The New Orleans Saints (5-2) march into their most important game to this point of the 2020 season, Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2). In a battle for sole possession of first-place in the NFC SOUTH both teams will be looking towards a player or two to flip the game and it's momentum to their side. Here are three Saints that could do just that, in this week's X-Factors.
OFFENSIVE X-FACTOR: WR MICHAEL THOMAS
It feels like a lifetime since All-Pro WR Michael Thomas has suited up for the New Orleans Saints, despite being in headlines throughout the last 2 months. Thomas has been the center of trade rumors, locker room controversy, and injury reports since suffering an injury in Week 1. Despite the rumors, both Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees have stood by their top receiving option and can't wait to finally get him back into the line up.
Mike's been such a huge part of this offense for so long. You always hope that you wouldn't be without him, but obviously I think that that time comes for everybody where you've got to find ways to win without a certain guy or maybe a few guys. Unfortunately, I think in the early going with this season, we've seen that, more so than maybe any other year. So it'll be great to get him back in the lineup. Obviously, we know what he can do. We know the type of matchup he is, and so that's a great thing for us.
Thomas plays a vital role in the Saints' offense creating matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators. Thomas' size, speed, and elite route running ability resulted in him securing an NFL record 149 receptions just a year ago. In 2020, where Alvin Kamara and Emmanuel Sanders have shown to be incredibly consistent and reliable options, Thomas' return will only provide another wrinkle in the Saints dynamic offense. I've said for weeks whenever Thomas returns he is going to look towards a HUGE welcome back game and the Saints certainly need that if he is good to go in Week 9.
DEFENSIVE X-FACTOR: S MALCOLM JENKINS
The Saints secondary in 2020 has been a headache for the Who Dat Nation and a head scratcher for analysts everywhere. Two-time Super Bowl Champion Malcolm Jenkins returned to the Big Easy this summer to bring veteran leadership to a young defensive backfield and serve as the groups missing piece. However, half-way through the season, Jenkins' performance has been up and down, much like the defense as a whole.
His matchup this week is one of the NFL's all-time great TEs Rob Gronkowski, who has started to find his stride since coming out of retirement to join Brady and the Buccaneers. Jenkins struggled earlier this season, in Week 2, covering the TE position against the Las Vegas Raiders and Darren Waller. The Saints can not afford a poor performance like that in Week 9.
The Buccaneers, on paper, look loaded at the TE and WR position. Between the talents of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Scott Miller, and Cameron Brate, the Saints secondary will have their hands full this week. It is vital that the safeties and inside corners do their job this week and do not allow Brady the middle of the field. The request is much easier said than done but a lot of it falls on this veteran safety. Time to set up and prove why he was brought back to NOLA.
WILD CARD X-FACTOR: KR/WR DEONTE HARRIS
NFL Network's Peter Schrager highlighted Deonte Harris this week on Good Morning Football as a player who “can play every position, and he's proved to be one of the most versatile talents in the league.” And while Harris has continued to grow into a role offensively in Sean Payton's offense, his role as a return man is what makes him the Wild Card X-Factor in Week 9.
“Special Teams have to be special.” It is a saying that rings in the ears of Saints News Network Krewe members and long time followers of the network as the late Rick Gaille echoed that phrase almost weekly on his show. Particularly in this matchup, the Saints face one of the top defenses in football and after struggling against them back in Week 1, field position will be key.
Enter the NFC's All-Pro return man from 2019. Deonte Harris is lightening in a bottle, the ace up your sleeve, and a literal game-changer. While a special teams score would be nice on Sunday night, the Saints don't need that to win the football game. Harris' ability to switch the field and give Brees and co. a short field will certainly be more than enough. Watch out, No. 11 may have himself a day in prime-time.
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