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OPPONENT: New Orleans Saints
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE SAINTS STAND: The Saints are 9-0 and in first place in the NFC South division. SAINTS HEAD COACH: Sean Payton SAINTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael Jr. SAINTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gregg Williams SAINTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Greg McMahaon
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE OVERALL: 28th (276 ypg) RUSHING: 25th (99 ypg) PASSING: 23rd (178 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE OVERALL: 29th (379 ypg) RUSHING: 31st (167 ypg) PASSING: 15th (212 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW … … the Saints rank fifth in the NFL with a plus-5 turnover through nine games?
SCOUTING THE SAINTS
Quarterbacks The heart and soul of New Orleans' potent offensive attack, which ranks number one overall in the NFL, is quarterback Drew Brees.
The 6-foot, 209-pound Brees possesses a strong and accurate arm. He excels at reading defenses and making quick decisions. While he isn't a scrambler, Brees is mobile and can buy himself time to throw outside the pocket. These attributes have allowed Brees, 30, to complete 199-of-291 (68.4 percent) of his passes for 2,559 yards. He has accounted for 19 of New Orleans' league-leading 43 touchdowns while tossing nine interceptions. Brees is one of the main reasons why the Saints are converting 47.4 percent of their third down attempts and averaging 37 points per game this year. He is completely capable of picking apart Tampa Bay's 29th-ranked defense, which has been suspect at times against the pass.
Running Backs Although New Orleans' offense is considered pass-heavy, the Saints have managed to produce some encouraging results via the ground game without Deuce McAllister, who was released during the offseason.
The Saints have a talented and versatile stable of backs. This group is led by former first-round pick Reggie Bush. The 6-foot, 203-pound Bush has carried the ball 55 times for 277 yards (5.0 avg.) and five touchdowns. He is most dangerous as a receiver, where he's hauled in 29 passes for 207 yards and one score. Bush doesn't have the power to run inside, so most of his carries are along the perimeter, and his receptions come on swing and screen passes. The Bucs likely will lean on linebacker Geno Hayes to help cover Bush on passing plays. Hayes and Co. must be on top of their game in terms of taking the proper angles and tackling well vs. Bush.
Bush hasn't proven to be worthy of being a feature back in New Orleans, which is why Pierre Thomas (5-11, 215) has received such a heavy workload. Thomas has carried the ball 94 times for 492 yards (5.2 avg.) and five touchdowns. Like Bush, Thomas can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's hauled in 14 passes for 101 yards and one touchdown.
Mike Bell (6-0, 225) is a downhill runner the Saints leaned on heavily at the beginning of the season. He's carried the ball 102 times for 439 yards (4.3 avg.) and two touchdowns. Bush and Thomas handle most of the workload now, but Bell will be worked into the rotation and his running style could give Tampa Bay's defense, which ranks 31st against the run, some problems, especially the team's front seven.
Receivers This group reaps the benefits of Brees' ability to spread the ball around in Sean Payton's explosive offense. There are simply too many playmakers to account for, which can give opposing defenses fits.
Saints WR Marques Colston (6-4, 225) has some Randy Moss-like qualities to his game. The former seventh-round pick's ability to out-jump defensive backs has helped Colston catch a team-leading 39 passes for 613 yards (15.7 avg.) and six touchdowns.
New Orleans has the perfect compliment to Colston in WR Devery Henderson (5-11, 200). The former second-round pick out of LSU doesn't have Colston's leaping ability, but Henderson does possess impressive speed. He is considered New Orleans' main deep threat. Henderson, who sometimes struggles with drops, has caught 30 passes for 523 yards (17.4 avg.) and one touchdown.
Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib have played extremely well as of late. They should be able to match up well with Colston and Henderson since they are familiar with both players from meeting twice a season in the NFC South division.
However, the Saints' depth at receiver and tight end could give Tampa Bay's secondary a lot of problems in terms of mathcups.
Behind Colston and Henderson, the Saints have two dangerous threats in WRs Robert Meachem and Lance Moore. A former first-round pick, Meachem has really improved his route running this year. That has helped him become more productive, catching 14 passes for 323 yards (23.1 avg.) and four touchdowns. Moore (5-9, 190) has contributed 13 catches for 146 yards and one score.
