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OPPONENT: New Orleans Saints

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium

WHERE THE SAINTS STAND: The Saints are 3-12 and in last place in the NFC South division.

SAINTS HEAD COACH: Jim Haslett

SAINTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Sheppard

SAINTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Venturi

SAINTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Al Everest

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 23rd (295.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 16th (111.8 ypg)
PASSING: 25th (183.6 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 2nd (275.9 ypg)
RUSHING: 7th (96.3 ypg)
PASSING: 4th (179.6 ypg)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 20th (315 ypg)
RUSHING: 17th (107.8 ypg)
PASSING: 16th (207.2 ypg)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 14th (313.9 ypg)
RUSHING: 27th (133.1 ypg)
PASSING: 5th (180.9 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Tampa Bay has never defeated New Orleans (0-3) at Raymond James Stadium under head coach Jon Gruden?

SCOUTING THE SAINTS

Quarterbacks
Tampa Bay will face a different Saints quarterback this time around. On Dec. 4, the Bucs intercepted Saints QB Aaron Brooks four times, including three notched by Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, en route to the team’s 10-3 win. Brooks completed just 55.7 percent of his passes and tossed 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions before being benched a few weeks ago in favor of backup QB Todd Bouman.

Bouman hasn’t fared much better than Brooks, completing 50.6 percent of his pass attempts for 457 yards and tossing one touchdown and five interceptions.

While he doesn’t have Brooks’ mobility, Bouman has a strong arm, which means he will likely test Barber, CB Brian Kelly and safeties Dexter Jackson and Jermaine Phillips deep quite often. Of course, testing Tampa Bay’s secondary comes with some risk, evidenced by the fact that this unit intercepted Brooks four times the last time these two teams clashed. A consistent pass rush from the front four will go a long way in the Bucs’ effort to force Bouman into making some mistakes with the football on Sunday.

The Saints are converting 39 percent of their third down attempts, but turnovers are absolutely hindering their offense’s efforts. The Saints currently have a minus-21 turnover ratio, which ranks 31st in the NFL. The Bucs, on the other hand, have a plus-4 turnover ratio. Turnovers killed the Saints and saved the Bucs in their first meeting this season, and they will likely decide the outcome of Sunday’s game at Raymond James Stadium.

Running Backs
With running back Deuce McAllister out for the season, RB Antowain Smith is leading the Saints ground attack. Smith, who is not as elusive as McAllister but has the power to bull his way over defenders, has rushed 150 times for 604 yards (4.0 avg.) and three touchdowns this season. The Bucs will have to be on their game in terms of tackling since Smith, who rushed for 49 yards on 18 carries vs. the Bucs on Dec. 4, produces most of his yardage after the initial contact.

The Saints use former Bucs RB Aaron Stecker as a third-down- and situational-type back. Stecker, who has caught 31 passes for 265 yards, is a better receiver than Smith. Look for the Saints to use Stecker on some screen passes, which could be effective against an aggressive Bucs pass rush. Stecker is also a capable ball carrier, evidenced by his 93 carries for 353 yards (3.8 avg.).

Tampa Bay’s defense ranks 7th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (96.3 avg.).

Receivers
Bouman has an impressive arsenal of receivers to throw to, and each of them has great speed and playmaking ability.

After averaging 87 catches for 1,258 yards and nine yards in five seasons prior to this one, WR Joe Horn has caught just 48 passes for 643 yards and one touchdown while missing three games due to injuries. Bucs CB Brian Kelly, who has hauled in four interceptions and defended 16 passes this season, will be charged with the difficult task of containing Horn, who has given the Bucs secondary some problems in the past. However, Kelly shut down Horn in their last meeting.

That leaves Bucs CB Ronde Barber on Saints WR Donte’ Stallworth, who has caught a team-leading 64 passes for 884 yards (13.8 avg.) and seven touchdowns through 15 games. Barber has the speed and coverage ability to keep up with Stallworth, and Bouman might hesitate to throw Barber’s way after watching the Pro Bowl cornerback intercept Brooks three times earlier in the season.

