Key Matchups To Watch in Saints Vs. Buccaneers Divisional Showdown

Bob Rose

The New Orleans Saints look to rebound from a disappointing home loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday. The 7-2 Saints still lead the NFC South, but now must take to the road to face another divisional foe, this time taking on the 3-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Here are some key matchups that will probably decide this important NFC contest:

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Dec 9, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) runs with the ball as Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes (24) defends during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Saints Wide Receivers vs. Tampa Bay Secondary

New Orleans wideout Michael Thomas leads the NFL with 86 receptions for 1,027 yards while scoring 4 touchdowns. Thomas at times has been a one-man show for the New Orleans passing game this season. He has been targeted an incredible 103 times, with the next most targets belonging to running back Alvin Kamara (49) and the next highest among wide receivers with 36 by Ted Ginn. Thomas has averaged nearly 10 catches and 119 yards per game in six meetings against the Buccaneers, including 11 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a week five win over Tampa Bay earlier this year. 

Thomas has been nearly unstoppable against almost every team, but the New Orleans passing game has been limited because of a lack of consistent production from their other wideouts. Ginn has the trust of quarterback Drew Brees, but isn’t quite the deep threat he once was and isn’t the precise route runner that Thomas is through the intermediate zones. Second year receiver Tre'Quan Smith has flashed signs of potential but has not had consistent productivity and has also been slowed by an ankle injury this season. Tight end Jared Cook has begun to show why the team invested so highly in him this offseason and is coming off his best game as a Saint. Cook has been the most productive complimentary weapon for New Orleans quarterbacks, but he, Ginn, and Smith must make plays to take some defensive focus away from Thomas.

Tampa Bay has the league’s worst pass defense, allowing just under 300 yards per game through the air. The Buccaneers gave up on former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves earlier this week, releasing the 11th overall pick in 2016 after four disappointing seasons but further depleting an already struggling secondary. Cornerback M.J. Stewart has been ruled out with a knee injury and Carlton Davis, the Buccaneers’ best corner, has been hobbled by a hip injury. Tampa Bay surrendered 345 passing yards to the Saints and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a month ago, allowing New Orleans to complete almost 80% of their throws.

Saints Offensive Line vs. Tampa Bay Defensive Line

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Oct 6, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead (72) blocks in the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints had probably their worst performance of the 2019 season up front against the Falcons last week. They allowed six sacks of Brees after giving up only 12 in the previous eight games and were not able to establish control of the line of scrimmage. Worse yet, left guard Andrus Peat will miss up to six games after suffering a broken arm. Peat’s replacement, likely second year player Will Clapp, must be up to the task of establishing a clean interior pass pocket for Brees and opening up holes in the running game. Right guard Larry Warford has been somewhat inconsistent this season and looks to rebound from a poor showing last week, but rookie center Erik McCoy has been spectacular most of the season. They will be tested by Buccaneers’ defensive tackles Vita Vea and veteran Ndamukong Suh. Vea and Suh have only 2 sacks between them but have a combined 28 quarterback pressures and have played well against the run.

The Buccaneers have sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times this year, paced by a career high 11.5 from edge rusher Shaquil Barrett. Tampa Bay will be without Carl Nassib along the edge who will miss the game with a groin injury, but returned veteran Pro Bowl end Jason Pierre-Paul to the lineup two weeks ago to team with William Gholston. New Orleans left tackle Terron Armstead, who looks to bounce back from a rough outing last week, held Barrett to 2 tackles and no quarterback pressures when these teams met in October. Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk have shut down some of NFL’s best pass rushers. The Saints’ line must look to re-establish the dominance of the line of scrimmage that they’ve enjoyed most of the year. Doing so will not only allow Brees the time to make plays in the passing game but also allow a balanced attack with Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray in the running game.

Saints Defensive Backs vs. Tampa Bay Receivers

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Dec 9, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back Marcus Williams (43) knocks the ball loose from Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Goodwin (12) during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans will be without star cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who injured his hamstring in last Sunday’s loss. Lattimore had been playing at a Pro Bowl level all season and held the Buccaneers’ top wideout Mike Evans without a catch in week five. Cornerback Eli Apple has been playing at nearly the level Lattimore has and now steps into the top coverage role for the Saints’ 11th ranked pass defense. Fellow corners P.J. Williams and rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will also be counted on to create plays against a 5th ranked Tampa Bay passing game.

Buccaneers wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have combined to catch 114 receptions passes for 1,764 yards and 17 touchdowns. Tampa Bay also has two athletic tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard to test defenses. Godwin had 7 receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns against New Orleans last month but the majority of that yardage came once the game had been decided. New Orleans safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell must not only help their cornerbacks prevent big plays against the Tampa Bay star wideouts but must also contain their talented tight ends. New Orleans hopes to repeat the performance of their secondary from their October victory over the Buccaneers, when they held quarterback Jameis Winston to just 55% completion percentage.

Saints Defensive Line vs. Tampa Bay Offensive Line

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The New Orleans defensive backs would benefit greatly from pressure up front by their talented defensive line. The Saints have 25 sacks on the season, led by 8 from Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. Marcus Davenport has also starred opposite Jordan at the other end, giving the defense an extremely disruptive edge tandem. The defense has also gotten good inside pressure from defensive tackles Malcom Brown, Sheldon Rankins, and David Onyemata. The Saints have hurried opposing quarterbacks most of the season and sacked Jameis Winston six times in their first meeting. The defensive line has also dominated the point of attack for their fifth ranked run defense, both making plays in the backfield and allowing their linebackers a free path to the ball carrier.

The line’s performance in last week’s loss to Atlanta was just one of a number of shocking disappointments for the Saints. Re-establishing the physical superiority on both sides of the ball will be one of the major keys if New Orleans comes out on top in this important division showdown. 

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