DID YOU KNOW … … Tampa Bay is just 2-4 in regular season openers under Bucs head coach Jon Gruden?
SCOUTING THE SAINTS
Quarterbacks New Orleans' offense is led by QB Drew Brees, who managed to turn in an impressive 2007 campaign despite the Saints' 7-9 season. Brees completed 440-of-652 (67.5 percent) of his passes for 4,423 yards and tossed 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions last year. After struggling in New Orleans' 31-14 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2, Brees bounced back with a solid effort vs. the Bucs in Week 12, completing 17-of-23 (73.9 percent) of his passes for 179 yards and tossing two touchdowns and no interceptions. Tampa Bay still managed to down New Orleans in that game, 27-23. Brees is the key weapon in the Saints' potent offensive attack, which averaged 361 yards per game and converted 46.3 percent of its third down attempts in 2007.
Running Backs Although he's a Pro Bowl-caliber passer, Brees tends to struggle when the Saints offense becomes one dimensional, which is what happened last year when running back Deuce McAllister went down with a torn ACL in the beginning of the 2007 season. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound McAllister has given the Bucs defense fits in the past, but some scouts feel the mileage he has on his legs is starting to catch up to him and slow him down. Reggie Bush is an elusive runner, but he has struggled to outrun and juke defenders in the pros like he did in college. New Orleans' ground attack was not productive without McAllister. Bush rushed 157 times for 581 yards (3.7 avg.) and four touchdowns. To make matters worse, Bush was also a liability in terms of ball security, evidenced by his seven fumbles from a year ago. Bush is at his best in the passing game, where he hauled in 73 passes for 417 yards and two touchdowns in 2007. But the Bucs defense has the speed to match up with Bush on screen and swing passes. Tampa Bay's defense held New Orleans' offense to less than 100 yards rushing in both meetings last year. That's exactly what the Bucs will have to do to escape New Orleans with a win over their divisional rival on Sunday.
Receivers Brees' No. 1 target in the passing game is wide receiver Marques Colston, who hauled in a team-high 98 catches for 1,202 yards (12.3 avg.) and 11 touchdowns last year. He caught 10 passes for 109 yards and one touchdowns in two meetings vs. the Bucs in 2007, but his second outing vs. Tampa Bay's No. 1-ranked pass defense produced just two catches for 39 yards. Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon will be charged with the difficult task of containing Colston, who has a nice combination of size and speed. Veteran WR David Patten caught 54 passes for 792 yards (14.7 avg.) and three touchdowns in 2007. He could start opposite Colston. If that's the case, Patten will go up against Bucs CB Ronde Barber, who appears to be in a favorable matchup. The battle to watch could be between New Orleans' No. 3 receiver and Bucs rookie CB Aqib Talib. The Saints likely will use second-year WR Robert Meachem or speedy WR Devery Henderson as their third wideout. Henderson struggled with drops last year, but also averaged 20.5 yards per catch and hauled in a 45-yard pass for a touchdown from Brees vs. the Bucs in Week 12. The Bucs would ideally like to keep safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson back in coverage in order to help account for Colston, Patten, Meachem and Henderson. Tampa Bay's safeties and linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June will also have to help cover Saints tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Eric Johnson. Shockey was traded to New Orleans during the offseason. While he's still getting acclimated to the Saints offense, Shockey likely will be a popular target for Brees in the passing game.
Offensive Line The Saints offensive line has played an integral role in protecting Brees and opening running lanes for McAllister and Bush, but this unit lost a key member when center Jeff Faine signed with Tampa Bay during the offseason. Jonathan Goodwin replaces Faine at center, but most believe there will be a significant drop off in play at the center position. Left guard Jamar Nesbit likely will be called on to help Goodwin double team Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan, who turned in an impressive preseason and has been solid against the run. Jamaal Brown, a former first-round pick, returns at left tackle. He will face Bucs second-year speed rusher Gaines Adams, who will have to show better pass rushing ability than he did in the preseason. Bucs under tackle Jovan Haye notched two sacks against Saints right guard Jahri Evans in two meetings last year. However, Haye missed most of training camp and the preseason due to a groin injury. Tampa Bay cannot afford to have Haye be ineffective or rusty vs. New Orleans on Sunday. The Bucs will use both Greg White, who notched a team-high eight sacks and seven forced fumbles last year, and veteran DE Kevin Carter to challenge Saints right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. New Orleans' offensive line allowed a league-low 16 sacks last year, but five of those quarterback takedowns came courtesy of the Bucs. Tampa Bay will need to create a consistent pass rush vs. New Orleans in order to rattle Brees and force some much-needed turnovers.