Don't be surprised if the Saints spread the field with three- and four-receiver sets in an effort to get Meachem and Moore in favorable one-on-one matchups with Bucs backup cornerbacks Elbert Mack and Torrie Cox.
Brees could also get tight end Jeremy Shockey (6-5, 251) involved in the passing game, just as Miami did with its tight ends last week. Shockey is having a good year. He's hauled in 37 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Tampa Bay's front four doesn't pose a big threat to New Orleans in terms of sustaining an effective pass rush, so Shockey probably won't have to spend too much time near the line of scrimmage, which means Tampa Bay's linebackers and safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli will have to help account for the Pro Bowl-caliber tight end.
Offensive Line What makes the fact that New Orleans is undefeated (9-0) even more impressive is the injuries the team has overcome at key positions.
This includes left tackle, where former first-round pick Jammal Brown, who made the Pro Bowl last year, was responsible for protecting Brees' blind side before he landed on injured reserve. Jermon Bushrod (6-5, 315) has replaced Brown at left tackle. He has done a decent job and likely will face Bucs defensive end Stylez G. White, who has three sacks in '09 and missed last week's game with a shoulder injury. New Orleans is solid at the right tackle position, where seasoned veteran Jon Stinchcomb (6-5, 315) is earning every penny of his new contract. He will face Bucs DE Jimmy Wilkerson, who leads Tampa Bay in sacks with 5.5, but had a quiet game in Miami last week.
New Orleans is fairly strong along the interior part of its offensive line, which is anchored by versatile left guard Carl Nicks (6-5, 343), center Jonathan Goodwin (6-3, 318) and durable right guard Jahri Evans (6-4, 318). The Saints' size up front is cause for concern for Tampa Bay since its defensive line, particularly defensive tackles Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan, have failed to sustain a solid push up front.
Sims and Hovan must find a way to make that happen in order for White and Wilkerson to be productive as pass rushers along the perimeter. The Bucs will not win this game if Brees has a comfortable pocket to throw out of. The good news for the Bucs is even though the Saints offensive line has been solid this year, New Orleans has missed Brown and been inconsistent at times, evidenced by the fact that the Saints have surrendered 13 sacks through nine games after allowing that same amount through 16 contests last year.
Defensive Line New Orleans' defense is ranked 21st in the NFL and surrendering 341 yards per game, but those stats don't begin to do new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams justice in terms of the job he's done in his first year in New Orleans.
Some of the Saints' better players that underachieved in previous seasons are capitalizing on the aggressive style of play in Williams' 4-3 system.
New Orleans defensive ends Charles Grant (6-3, 285) and Will Smith (6-3, 282) pose the biggest threats to Tampa Bay's offensive line in terms of pressuring rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. Grant has notched four sacks from the left end spot. Smith has been one of New Orleans' biggest playmakers on defense, recording a team-leading 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception. Grant and Smith will line up against Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and left tackle Donald Penn, respectively. Although Penn excels in pass protection, both he and Trueblood are coming off shaky outings vs. Miami last week, where Freeman was sacked three times in the first half alone and fumbled the ball a total of four times.
The Saints, who have 21 sacks through nine games, have gotten a good push up front with the help of starting defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis, a former first-round pick, and Remi Ayodele. Ellis (6-1, 307) has one sack and two passes defensed. Ayodele (6-2, 318) has recorded two sacks from the nose tackle spot. The pressure sustained by New Orleans' front four has allowed Williams to not blitz as much as he has in the past. One of the surprise players on the Saints team is backup DT Anthony Hargrove, who was out of the league last year due to substance abuse problems. Since being signed by the Saints this offseason, Hargrove (6-3, 272) has notched three sacks and three tackles for a loss as a situational player subbed in for Ellis and Ayodel.
Ellis, Ayodele and Hargrove will face Bucs center Jeff Faine and guards Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah. Tampa Bay will attempt to establish the ground game early vs. New Orleans. The interior part of the Bucs' offensive line must open holes for running backs Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward in order for Tampa Bay to have success on the ground.
