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OPPONENT: New Orleans Saints
WHERE: The Superdome
WHERE THE SAINTS STAND: The Saints are 3-1 and tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the NFC South division. SAINTS HEAD COACH: Sean Payton
SAINTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Doug Marrone SAINTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gary Gibbs
SAINTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: John Bonamego
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE: OVERALL: 31st (234.0 ypg) RUSHING: 32nd (43.0 ypg) PASSING: 22nd (191.0 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE: OVERALL: 19th (334.0 ypg) RUSHING: 31st (170.0 ypg) PASSING: 5th (164.0 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … the Saints have already matched their win total from last year?
SCOUTING THE SAINTS
Quarterbacks One of the biggest reasons for New Orleans’ turnaround this season has been the addition of QB Drew Brees. The Saints parted ways with Aaron Brooks and signed Brees, the former San Diego Charger, to a long-term contract this offseason. So far, Brees has delivered on their investment, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,063 yards and four touchdowns while helping the Saints offense convert 41.1 percent of their third down attempts. Perhaps the most important thing Brees is doing is not turning the ball over. Brooks threw four interceptions alone in New Orleans’ Week 12 loss to Tampa Bay last year. Through four games, Brees has tossed just two picks. Tampa Bay’s defensive line will have to get pressure on this pocket passer. If they don’t, he’s got the arm and receivers to pick apart the Bucs secondary.
Running Backs Atlanta has the best trio of runners on offense in Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, and New Orleans might have the best duo of running backs with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in its offensive backfield. Although the Saints invested the No. 2 overall pick in Bush in April, McAllister, who is more of a power runner, is carrying the load. He’s run the ball 64 times for 257 yards (4.0 avg.) and three touchdowns. The Bucs managed to sweep the Saints last year, but that was with McAllister sidelined with a season-ending knee injury. Tampa Bay’s run defense has really struggled this year, partly because of injuries to defensive tackles Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan, and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles. McAllister and Bush, who is extremely quick and elusive, pack a great 1-2 punch. Look for New Orleans to attempt to wear out Tampa Bay’s undersized defense by running McAllister and throwing to Bush, who has a team-leading 23 catches for 187 yards, out of the backfield quite often.
Wide Receivers With the exception of four-time Pro Bowler Joe Horn, the Saints wide receivers underachieved during Jim Haslett’s tenure as head coach in New Orleans, but that’s changed under new head coach Sean Payton, who served as Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach when Jon Gruden was the Eagles offensive coordinator. Horn had a sub-par year in 2005, but he appears to be back on track. He’s caught 15 passes for 223 yards (14.9 avg.). The Bucs appear to be getting cornerback Brian Kelly back from a turf toe injury at the right time as he will be charged with the difficult task of covering Horn, who is a solid route runner and has good speed and hands. But Bucs CB Ronde Barber won’t have it any easier. He’ll spend most of the game lining up across a Rookie of the Year candidate, WR Marques Colston, who entered the league as a seventh-round pick out of Hostra and has taken the league by surprise. Colston uses his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to get separation from defensive backs and outmuscle them for the ball. Colston has caught 20 passes for 336 yards (16.8 avg.) and three touchdowns through four games this season. Although they’ll try to establish the running game early, the Saints could feature plenty of three-receiver sets in an effort to get Devery Henderson, who has caught eight passes for 110 yards and one touchdown, on the field. This scenario could move Barber into the slot to cover Henderson and give the Saints a potentially favorable matchup deep downfield between Colston and Bolden. The Saints haven’t used tight ends Ernie Conwell or Mark Campbell much in the passing game. That said, Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips could be called on to play the run. However, he and S Will Allen must be careful not to over pursue and have do a much better job of tackling in the open field.
Offensive Line This unit was overhauled by the Saints in the offseason. Left tackle Wayne Gandy was traded to Atlanta, and left guard Kendyl Jacox and Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley left in free agency. Gandy’s absence isn’t good news for Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, who notched two sacks vs. Gandy and the Saints in Week 17 of the 2005 season. In fact, Rice has recorded more sacks (16) against the Saints than any other team in during his career. Rice will now go up against Jammal Brown, a 2005 first-round pick who was moved from right to left tackle in the offseason to protect Brees’ blindside. Guards Jahrl Evans and Jabar Nesbit, and new starting center, Jeff Faine, will go up against McFarland and Hovan, who need to do a better job of filling gaps and getting to the quarterback. Bucs DE Greg Spires will be matched up with RT John Stinchcomb. This could be a favorable matchup for the Bucs, especially when speed rusher Dewayne replaces Spires in passing situations. New Orleans’ offensive line has surrendered six sacks this season.