Defensive Line New Orleans' defensive line is littered with talent, but whether this unit lives up to expectations remains to be seen. The Saints entered the 2007 season with two of the league's best defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith. However, neither player had an outstanding year. Grant registered just 2.5 sacks while Smith, a Pro Bowler, led the team with seven. Bucs left tackle Donald Penn and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood will be responsible for holding off Grant and Smith, respectively. Smith notched a sack vs. the Bucs in Week 12 last year. In addition, the Saints will work former Jaguars pass-rushing defensive end Bobby McCray into the rotation. The defensive tackle position was a sore spot for the Saints last year and was one of the main reasons why opposing teams had such success running the football. Tampa Bay rushed for 172 yards behind Earnest Graham in Week 12 last season. The Saints are hoping rookie first-round pick Sedrick Ellis will help anchor New Orleans' defensive line. He will be matched up with another rookie, third-round selection Jeremy Zuttah, who will start in place of injured right guard Davin Joseph. Tampa Bay's center position should be a strength with the addition of Faine, who will work with second-year left guard Arron Sears to fend off nose tackle Kendrick Clancy. In addition, Faine could be used to pull block on running plays since he is so athletic. Controlling the line of scrimmage and clock will be critical for the Bucs in this game. Tampa Bay must establish a solid running game as it cannot afford to have quarterback Jeff Garcia drop back and pass too often against New Orleans' potentially dangerous defensive ends.
Linebackers The Saints attempted to improve this area during the offseason by signing former first-round pick Dan Morgan and trading for another former first-round selection, Jonathan Vilma. But things didn't exactly go according to plan for New Orleans as Morgan (concussions) retired. However, Vilma has unseated Mark Simoneau as the starting middle linebacker, which is good news for the Saints as this area desperately needed an upgrade, evidenced by the fact that the Saints allowed opposing offenses to convert 41.7 percent of their third down tries last year. Vilma will line up alongside strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, who led the team in tackles last year and notched three sacks and two forced fumbles. The Saints elect to blitz Vilma and Fujita, which is where Bucs RB Warrick Dunn should come in handy since he's an excellent blocker. Blitzes from the linebackers should also open up things underneath for the running backs and tight ends. Unfortunately, the Bucs will be without Jerramy Stevens (suspension) for this game, but they are deep at the position with Alex Smith, John Gilmore and Ben Troupe still on the roster.
Secondary Considering the fact that quarterback Jeff Garcia missed most of training camp and the preseason due to a calf injury, Bucs head coach and offensive play caller Jon Gruden likely will attempt to establish the running game early and often in New Orleans. But when Garcia does throw, he'll have to be careful with the football. Cornerback Mike McKenzie hauled in three interceptions and defended 17 passes last year. He also scored two touchdowns. However, the Bucs might elect to test McKenzie and his surgically repaired knee in this game, especially since the Bucs have had such success passing the ball to Joey Galloway. New Orleans plays quite a bit of man-to-man coverage, which bodes well for the speedy Galloway, who has caught 28 passes for 512 yards (18.2 avg.) and seven touchdowns over the last six meetings with New Orleans. The Saints will rely on McKenzie and CB Jason David, who had three interceptions last year, to help cover Galloway and Antonio Bryant, who couldl start at the flanker position. It appears as though the Saints will lean on CB Randall Gay as their nickel cornerback, which would make for some interesting, and possibly favorable, matchups for WRs Ike Hilliard, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall. None of these players have great speed, but both Clayton and Stovall have a size advantage over Gay and Hilliard has been clutch on third downs. New Orleans' defense would love nothing more than to contain Tampa Bay's running game with its revamped front seven. If the Bucs can run the ball early with success, the Saints will be forced to play strong safety Roman Harper near the line of scrimmage, where he was solid, notching four sacks and two forced fumbles in 2007. However, Harper's presence near the line of scrimmage could really open things up for Garcia and Galloway in the passing game. Saints free safety Kevin Kaesviharn isn't considered a playmaker and will also attempt to help contain Galloway and Co.
Special Teams Tampa Bay's kickoff and punt coverage teams were amongst the best in the NFL in 2007. These units, particularly the punt coverage team, will have to be on top of their game vs. Bush, who likely will return punts vs. the Bucs on Sunday. Bush did not return punts last year, but he has averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and has three returns that have gone for 20-plus yards since '06, including his punt return for a touchdown vs. the Bucs during his rookie campaign. Pierre Thomas averaged 24 yards per kickoff return in 2008. He will handle those duties again this year. Bucs kicker Matt Bryant struggled in preseason. Tampa Bay is hoping Bryant will not have a Martin Gramatica-type slump. Ironically, Gramatica is kicking for the Saints. He made 5-of-5 field goals last year, including a 55-yarder. Saints punter Steve Weatherford averaged 43.8 yards per attempt last year and pinned 20 of his 63 attempts inside the 20-yard line. He will be punting to Bucs rookie WR Dexter Jackson, who returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the preseason finale vs. the Texans. Jackson must establish favorable field position for the Bucs offense, and Tampa Bay's coverage teams simply cannot afford to give New Orleans' offense short fields to work with on Sunday.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Saints 20 Buccaneers 17
Want the inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2008 season? Want to find out how the Bucs are planning to defeat their opponents, defend the NFC South division title and target players in free agency and the draft in 2009? Subscribe to PewterReport.com's Pewter Insider by clicking here.