The Bucs' run defense jumped from fourth to third after holding the NFL rushing leader, Jamaal Charles, to 40 yards last week. This week, the Buccaneers will have to focus on the league's best passing offense, the Saints. Drew Brees is having another record-breaking season, while Tampa Bay's secondary has allowed too many big passing plays this year. Stopping Brees and his arsenal of receiving weapons is paramount to a Buccaneer victory.
Key 1. Calm the Brees
The Bucs defense has already met one great QB this season – Eli Manning – and lost to him. This week they face one of the elite quarterbacks in NFL and slowing down Drew Brees has to be top priority.
Brees holds the record for consecutive games with a TD pass at 58 and although the Buccaneer defense is 31st in defending against the pass, they have had three straight games without giving up a passing touchdown and are second in red zone defense averaging .8 touchdowns allowed within the 20 yard line per game. The Bucs will have the nearly-impossible task of keeping a Brees pass out of the end zone, but if they can limit that amount to one, things will be looking good for Tampa Bay at home.
Allowing big plays has been the Achilles heel of the Bucs secondary and very few QBs can make bigger plays than Brees. With Aqib Talib out on suspension, E.J. Biggers has to show that he’s improved in man-coverage since last season because covering the New Orleans wideouts tightly is mandatory. One of Brees’ favorite targets, Jimmy Graham, suffered an ankle injury in New Orleans’ first win of the season two weeks ago against the Chargers and as reported first by Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune, then confirmed on the Saint's website Saturday afternoon, did not make the trip to Tampa. This will relieve some pressure off of the Bucs' rookie strong safety Mark Barron.
Brees is one of the most poised quarterbacks under pressure, so just getting to Brees isn’t good enough; Tampa Bay has to get him on the ground. The Buccaneer pass rush has been streaky – sacking Tony Romo four times eats up half the sacks the Bucs have accumulated this year (eight), but against Kansas City, the game plan was to focus on the run, not the pass. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan will implement more plays focusing on stopping the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL, so the blitzes may be in full effect Sunday afternoon.
Key 2. Freeman Must Find His Focus
Josh Freeman has wowed everyone with his deep passes this season and has taken full advantage of having a true No. 1 WR in Vincent Jackson and a very competent No. 2 receiver in Mike Williams. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan even had Tiquan Underwood involved in the jump ball last week against Kansas City. The Saints are allowing 283 yards in the air per game and have only grabbed three picks on opposing QBs this season. Freeman & Co. will have many more opportunities this week to go long on New Orleans, but it’s the fourth-year quarterback’s short and intermediate passing, particularly in the second quarter, that have to improve.
The offensive line has protected Freeman very well this year, surrendering eight sacks through five games. The Saints have registered three more sacks than the Bucs and are blitzing a lot less under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo than they did in the past. Freeman should have ample time to make good, smart decisions on Sunday.
Tight ends Dallas Clark and Luke Stocker have not been very productive and that falls on two things, the playbook and Freeman’s inaccuracy with the intermediate passes over the middle. The Saints’ defense is last in the league in total defense and if Freeman can get himself out of those lulls he has a tendency to get into, the Bucs offense could put up a lot of points this week.
Key 3. Play The Trifecta
Against the Chiefs, the Bucs played well on two phases, offense and defense, but the third, special teams, struggled.
Connor Barth who was on a franchise record and league-best 25 consecutive field goal streak snapped it against the Chiefs when he missed a 55-yarder that hit the left upright and didn’t want to cooperate. Barth’s last missed FG was against the Saints nearly a year ago, and be rest assured the fifth year kicker out of North Carolina doesn’t want history repeating itself.
Michael Koenen is averaging 44.3 yards per punt, which is 25th among all punters in the league, but special teams coverage has been pretty sufficient in getting to the return man, so in reality the low average hasn’t affected opponents’ field position too much. Koenen has been solid on kickoffs, with an average of 65.4 yards per kick, and coupled with the steady coverage, only eight out of 28 kickoffs have been returned with 19 touchbacks.