Defensive Line The Saints lost Darren Howard in free agency, but they’ve got quite the defensive end duo in Charles Grant and Will Smith. Grant has one sack and Smith already has three quarterback takedowns through four games. Grant appears to have a favorable matchup against Bucs rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who will make his first career start in place of Kenyatta Walker (out of the year with a knee injury). Smith will go up against Bucs LT Anthony Davis, who will be counted on to open up holes for Cadillac Williams in the running game. The 330-pound Davis should be able to do that as he has a 50-pound weight advantage over the 280-pound Smith. Bucs left guard Dan Buenning will have his hands full with Saints nose tackle Brian Young, who is explosive off the ball and plays with good technique. He’s already recorded 3.5 sacks this season, and he’s more than capable of filling gaps against the run. The Bucs likely will ask center John Wade to help double team Young, which could leave right guard Sean Mahan in some one-on-one matchups with Saints under tackle Hollis Thomas. The former Philadelphia Eagle isn’t a great pass rusher, but he’s a solid run stuffer. Tampa Bay’s ground game has struggled. In fact, the Bucs are ranked 32nd in that category. Last year, Williams rushed for 177 yards on 44 carries in two games vs. the Saints. With Bucs rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski making his first career start in place of injured QB Chris Simms, look for Williams to get plenty of carries. Also look for the Bucs to have a new wrinkle in their offense on some passing downs, with Gradkowski possibly taking some snaps out of the shotgun, a formation he thrived while working out of during his playing days at Toledo.
Linebackers This unit used to arguably be the weakest link of the New Orleans defense, but that’s not the case anymore. The Saints added Scott Fujita and Mark Simoneau to their roster, and both players have been big reasons why their defense is ranked No. 8 overall this season. Fujita protects the strong side of New Orleans’ defense. He leads the team in tackles and has already recoded one sack, one forced fumble and one interception. The Saints traded for Simoneau (from Philadelphia), and that move has paid off as he’s been a reliable force in the middle of the defense. Weakside linebacker Scott Shanle is blitzing threat and a player Williams, Michael Pittman and/or fullback Mike Alstott must help account for, especially with Gradkowski making his first pro start. While he’s not great in pass coverage, Shanle has notched two sacks and one forced fumble. Gradkowski will have to make the Saints pay for blitzing their linebackers by working passes to his receivers and tight end Alex Smith in the short-to-intermediate part of the field.
Secondary Saints cornerback Fred Thomas thrives in man-to-man coverage, but Bucs wide receiver Joey Galloway made him look like a rookie last year, catching a total of nine passes for 113 yards and three touchdowns in two games vs. the Saints. The Bucs are hoping to get the speedy Galloway in those types of matchups on Sunday, and they should get them if Saints defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs decides to blitz his linebackers and defensive backs against Gradkowski. The Bucs’ rookie signal caller will have to be careful when throwing to Galloway or WR Michael Clayton since the Saints have two dangerous safeties in Josh Bullocks and rookie Roman Harper. Both players are hard hitters, which means Gradkowski will have to be extra careful when he attempts to use his legs to move the chains. Clayton could have a hard time getting open vs. CB Mike McKenzie, who is one of the league’s better cover corners. Most teams have shied away from throwing toward McKenzie’s side of the field, and the Bucs might follow that trend, especially given the amount of success Galloway has had against Thomas in the past.
Special Teams Saints kicker John Carney is one of the league’s most consistent. He has drilled 10-of-11 (90.9 percent) field goals this year. He’s got the leg strength to kick over 50 yards. Punter Steve Weatherford is averaging 44.2 yards per attempt and has a long of 54 yards this season. He’s pinned four of his 18 attempts inside the 20-yard line. Former Bucs running back Aaron Stecker handles kickoff return duties for the Saints. While he’s only averaging 21 yards per attempt, Stecker retuned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against the Bucs during the 2004 regular season. The Bucs will have to account for rookie RB Reggie Bush, who returns punts for the Saints. Bush is averaging just 6.3 yards per return, but he’s capable of breaking off a big return at any time.
FLYNN’S FORECAST: Saints 20 Buccaneers 10
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