One of Boulman’s favorite weapons in the passing game is tight end Zachary Hilton, who has hauled in 30 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown this season. Hilton helped moved the chains on the Bucs on Dec. 4 by hauling in four passes for 50 yards. Bucs linebackers Derrick Brooks and Ryan Nece, and safety Jermaine Phillips, must do a better job of containing the 6-foot-8, 268-pound Hilton this time around.

Offensive Line
Tampa Bay must get after Bouman early and often in order to halt a potentially potent New Orleans offense, which currently ranks 20th in the NFL.

On paper, New Orleans’ offensive line, which features, left tackle Wayne Gandy, left guard Kendyl Jacox, center LeCharles Bentley, right guard Jermane Mayberry and right tackle Jammal Brown, looks extremely talented, but this unit has struggled in pass protection, surrendering 37 sacks through 15 games this season.

Tampa Bay’s defensive line feeds off right defensive end Simeon Rice, who has been a sacking machine as of late. He’s notched a team-leading 12 sacks and six forced fumbles. Rice has had success vs. the Saints before and must find a way to rush his way past Gandy, who is solid when healthy.

Bucs LE Greg Spires should be able to penetrate the Saints’ backfield. He’s going up against a rookie right tackle in Brown, who has been inconsistent this season and is questionable for Sunday’s game with a knee injury. He hasn’t been the pass rusher he was when he notched eight sacks last season, but Spires (three sacks in ’05) needs to help collapse the pocket in this game.

Tampa Bay under tackle Anthony McFarland will face a Pro Bowl-caliber right guard in Mayberry, who isn’t as dominant as he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. While he’ll want to get after Bouman, McFarland must first concern himself with stopping the running game, which is where Mayberry thrives in terms of blocking ability. McFarland had an impressive outing vs. Mayberry on Dec. 4 and needs to disrupt the Saints offensive backfield again on Sunday.

Bentley and Jacox will likely double team Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan, who has been extremely disruptive in the trenches and has played a huge role in Tampa Bay’s ability to stop the run this season. Hovan and the Bucs might catch a huge break if Bentley, who is listed as questionable with an elbow injury, is unable to play in this contest.

If Tampa Bay’s front four can put consistent pressure on Bouman, the Saints signal caller will make mistakes in the passing game, which could lead to some much-needed turnovers. As usual, the Bucs defense, which ranks No. 2 overall, will first concern itself with shutting down the Saints ground game. The Bucs must get themselves off the field on third downs, where the Saints converted 56 percent of the time vs. the Bucs back in Week 13.

Defensive Line
The most dangerous part of New Orleans’ front four is its defensive ends, which features Darren Howard, Charles Grant, Will Smith and Tony Bryant.

Grant anchors the right side of New Orleans’ defensive line and has notched 2.5 sacks while struggling to defend the run. Grant will be matched up with Bucs LT Anthony Davis, who the size to hold off the productive defensive end.

Howard has notched 3.5 quarterback takedowns this season, but the good news for the Bucs is he will miss Sunday’s game due to a knee injury. The bad news is Will Smith will take his place. Smith is a dangerous pass rusher, evidenced by his 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season. Smith recorded the only Saints sack vs. the Bucs back in Week 13. He’ll go up against Bucs RT Kenyatta Walker, who is questionable with an ankle injury. Should Walker struggle or be unable to play, backup T Todd Steussie will play in his place.

The Saints like to keep their defensive ends fresh and do so by rotating them often. They won’t be able to keep them as fresh as they’d like since Howard is out and Smith is starting in his place. However, Bryant, who usually subs in for Grant, has recorded four sacks and is healthy.

Because the threat of a potent pass rush from the Saints defensive ends does exist, the Bucs, who have allowed 40 sacks through 15 games this season, will once again feature plenty of two-tight end sets with rookie Alex Smith and Anthony Becht.

