The Buccaneers may be underdogs when they invade New Orleans for Sunday’s game against the Saints, but given the fact that Tampa Bay has won the last two contests at the Superdome and prevailed earlier this year at Raymond James Stadium, 26-20, perhaps they shouldn’t be.
The Saints, who are coming off a surprising loss to the previously winless St. Louis Rams, saw quarterback Drew Brees throw a season-high three interceptions in Tampa Bay three weeks ago. Although the Bucs have dropped more interceptions than they have reeled in this season, Tampa Bay has a talented secondary that has helped thwart Brees in three of the last four games, which have been Bucs victories.
In the last four games against Tampa Bay, Brees has completed 104-of-152 passes (68.4 percent) for 1,100 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Yet take away the Saints’ lone victory against the Bucs in the last four meetings, a 31-6 drubbing at Raymond James Stadium in 2010, in which Brees was 21-of-32 for 263 yards with three touchdowns and one interception and he has thrown just three touchdowns and four interceptions in the three losses to Tampa Bay.
Brees also had a fumble when sacked by former Bucs defensive end Alex Magee in Tampa Bay’s 23-13 win at the Superdome in the 2010 season finale.
The Tampa Bay coaches are famous for saying that Brees will likely carve up the secondary for 300 yards given how much the Saints throw the ball. He passed for 383 yards when the two teams met three weeks ago. The key is forcing Brees to turn the ball over.
“Really, we should look at the average per pass, because he is going to probably throw for 300 yards,” Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “But if his average per pass is below seven [yards] that’s okay. If it’s above that, we have issues. They put the ball in the air so many times he is bound to get his yards. At the end of the day, hopefully the New Orleans Saints have less big plays than we do. That’s what matters.”
The Bucs secondary has been bolstered by the return of free safety Tanard Jackson from a 19-game league suspension. In his first game back from the 56-week layoff, Jackson recorded an interception against Brees and picked off another one before the bye week against Chicago in his second game of the 2011 campaign.
Jackson, who was recently rewarded with a contract extension through the 2012 season, suffered a hamstring injury in London against the Bears, but practiced at full speed on Tuesday and Wednesday and is expected to start at New Orleans. Lake said that Jackson has been just as mentally sharp as he has been physically sharp since his return to One Buc Place.
“It’s amazing – he looks excellent,” Lake said. “The recall of the defense, his hands in the games, and his playmaking ability has not left off since when he left us. He was already into football, but he’s really into football now because he missed it so much that year he was off. He is loving every moment that he’s in a meeting, at practice and at a walk-through. On Sundays, he loves game day.”
While Jackson is playing phenomenal football right now and leading the team with two interceptions, the Bucs have been getting exceptional play at age 36 from veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. Barber comes off a great game against Chicago in which he had his first sack of the season and the first safety of his 15-year NFL career in addition to three pass breakups. Barber’s only negative against the Bears was dropping what was likely a game-changing pick-six opportunity.
“I told him that if he makes that interception and returns it for a touchdown he goes to the Pro Bowl on that game,” Lake said. “Right there he goes to the Pro Bowl. He had a sack, three tackles for loss, three passes defensed and a safety. How many corners have a safety? It’s really unbelievable what he is doing.
“If you guys got a chance to look at our playbook and see where we put him and everything he does and what we’re asking him to do – he plays Will (weakside) linebacker, he plays dime [cornerback], he plays nickel [cornerback], he plays corner. Every once in a while he plays safety. He can play free safety. It’s unbelievable where we put him and how he manages to know everything inside and out with the way he studies. He still takes notes like he’s a rookie. It’s amazing to watch and it’s great for all of my other guys to watch him.”
Barber hasn’t recorded an interception against the Saints since December 4, 2005 when he notched a career-high three in Tampa Bay’s 10-3 victory in a game played at LSU Stadium. But those picks didn’t come against Brees, a quarterback Barber has yet to intercept.
Against New Orleans, a team that appears ready to throw the ball in any down and distance situation, Barber is almost always in the slot cornerback position as Tampa Bay plays nickel defense on virtually every down. In the first battle against New Orleans, Barber was assigned to cover not only receivers in the slot, but also running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham on occasion.
“Ronde has great instincts with ball awareness and then you put him closer to the ball with all of the inside seam throws and the ability to read the quarterback and it makes him that much more special,” Lake said. “That’s why we put him in there as much as we can.”
While forcing turnovers is the formula for beating Brees and the Saints, that is sometimes easier said than done when it comes to facing the Pro Bowl quarterback, who is in sync with his head coach, Sean Payton. Both Lake and head coach Raheem Morris believe that Payton is the best offensive play-caller in the league.
“Brees is like a coach on the field,” Lake said. “He’s like an extended version of Sean Payton on the football field and he knows exactly what Payton is trying to do to every team he faces. They come in with game plans each and every week and this is no different. They are going to have some game plans where they are going to try to cut our throat so we are going to have to have new things to try and change up for them.”
Although the Buccaneers had a successful game plan against the Saints three weeks ago, Lake knows that Payton will keep attacking with what worked and alter the game plan by replacing what didn’t work at Raymond James Stadium.
“The pluses are we know these guys. We know these guys anyway because they are a division opponent,” Lake said. “It’s still going to be a tough battle. They are going to want revenge a little bit I would think. Drew Brees probably didn’t think he played his best game, so I’m sure they are going to come out with maybe a little different game plan to defeat what we did to them. And we’ll do a lot of the similar things we did, but we’ll also have a few new wrinkles for these guys.”