Linebackers The leader of this group is Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Williams likes to use the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Vilma on blitzes. He is second on the team in tackles and has notched one sack and six tackles for a loss. Vilma, whom the Bucs attempted to sign in the offseason but to no avail, is solid in coverage as well. He has four passes defensed on the season.
Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson could attempt to use Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward to attack the Saints along the perimeter in hopes of exploiting potential weaknesses at the outside linebacker spots. Strongside linebacker Scott Fujita (6-5, 250) has one tackle for a loss and one pass defensed. The Bucs likely will attempt to get him in some one-on-one matchups with tight end Kellen Winslow, who is Freeman's primary receiver. New Orleans weakside linebacker Scott Shanle (6-2, 245) is considered a better playmaker. He ranks third on the team in tackles, and has notched three tackles for a loss, three passes defensed and two interceptions.
Secondary Tampa Bay's best shot at handing New Orleans its first loss of the season is establishing the running game and going play-action off that. That's exactly what the Rams did to have success vs. the Saints last week. The Bucs must follow that blueprint, but Freeman has to be careful throwing the football.
New Orleans' defense has notched 19 turnovers through nine games, and the team's secondary has played a significant role in that success as well as limiting opposing offenses to 33 percent on third downs.
The Saints completely revamped their defense and secondary in the offseason, and those moves have paid off. Free safety Darren Sharper, 34, isn't showing his age. He's notched a team-leading seven interceptions and returned three of those for touchdowns. Sharper (6-2, 210) has also notched 12 passes defensed, but he could miss his second straight game with a knee injury, which would be huge for the Bucs.
Sharper has been able to roam the field to make plays on the ball because strong safety Roman Harper (6-1, 200) spends a lot of time near the line of scrimmage to help defend the run. Harper leads the Saints in tackles and has recorded one sack, two forced fumbles and three passes defensed.
The Saints believe there's a good chance Sharper will return for Sunday's game in Tampa Bay. The same goes for starting cornerback Jabari Greer (5-11, 180), who missed last week's game with a groin ailment. Greer leads the Saints with 13 passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a score.
New Orleans needs Greer to return to action since it will definitely be without its other starting cornerback, Tracy Porter (5-11, 186), who sustained a knee injury in the win over the Rams and is out for the contest vs. the Bucs. Porter, who has eight passes defensed, three interceptions and one touchdown, likely will be replaced by rookie first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins (6-0, 204).
Tampa Bay is hoping to have WR Antonio Bryant back for this game. The Bucs could use Tampa Bay's full complement of receivers in its attempt to have Freeman make some big plays in the passing game against a very banged up New Orleans secondary. But healthy or not, Bucs receivers Bryant, Michael Clayton and Sammie Stroughter will be hard pressed to make plays in the passing game if Tampa Bay can't establish the ground game first.
Special Teams Although field goals won't beat the Saints' high-powered offensive attack, the Bucs have found a reliable kicker in Connor Barth, who made three field goals from 50-plus yards out in Miami last week. Saints K John Carney has made 11-of-14 (78.6 percent) of his field goals and is perfect from the 20-29 range. However, Carney, 45, no longer has the leg strength he possessed in his prime. His long this season is 46.
Carney and Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who is averaging 43 yards per attempt and has had to punt just 30 times this year, will be kicking to Bucs return specialist Clifton Smith, who has played at a Pro Bowl level over the past two weeks.
Although he's averaging just 3.8 yards per punt return, Saints RB Reggie Bush is a player Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units must account for. He's returned four punts for touchdowns during his four-year career, including three last season. Kickoff returner Courtney Roby is having more success. He's actually competing with Clifton Smith for a spot in the Pro Bowl, averaging 29.1 yards per attempt. He returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown earlier this year. The Bucs did an outstanding job against Miami return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. last week and must do the same vs. New Orleans. The Bucs simply can't afford to give Brees and Co. a short field to work with on Sunday. FLYNN'S FORECAST: Saints 37 Buccaneers 24