Key 1. Bludgeon Saints With Blount
After missing two games and three weeks of practice, LeGarrette Blount returns to the Buccaneers' lineup after spraining his MCL at San Francisco. The Buccaneers managed just fine without Blount in their first matchup with the Saints three weeks ago, as Earnest Graham finished with 109 yards rushing in helping Tampa Bay upset New Orleans 26-20.
But my how things quickly changed. Graham’s season is over, and maybe his career, after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon in London. The setback left Tampa Bay with Kregg Lumpkin as its lone healthy running back.
Tampa Bay found out quickly Lumpkin is no Blount, or Graham for that matter, and needs the second-year back from Oregon to have a big day to alleviate the pressure of Josh Freeman having to pass 50 times a game.
This is the perfect team for Tampa Bay to try and re-establish its running dominance, as the Saints are last in the league in run defense giving up 5.5 yards per carry. Besides needing Blount to help ease Freeman’s burdens, they need him to keep the chains moving and keep Brees off the field by picking up first downs and eating up clock time.
Key 2. Keep Brees At Ease – On The Sidelines
Going hand-in-hand with the prior key, the Buccaneers essentially know they can’t get into an offensive shootout with the Saints. New Orleans has the ability to fire numerous weapons while Tampa Bay is limited to a slingshot by comparison.
As Raheem Morris likes to say, Brees will get his 300 yards passing. But if the Buccaneers defense can make him work for each and every one of those yards as they did three weeks ago, they can come home with their third straight victory over the Saints and will be in control of their own NFC South destiny.
Part of keeping Brees at ease will be by forcing him to spectate from the sidelines for extended periods. Like a fat kid outside a donut shop, Brees paces the sideline back and forth waiting to get back on the field. With weapons like TE Jimmy Graham, RB Darren Sproles and perhaps the most dangerous group of receivers south of Green Bay, who can blame him?
Creating three-and-outs on defense and not having many with their own on offense will help go a long way in flying back to Tampa at 5-3 as opposed to 4-4.
Key 3. Reduce Red Zone Mistakes
Terrible decisions by Josh Freeman, dropped passes that turn into interceptions and bone-headed penalties have hampered the Buccaneers' ability to capitalize inside the red zone. For a team that struggles to start fast and score first-half points these issues must be corrected for the Buccaneers to beat the Saints on Sunday, much less have any chance to win their division and qualify for the playoffs.
To his credit, head coach Raheem Morris spent part of the bye-week emphasizing smarter football and putting together a videotape of a number of the Buccaneers' mistakes, including the penalties and other mental miscues. Morris and his staff have also been holding players more accountable in practice and those who commit these types of errors are made to run gassers. While some may question this as juvenile, a few players and the head coach himself have said they've noticed crisper practices with less mistakes.
Hopefully for the Buccaneers' players and their fans, this will translate into a more fundamentally sound football team on Sunday afternoon in The Big Easy.
Key 4. Hold Sproles And Gobble Up Graham
Whatever the Buccaneers did to make Darren Sproles a non-factor in their earlier matchup with the Saints they must do again. Part of the credit to hold Sproles in check probably goes to the New Orleans coaching staff, which seemed to forget the dangerous weapon Sproles is. His number was rarely called in the Saints' 26-20 loss to the Buccaneers.
Graham was a beast, however, catching seven passes for 124 yards. But Tampa Bay was still successful in at least keeping him out of the end zone. PewterReport.com asked Raheem Morris this week what the Bucs need to do to slow Graham down and Morris said they don’t go into a game keying on stopping just one guy.
“If you go out and focus all your energy on trying to stop Jimmy Graham, then Marques Colston will kill you, or Devery Henderson or Robert Meacham or Chris Ivory coming off the PUP,” Morris continued. “You have to go out there and play the game against No.9 and try to keep the ball out of his hands and keep it in your offense's hands and make a play on special teams.”
If the Buccaneers can manage to keep one of these two playmakers in check Sunday they stand a good chance of winning. If both of them get loose, expect a long day for Tampa Bay.
Key 5. Many Happy Returns
We aren’t sure even Tanard Jackson thought he would have this much of an impact after sitting out over a year as result of a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Jackson had a key interception against the Saints and then followed it up with a pick off Bears QB Jay Cutler the next week. Unfortunately for Tanard and the Bucs, he pulled a hamstring on the return and wasn’t able to play the final three quarters.
The Buccaneers will also need for others that have missed significant playing time to bounce back with a vengeance. Gerald McCoy will see his first action since injuring his ankle at San Francisco, and LeGarrette Blount’s return to the offensive lineup couldn’t have come at a better time for this organization. With Jeremy Zuttah already ruled out for Sunday, getting Jeff Faine back will hopefully be a boost to Tampa Bay’s offense and running game.
And lastly, Mason Foster seems to be close to 100 percent after suffering injuries to both ankles over the last month. Foster, despite missing significant time the last two games, still remains third on the team in tackles with 42, trailing team leader Geno Hayes who has 48.
The return of these key pieces to the puzzle should energize the Buccaneers and at the very least give the coaching staff more flexibility in their playbook.
The bye week came at a perfect time for the Buccaneers. With injuries depleting depth at key positions and mental mistakes hurting their overall game, the time off hopefully allowed the players and coaches a moment to reflect on the first half as they prepare for the stretch run. Tampa Bay should have confidence after beating the Saints just three weeks ago but New Orleans will come out Sunday ready to prove two points. The first being to avenge the earlier loss to the Buccaneers, and the second to make up for an embarrassing loss to the St. Louis Rams who were winless until physically whipping the Saints last Sunday.
Cook’s Prediction: Saints 28, Buccaneers 17
Reynold’s Prediction: Buccaneers 23, Saints 20
Horchy’s Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Saints 27