on 114 carries. However, he’s only averaging 3.7 yards/carry, a career-low. In recent weeks he’s served a more prominent role as a receiver, and his versatility is a nightmare for opposing defenses.
A Wednesday trade for 31-year-old RB Mark Ingram adds a bruising complement to Kamara's explosiveness.
Ingram had 6,007 for the Saints from 2011 to 2018, second in franchise history. Kamara and Ingram were the league's best duo of running backs for two seasons together.
A team's running game is only as effective as their offensive line, especially when defenses stack the box to stop a player like Kamara. New Orleans welcomed Pro Bowl LT Terron Armstead and star C Erik McCoy back to the lineup last week. However, LG Andrus Peat was lost for the year with a pectoral injury.
Much of the Saints' rushing success comes over the right side, behind RT Ryan Ramczyk and RG Cesar Ruiz. Calvin Throckmorton will replace Peat. He and McCoy will be counted on to pull to the outside on screens, off-tackle plays, and create cutback lanes for Kamara.
Tampa Bay Run Defense
The Buccaneers top-ranked run defense is allowing a paltry 67 yards/game and have held five of seven opponents below 100 yards. A physical defensive line and pair of athletic linebackers have stopped opposing offenses in their tracks.
Elite linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David are the team's top tacklers. Each is terrific in open space and excellent diagnosing plays. David missed last week with an ankle injury that has limited in practice this week. If he can't go, he’ll be replaced by Kevin Minter and promising rookie LB K.J. Britt.
White, the number five overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, is one of the league's best young defensive stars. He and David are complemented by Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, and rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyrinka on the outside. That trio is best publicized for their pass-rushing skills but are underrated run defenders.
Veteran DE/DT Ndamukong Suh and NT Vita Vea are monstrous defensive linemen who blow up opposing run blocking, giving their linebackers a free path to the runner. Fellow linemen William Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and Steve McLendon aren't the powerful forces Vea and Suh are underrated contributors up front.
Safeties Antoine Winfield and Jordan Whitehead are aggressive tacklers who do an excellent job of run support. They lead a secondary that maintains discipline to prevent opposing backs from breaking big gains on the ground.
What to Watch
If the Saints are to have any offensive success against Tampa Bay, they’ll have to establish a running game. Even if they have a pass-heavy game plan against the Buccaneers banged up secondary, an effective rushing attack will slow Tampa's fierce pass rushers.
New Orleans must win their interior battles up front against Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. McCoy should perform better in his second game back from injury. Throckmorton and Ruiz will have to be fundamentally sound against the powerful Buccaneers front.
Kamara has scored 10 touchdowns and averaged 118 all-purpose yards in nine career meetings against Tampa Bay. Most of that success has been as a receiver, but he did have 85 yards rushing in the playoff loss to the Buccaneers last January.
Taysom Hill, if cleared to play, and Mark Ingram must be able to provide a solid rushing complement to Kamara to maximize his effectiveness. Rushing yards will be hard-fought against the Buccaneers, but expect the Saints to remain patient with their ground game.
This will be an intense battle between two of the NFL's top contenders. The Saints could set a physical tone offensively with a patient and efficient ground attack to establish balance.
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