Look for the Bucs to attack the interior part of the Saints’ defensive line, where DTs Brian Young and Willie Whitehead have struggled to defend the run. Bucs Gs Sean Mahan and Dan Buenning, and C John Wade should be able to open up some holes for rookie RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who has rushed for 1,097 yards and six touchdowns this season and is coming off a strong, 150-yard rushing performance vs. the Falcons. The Saints are ranked 27th vs. the run and are allowing 133.1 yards on the ground per game. Williams rushed for 96 yards on 22 carries (4.4 avg.) vs. the Saints in Week 13.

Linebackers
The Saints will are hurting at the linebacker position, where outside linebacker James Allen and middle linebacker Courtney Watson were placed on injured reserve earlier this season and backup OLB Sedrick Hodge is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Those three injuries have left New Orleans’ linebacking corps vulnerable in both the running and passing game.

The Bucs will likely attempt to test New Orleans’ linebackers by running Williams early and often. They’ll also throw to Williams, RB Michael Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott out of the backfield and rookie TE Alex Smith down the seams. Given the Saints’ injuries at this position, Bucs QB Chris Simms, who completed 12-of-21 passes and tossed one touchdown vs. the Saints in Week 13, should find open receivers underneath.

Weakside LB Colby Bockwoldt remains healthy and in the starting lineup. He leads the Saints in tackles with 78 but lacks playmaking ability, evidenced by the fact that he has yet to notch a sack, interception of forced fumble this season.

Secondary
The Saints’ secondary is very talented and features cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas, and safeties Dwight Smith and Josh Bullocks.

Bucs WR Michael Clayton, who has struggled to find his groove this season, will miss Sunday’s game with a severe turf toe injury. That means Bucs WR Ike Hilliard will start in Clayton’s place and face McKenzie, who is listed as questionable with a groin injury.

Simms will likely look for WR Joey Galloway quite often, and for good reason. He’s hauled in a team-leading 79 passes for 1,249 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and caught five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown vs. New Orleans in Week 13. Galloway will go up against Thomas, who has notched two interceptions and 10 passes defensed.

With New Orleans suspect at the linebacker position, Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi will likely have S Dwight Smith, a former Buc, line up over TE Alex Smith in an effort to contain him in the passing game. Smith has recorded 65 tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions and six passes defensed.

With Smith playing close to the line of scrimmage, Bullocks, a rookie who is playing in place of S Jay Bellamy (injured reserve), will be charged with the difficult task of helping Thomas cover Galloway. Bullocks has notched one pick and five passes defensed.

The Saints are allowing opponents to convert 40.3 percent of their third downs and score an average of 24.7 points per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL.

Special Teams
Saints kicker John Carney, who is normally one of the league’s best kickers, is having a tough season. He’s made 23-of-30 (76.7 avg.) of his field goal attempts, including 8-of-12 from 40-49 yards out. Tampa Bay’s kickoff return team has been ineffective with Torrie Cox and Edell Shepherd handling kickoffs. As a result, the Bucs have one of the league’s worst average starting field positions.

Punter Mitch Berger is averaging 43 yards per attempt. Although his leg isn’t as strong as it used to be, Berger is an excellent directional punter. In fact, he’s pinned nearly half (28-of-68) of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Bucs PR Mark Jones is averaging 9.6 yards per attempt this season but is questionable for Sunday’s game with a foot injury. Should Jones be unable to play, WR Ike Hilliard will field punts for the Bucs.

Tampa Bay might be without K Matt Bryant has drilled 19-of-23 field goal attempts this season. His career long of 50 came during last Saturday’s game vs. the Falcons. Bryant didn’t play vs. the Saints in Week 13 due to a hamstring injury.

Bucs Pro Bowl P Josh Bidwell is having a great season. He’s averaging 45.5 yards per punt and has pinned 23 of his 84 attempts inside the 20-yard line.

With Saints speedy KR/PR Michael Lewis out for the season due to injury, RB Aaron Stecker has been handling kickoff return duties. He’s averaging 21.8 yards per attempt and has a long of 46.

Az-Zahir Hakim has been averaging just 7.4 yards per punt return. The Bucs punt return coverage unit has been solid this season and should be able to contain Hakim on Sunday.

FLYNN’S FORECAST: Buccaneers 24 Saints 10



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