The eighth year punter/kicker who spent his first six seasons with division rival Atlanta made a bizarre and terrible decision last week when one of his punts was blocked as he was attempting to punt from the end zone. Koenen retrieved the ball, but instead of running out of the end zone with the rock, tried to throw it. The ball was caught, but by the wrong team, and Justin Houston ran it in for the Chiefs’ only touchdown of the day.
Koenen won’t be attempting that maneuver again, but against a hungry Saints team looking for their second win of the year, no mistake can be afforded.
The return game will stay the same, steady and fumble-free, as the Saints are allowing close to the same yardage on returns that Roscoe Parrish and Arrelious Benn are averaging. Parrish, who signed with the Bucs last month, is averaging a middle-of-the-league 8.1 yards on seven punt returns while New Orleans is allowing 10.4 yards on punt returns. Benn has also been steady with an average of 23.1 yards on 10 returns and has taken several knees in the end zone instead of trying to take it to the house. Head coach Greg Schiano has preached ball security since his arrival and Benn, who has only four catches for 26 yards as a receiver, is playing it safe and smart on kickoffs. Like Parrish, if Benn can continue his steady return play he can take advantage of a Saints special team unit allowing 23.9 yards per return.
Key 4. Sure-Tackling Will Snuff Saints Arsenal
The Saints are struggling running the ball, ranked 30th in the league with 75.2 yards per game on the ground, and won’t attempt an abundance of rushes against Tampa Bay’s stout third-ranked run defense. What the Saints will do is what they do best – pass often.
With Jimmy Graham officially ruled out, Barron will have a much easier time with the Saints back up tight ends David Thomas and Daniel Graham who haven't seen a lot of playing time because of last year's receiving leader, Jimmy Graham. Needless to say, Barron can breathe a sigh of relief this week. It does, however, add pressure on the corners who will be charged with covering Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and a healed up Lance Moore.
Both middle linebacker Mason Foster and rookie weakside LB Lavonte David are turning heads all over the league with their sure-tackling and Quincy Black’s specialty is against the pass. The linebacker corps has developed into one of the Bucs’ strong suits, and all three will have to step it up in coverage against the Saints.
Ronde Barber has handled the transition from corner to free safety well and no one on the Bucs is more familiar with Brees and his wideouts. Barber is fourth on the team in tackling behind Foster (43), David (41), and Barron (35) with 24 on the season so far and if the 16th year veteran can keep flying around the field against New Orleans, the Bucs’ defense will be able to slow down the Saints’ passing attack.
To put it simply, Tampa Bay’s defenders need to tackle immediately and not allow the New Orleans wideouts to get any yards after the catch.
Key 5. Run Early, Run Often
Let’s face it – aside from their run game, Kansas City isn’t a good football team. Rookie starting RB Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount had their way with the Chiefs’ rush defense and luckily, the Saints run defense is even worse than the Chiefs’. New Orleans is allowing 172.8 yards on the ground per game and Martin and Blount should have an easy day ahead of them once again.
Last Sunday, the Bucs’ running back tandem had their best games of the year with Martin rushing for 76 yards on 13 attempts and Blount getting 58 yards on seven carries and a touchdown. Most importantly, both had break out runs later in the game of over 20 yards with Martin’s 23-yarder in the third quarter and Blount’s 35 yard run in the fourth which set up his 12-yard score. The duo only rushed for 20 attempts and netted 134 yards combined and the first year back added two catches for 55 yards; expect similar results on Sunday.
The biggest key to the Bucs running game is soaking up the clock. The more Brees is kept off the field, the better the Buccaneers’ chances of grabbing their third victory, bringing them to .500 on the season.
PEWTER REPORT PREDICTIONS
Cook: 28-27 Buccaneers
LeBlanc: 34-27 Buccaneers