Today the Buccaneers will face perhaps their toughest test of the season against the division-leading New Orleans Saints. The Saints are a team looking for a shoot-out, their defense gives up yards by the bunch but their offense can really put the points up too. That doesn’t bode well for a beat up Buccaneers team.
The Bucs can win this game, but a lot needs to go right for the them in order to knock off the Saints and tie for the divisional lead. This is a very talented Bucs team, even with last week’s loss considered, but they are without some of their best players for this game and facing a veteran team coming off a loss in which they didn’t play their best football. Traditionally when a team like the Saints or Patriots has a down week they respond in kind the next week. Given that and the divisional ramifications the Bucs should expect the Saints best shot.
Here’s what to watch for, five things that the Buccaneers absolutely must do in order to beat the Saints tonight. If you’re looking for why the Bucs won’t beat the Saints, check it out here. At any rate, here’s what to watch for:
The Ground Game
If you think the Bucs will have a good day running the ball you are far more optimistic than I am. Before the LeGarrette Blount announced his presence last season the Buccaneers had the 28th ranked rushing attack in football. That was with the same line the Bucs are running out there right now and the same set of backs, sans Cadillac Williams.
I don’t expect the Bucs to have a lot of success running the ball, they may try to stick with it just to keep the Saints defense honest but I truly doubt it will be an effective method of moving the ball today. What they will need to do to supplement their lack of a run-game will be to spread the Saints and rely on the short passing game. A four or five yard pass on first or second down is just as effective as a run, Tampa will need to get creative without Blount in the lineup. It would be nice to have Sammie Stroughter and Luke Stocker (who seems to get hurt a lot), but guys like Preston Parker, Michael Spurlock and Arrelious Benn will need to step up.
I’m going to come right out and say this, Josh Freeman has not played well so far this season. He hasn’t gotten worse, but he’s not making the best decisions and at times he plays over-confident. He’ll be fine, but if the Bucs want to win that needs to start today. Freeman is capable of going throw for throw with Drew Brees, but this season he is yet to play like it. It hasn’t all been his fault, the Bucs’ receiving corps could help their quarterback out some by limiting drops and deflections, but it ultimately will come down to Freeman today.
With the Buccaneers’ offense one-dimensional the Saints will throw the kitchen sink at Freeman. Look for lots of exotic coverage packages and plenty of pressure to come in an attempt to try and disrupt the Bucs’ signal caller. If Freeman can rise above, be smart with the ball and create with his legs when the play breaks down then he will put the Buccaneers in position to win. But if he falters they have no chance.
Stop the Saints Rush
The Buccaneers front four has to have a big game today. Trying to defend the Saints offense when it’s healthy is like trying to cover a mattress with a fitted sheet that’s a size too small, every time you cover one thing another comes open. The Saints have an elite tight end, a number of speedy receivers and two running backs that compliment each other perfectly. If you pay too much attention to any one of them, you’ll get burnt. It all starts with the run game though.
If the Bucs’ defensive line playes well it will allow the Bucs to use their linebackers and secondary to cover receivers, tight ends and pressure Drew Brees. If they have to start committing extra players to shutting down the run game then things are going to get dicey. The Saints have a potent ground attack. Mark Ingram is a very good between-the-tackles kind of runner. He’s going to be challenging with Gerald McCoy out. The the Saints can also hit you with Darren Sproles off the edge or in the passing game. Both of the backs have very complimentary skill sets and will challenge the Bucs’ defense in every way possible. If Tampa wants to win they need to shut down the Saints run without committing extra men to the box.
Jimmy Graham is a real pain in the butt. He’s huge, he runs well and no linebacker or safety is going to have much fun covering him with his height advantage and Drew Brees’ accuracy. Graham already has 496 yards in five games, he’s become one of Drew Brees favorite targets. If the Bucs can’t stop the Saints’ running game Graham will be the first guy to hurt Tampa. Ideally the Bucs can double Graham and try to take him away, but if they need to bring someone else down to stop the run, Graham gets less attention. Any one-on-one with him is basically a mismatch.
The Bucs linebackers are already a bit undersized, they favor speed and quickness over strength. That’s great for some offenses, not great against a tight end as big as Graham. If the Bucs want to take the big man away they need to double him and that starts with the line handling the run.
Darren Sproles is a dynamo on special teams and it would behoove the Bucs to remember that. Tampa can’t afford to give up a score or even good field position to the Saints, their offense will be hard enough to stop without doing them favors. Michael Koenen will be key here, he needs to have a booming day kicking the ball, plenty of touchbacks (hopefully plenty of kickoffs) and he cannot out-kick his coverage unit, Sproles is lethal if you give him a chance to get going, Koenen needs to reel in the distance and make sure to hit it high so Sproles has to fair catch.
For the Bucs if Preston Parker has a big return saved away this would be the week to use it.