Coming off a 48-3 drubbing in San Francisco at the hands of the 49ers, it doesn't get any easier this week for Tampa Bay as it hosts the red hot, 4-1 New Orleans Saints, who were one down and one inch away from being undefeated after losing on opening day at Green Bay to the unbeaten Packers, 42-34, on the last play of the game at the goal line. Since that loss, New Orleans has won four straight, led by quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions through five games.
The Saints have gotten the best of the Buccaneers by a wide margin the last two times at Raymond James Stadium, winning 38-7 in 2009 and 31-6 in 2010. Yet Tampa Bay has prevailed in New Orleans, extracting revenge in 2009 in overtime, 23-20, and last year, 23-13. Both of the Saints' victories over the Bucs have come in the first meeting of the season and the Tampa Bay coaches and players are trying to end that streak this year.
"If I could put my finger on that one – I wish I could – but you know you are right," Bucs secondary coach Jimmy Lake said. "It has happened the last two years. The first year in 2009, obviously, I know it was a different coordinator (Jim Bates) calling our side of the defense. Then obviously with Raheem (Morris) taking over in the second game it was different. Then going back to last year, we said it – we tried to do a little bit too much against the Saints in the first game. Then we dialed it back in the second game and we played a lot better. We will probably try and see the same formula coming into this game right here."
Lake said that Saints head coach Sean Payton is the league's premier offensive coordinator and has a lot of respect for his play-calling ability.
"He is the best, I’ll just say that right now – in my opinion he is the best offensive coordinator in the league," Lake said. "He does a great job week in and week out in devising plans to scheme up defenses. And his players run exact routes, and he has Drew Brees one of the best quarterbacks in the league to hand the ball out. And the thing I'll say is we like to play against Drew Brees and Sean Payton. I can actually see them even paying more attention to details in meetings because of who we are playing. So we are all excited – the coaching staff – going against the Saints coaches and players."
Payton and Brees form a dangerous duo that has taken the Saints passing game to new heights. Since coming to New Orleans in 2006, Brees has not thrown for fewer than 4,388 yards and 26 touchdowns in a season. And despite having a plethora of gifted wide receivers in Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson to throw to, Brees has been finding tight end Jimmy Graham more often than ever before this season. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Graham is big, physical and fast, and presents a difficult match-up for opponents.
“Jimmy Graham has really come along,” Lake said. “He is a big target for those guys. They are throwing the football to him … almost targeting him more than the receivers. They had Jeremy Shockey in that mold the last few years. But this guy is actually a taller, faster, even more sure-handed tight end. He is a special player.”
Graham is coming off three straight 100-yard games, and has 32 catches for 496 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Through just five games, Graham has nearly half his career numbers of 63 catches for 852 yards and eight touchdowns.
"He’s a great, young player," Brees said. "He's a guy who’s extremely hungry to be a great player. He works extremely hard and tries to do all the right things. He aims to please. I love his attitude, I love the way he approaches the game. He’s extremely smart, he’s tough. He’s faced some adversity in the first two years of his career just like any young player does and I think he fights through that with a very positive attitude. He bounces back quickly from those types of things. He’s quick to make adjustments on the field. We’re very much on the same page. I have a lot of trust and confidence in him, so he’s a guy I’m excited about just watching progress as the season goes on and his career goes on."
Despite the fact that running back Reggie Bush is no longer a Saint, New Orleans has reloaded at running back and may be even more dangerous. With Chris Ivory still ineligible to suit up for one more week due to his status on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list as he recovers from a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), rookie Mark Ingram, the team's first-round pick in 2011, and free agent acquisition Darren Sproles have combined to give the Saints offense some balance with a solid ground game.
The hard-nosed Ingram has rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns in 62 carries (3.5 avg.), while the short and speedy Sproles has added 185 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries (7.1 avg.). Sproles is a real weapon in the passing game and in the return game. He is the NFL's fifth-leading receiver with 31 catches for 264 yards and one touchdown, and Sproles ranks fourth in punt returns with a 14.9-yard average and seventh in kick return yardage with a 27.9-yard kick return average, which is bolstered by a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"Sprolsie’s been awesome," Brees said. "He’s so dynamic, there are just so many different things he can do. He can run the ball in the I back inside the tackles, he can run the ball outside obviously. We can split it out and run routes to him, throw screens to him. He’s obviously a big part of our special teams and the return game, both punt and kickoff. He’s just so versatile. He’s great in pass protection. He’s just a really prideful guy who works extremely hard. He’s smart, he’s tough and I know what to expect out of him every play. I know what I’m going to get from him."
On Wednesday's conference call with Bucs beat writers, Brees admitted to taking the lead in recruiting his former San Diego teammate during free agency.
"Darn right. I worked out with him this offseason, too," Brees said. "I didn't know how the situation with Reggie was going to play out, but I knew there was a chance we wouldn't have Reggie and therefore we'd be very interested in going after [Sproles], especially after working out with him all offseason. I was just like, 'Man, we've got to have this guy.' He's too special of a player and he’s really a great guy. He’s a great locker room guy, he's a great team guy, so [I'm] just happy to have him."
The Buccaneers coaching staff feels like Sproles is a more dangerous player than Bush was when he was with the Saints.
“I tell you what, it is hard to lose Reggie Bush and get an upgrade but the New Orleans Saints might have done that,” Lake said. “They lost Reggie Bush and maybe almost got an upgrade. This Sproles guy runs hard, catches everything Drew Brees throws at him. He runs great routes. He is in their offense just as Reggie Bush was, where he is sometimes a receiver, sometimes a running back. So that’s another player-toy for Sean Payton to play with on the field. We definably will have our hands full with him.”
When asked if Sproles is an upgrade over Bush, who wore out his welcome in New Orleans and was traded in the offseason, Brees answered with a very diplomatic response.
"There are a lot of great things Reggie can do. There are a ton of great things Sproles can do," Brees said. "I can just tell you I am very happy to have Sproles."
In the last two games at Raymond James Stadium, Brees has been a thorn in Tampa Bay's side, completing 40-of-61 passes for 450 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception. If the Buccaneers, who will likely be without starting running back LeGarrette Blount and three-technique defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, want to have the best chance to win, they will need to get to Brees and pick him off. The problem for the Tampa Bay secondary is that it has dropped four interceptions over the last two weeks and has just two on the season.
“I think we are getting the same opportunities and we are not cashing in,” Lake said. “We are talking about it, but we have to catch them. We have clearly dropped four easy picks in the last two weeks. You guys know it, they know it, and the head coach knows it. It is a thing we have to do – catch the football when it is there.”
Star cornerback Aqib Talib has one of Tampa Bay's two picks on the season, but has been guilty of dropping an interception in each of the last two games.
"He has had a lot of interceptions already in his short career (16)," Lake said. "So for him to drop those is surprising. But I think we will make up for it as the season goes on."