To finish the season with a win, the Buccaneers will need to deal with a wide range of offensive challenges, starting with 5,000-yard man Drew Brees and his sometimes unstoppable tight end, Jimmy Graham. The Saints also feature a vastly improved defense in 2013 that ranks fourth in the NFL with 47 sacks generated.
HEAD COACH: Few coaches in today’s NFL are given as much credit for impacting the fortunes of their teams as is the Saints’ Sean Payton. Payton supporters would point to the fact that New Orleans dipped from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 last year when the coach was serving a one-year suspension, and then jumped right back to the top of the division this year. The Saints are on the verge of making it to the playoffs for the fifth time Payton’s seven years at the helm, and their record overall in those seven seasons (2006-11 and 2013) is a sparkling 72-39. In 2009, Payton led the Saints to their first championship with a 31-17 win over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV and was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year for his efforts.
OFFENSE: Drew Brees is obviously the glue that holds New Orleans’ high-powered attack together year after year, but this is an offense that can beat teams in many different ways. Brees needs just 219 yards against the Buccaneers on Sunday to hit 5,000 for the third straight year; he has never had less than 4,388 yards at the end of a season in New Orleans, and he has never missed a game due to injury in that span. With one more catch by WR Marques Colston and RB Darren Sproles on Sunday, Brees would have four different pass-catchers at 70 receptions or more, demonstrating how difficult it is to stop everything the Saints are capable of doing on offense.
Brees’ top target this year is actually a tight end, the tight end at the top of the NFL heap, Jimmy Graham. The fast, athletic tight end has caught 81 passes for 1,144 yards and 15 touchdowns, with his TD mark leading the league and setting a new Saints record. Against the Buccaneers in Week Two, Graham was the difference in a tight 16-14 Saints victory, catching 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. Marques Colston remains Brees’ top target among wideouts, though Colston’s production has dipped a bit in his eighth NFL season; he would need 124 yards on Sunday to keep his streak of four straight 1,000-yard seasons alive.
Probably the most underrated weapon in Brees’ arsenal is veteran running back Pierre Thomas, who not only ranks second on the team with 76 catches but also paces the rushing attack with 529 yards. Thomas is the NFL’s leader in yards after the catch, with 645, showing what a dynamic weapon he can be in the open field. The Saints are good in that category overall, ranking second in the NFL with 2,244 yards after the catch, and first in YAC since 2006.
Brees obviously has great touch on his deep ball and players who can stretch the field, but the Saints are equally adept at sustaining long drives, as evidenced by their average time of possession of 32:35, which ranks second in the NFL. As usual, they stay on the field by converting a large number of third downs – 43.3% this year to rank fifth in the league and a whopping 47.1% since 2006, the NFL’s best mark in that span.
If the Saints have seen a downturn in play in any offensive area in 2013, it has been up front. The team has struggled to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who got a big free agency contract from the Chicago Bears. Charles Brown has gotten most of the playing time there but has had pass-protection issues, especially of late. Right tackle Zach Strief got some time on the left side for that reason, but the most recent solution has been to put rookie Terron Armstead, a third-round pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in that critical spot. Armstead had his hands full in his starting debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, who sacked Brees six times, but he is reportedly holding onto the job. Brees, who had never been sacked more than 26 times in any full season with the Saints, has already been dropped 36 times this year.
DEFENSE: The Saints have truly made a remarkable turnaround on defense after suffering through a horrific season on that side of the ball in 2012. Last year’s Saints set an NFL record by allowing 440.1 yards per game, but in 2013 the team ranks fourth in the NFL at 306.7 yards allowed per contest. More importantly, New Orleans is fifth in the league with 19.1 yards allowed per game after giving up 28.4 per outing last year.
The changes were plentiful after last year’s disaster, starting with the return of Payton and the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. The Saints switched from a 4-3 front to Ryan’s preferred 3-4 and brought in some veteran help in cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Victor Butler. Butler got hurt before the season while Lewis has been solid with 38 tackles and three interceptions, but the team also got a valuable new piece in safety Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round pick out of Texas. Vaccaro had 92 tackles, an interception and a sack through 15 games but, unfortunately for the Saints, is now out with a fractured ankle.
The Saints’ secondary has now lost two key starters – Vaccaro and cornerback Jabari Greer – but the team still ranks second in the NFL with 193 passing yards allowed per game. That total has certainly been helped by the Saints’ fierce rush up front, which has produced 47 sacks to rank fourth in the NFL, but the defensive backfield has played well, too. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been a hard-hitting force all over the field, combining 65 tackles with 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles. The Saints are fortunate to have gotten veteran safety Roman Harper back from injury in Week 11; his playing time should increase quite a bit with Vaccaro out, and he too brings a hard-hitting style to the game. Harper ranks sixth in the NFL among defensive backs with 13 forced fumbles since 2006.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This has recently become an area of concern for the Saints in at least one manner, as the team made a very late-in-the-season change at placekicker. Incumbent Garrett Hartley struggled at various points throughout the season, making just 22 of 30 field goal attempts, and after 14 games New Orleans chose to let him go in favor of veteran Shayne Graham. Graham has bounced around a little bit during his 10-plus years in the league, but he stuck for seven strong seasons in Cincinnati and is currently ranked fifth in league history with a 85.4% field goal success rate. He made both of his kicks plus an extra point in his Saints debut last week in rainy Charlotte.
The Saints definitely have some scary weapons in the return game, but they haven’t produced too much in 2013. Sproles has done most of the work on punt returns, but his average has dropped from 10.1 in 2011 to 8.0 last year to 6.9 this year, and his longest runback so far is 28 yards. RB Travaris Cadet has an 82-yard (non-scoring) kickoff return, but he’s only run nine kicks back. Opposing teams have fared reasonably well against the Saints’ cover units, averaging 25.4 yards per try on kickoffs and 7.5 per on punts.