New Orleans Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
The New Orleans Saints open up their 2020 NFL season with a home showdown against an NFC rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints are coming off a 13-3 season in 2019, winning their 3rd consecutive division title, and are again among the league's top Super Bowl favorites. Much of that is because of their high-powered offense led by QB Drew Brees, RB Alvin Kamara, record-setting ALL-Pro WR Michael Thomas, and a dominant offensive line. New Orleans averaged 28.6 points per game last season, 3rd in the NFL, and scored at least 30 points eleven times. The Saints attack opponents with one of the NFL's most balanced offenses, averaging 374 total yards per contest in 2019, ninth best in the league.
New Orleans takes on a Tampa Bay defense looking to rebound from three straight years of ranking near the league's bottom in several categories. The Buccaneers ranked 15th in total yardage, allowing 344 yards/game, which slightly improved over its previous two campaigns. However, only three opponents allowed worse than the 28 points per game scored against the Buccaneers, who allowed eight opponents to score at least 30 points against them. Tampa Bay made several offseason additions on the offensive side, with several experts predicting them to make a Super Bowl run. For that to happen, the Bucs must answer many questions on the defensive side of the ball.
Here is a look at how the New Orleans offense matches up against the Tampa Bay defense in the 2020 opener.
THE PASS: SAINTS OFFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
New Orleans had the league's 7th ranked passing game in 2019, averaging 265 yards per game through the air. Despite missing five games with a thumb injury, 41-Yr old QB Drew Brees was as deadly efficient as he’s ever been. Brees led the NFL in completion percentage (74.3%) and threw 27 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions. He averaged 294 yards passing in the ten full games he played, eclipsing the 300-Yd mark five times.
The Saints offensive line provides outstanding protection for their legendary quarterback, allowing just 24 sacks last season after only 20 sacks in 2018 and 2017. Offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the key force in that protective wall. The Pro Bowl OT tandem has stymied the NFL's most elite edge rushers, often making them disappear from a game.
The line gives Brees the time to seek a variety of dangerous weapons with his precision passing. His throws' primary target is 27-Yr old WR Michael Thomas, the best receiver in the league. Thomas shattered the NFL single-season receiving record with 149 receptions last season, while also leading the league with 1,725 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns. Thomas is nearly unstoppable through the intermediate zones. He has set several league records for production over his first four years. Still, the Saints have gotten little production from anyone other than him at the receiver position in recent seasons.
That will change this year with the offseason acquisition of WR Emmanuel Sanders, a former Pro Bowler who can still challenge a defense at every level. The addition of Sanders should make inconsistent third-year pro Tre'Quan Smith productive this season. The receiver position should be even more effective with the increased usage of All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris, veteran Ty Montgomery, and undrafted rookie Marquez Callaway. Brees also has the luxury of a Pro Bowl TE in Jared Cook, who had 709 receiving yards and 9 scores in 2019, along with a promising athletic rookie TE in Adam Trautman. Saints RB Alvin Kamara gives the team another elite receiving weapon, one that threatens a defense from anywhere along with the offensive formation. Kamara has caught 81 passes in each of his three seasons for 2,068 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Saints look to riddle a Buccaneer pass defense that surrendered 270 yards per game through the air in 2019, ranking 30th in the NFL. Tampa Bay hopes that a young secondary will mature quickly, particularly cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Jamel Dean. I expect rookie 2nd round draft choice S Antoine Winfield Jr to team with 2nd year S Jordan Whitehead to make the Bucs more athletic on the back end and improve on the nine interceptions that the secondary had last season.
The Buccaneers have an athletic and disruptive front seven that will be their defense strength in 2019. Tampa Bay sacked opposing quarterbacks 47 times last season, led by a league-high 19.5 from OLB Shaq Barrett and another 8.5 in just ten games from Jason Pierre-Paul at the opposite edge. The Bucs need more interior pressure from Ndamukong Suh and DT Vita Vea, who combined for 26 QB hits last year but only five sacks. Tampa Bay has a dynamic and athletic pair of linebackers in Devin White and Lavonte David that are effective blitzers but are much more valuable taking on a TE or RB out of the backfield in coverage.
THE RUN: SAINTS OFFENSE vs. BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
The Saints had the league's 16th ranked rushing attack in 2019, averaging 103 yards per game, 4.3 yards per attempt, and scoring 12 touchdowns on the ground. All those numbers were slightly down from 2018 when a 7th ranked ground attack averaged 127 yards/game rushing and scored a league-high 26 touchdowns. Nagging leg injuries was one factor that caused Kamara to miss three games and limited his effectiveness. Kamara still led the team in rushing with 797 yards and five scores while averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Kamara should be back to the dynamic dual-threat that gives defenses nightmares, and we should also expect the Saints to use RB Latavius Murray more in 2020. The 30-Yr old Murray rushed for 637 yards and five scores in his first year with New Orleans. He had the Saints only 100-Yd rushing games of the season, eclipsing the barrier in back-to-back contests when filling in for an injured Kamara. Taysom Hill also provides not only a change of pace running threat. Still, he has also improved his receiving ability to give the Saints offense another dimension to keep defenses on their heels.
The dominant New Orleans offensive line has taken control of several games in recent years. Tackles Ramczyk and Armstead set the edge for Kamara to get outside, while LG Andrus Peat, C Erik McCoy, and rookie RG Cesar Ruiz control the interior and provide cutback lanes for their backs. Ruiz, the 24th overall selection this spring, replaces veteran Larry Warford to make the New Orleans line more athletic on outside runs and screen passes.
Tampa Bay had the league's top-ranking run defense a year ago, allowing only 74 yards/game on the ground and just 3.1 yards/attempt. Those numbers are misleading because of the success that Buccaneer opponents had against them through the air. Tampa still only allowed three opponents over 100 yards on the ground against them, but two were in losses to the Saints.
Buccaneer linemen Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh tie-up double-team blocking up front and clog interior rush lanes, allowing athletic LBs Lavonte David and Devin White more freedom to make plays sideline-to-sideline. However, their talented front seven lost some depth in this offseason and could be worn down by a patient and balanced attack like New Orleans.
Drew Brees has a 16-10 record against Tampa Bay as the Saints quarterback, averaging 294 yards passing against the Bucs while throwing 53 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions. The Saints offensive line must slow an aggressive Buccaneers pass rush to give Brees time to find his weapons, and New Orleans must establish a ground game to maintain balance.
As athletic as Tampa Bay's LB unit is, they haven't contained Kamara, who has averaged seven receptions, 122 all-purpose yards, and scored seven touchdowns in six meetings against them. A suspect Buccaneer secondary must also contain Jared Cook, Emmanuel Sanders, and especially Michael Thomas, who has torched Tampa coverage throughout his brief career. In seven meetings against the Bucs, Thomas has averaged nine receptions for 119 yards and scored four touchdowns, surpassing 90 yards receiving in each of their last five matchups.
Tampa Bay's offensive improvements on paper this offseason have made them playoff favorites and even a Super Bowl contender in some circles. Even with a potentially improved offense, the Buccaneers defense must prove that they can also play better football. They get their first test against one of the league's most feared offenses in New Orleans, a Saints team who themselves want to start the 2020 season strong to fortify their championship expectations.