Three weeks ago, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepared to play division rival New Orleans for the first time in 2011, Darren Sproles' name was bouncing around the Buccaneers' locker room in much the same way the diminutive back has been pinballing across NFL gridirons this year.
Tampa Bay defenders obviously know the Saints well, and they've become almost inured to the challenge of trying to stop Drew Brees' myriad weapons. Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Jimmy Graham, Devery Henderson, Pierre Thomas and – new in 2011 – rookie running back Mark Ingram. At least Reggie Bush had taken his dangerous screen passes and punt returns to Miami.
Sproles, however, was a new sight during tape sessions leading up to that Week Six Saints-Bucs game, and it's safe to say the Buccaneers were impressed. While paying the obvious respect due to Brees and his usual targets, one Tampa Bay defender after another brought up Sproles' name, and expounded on the necessity of keeping him contained.
Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake chimed in with the same sentiment as his players.
"They lost Reggie Bush and maybe almost got an upgrade," said Lake. "This Sproles guy runs hard, catches everything Drew Brees throws at him. He runs great routes. He is sometimes a receiver, sometimes a running back. So that's another toy for Sean Payton to play with on the field. We definitely will have our hands full with him."
Sure enough, when game day rolled around, Brees looked to Sproles with alarming frequency. The Saints QB targeted the scatback on 11 passes, tied for most in that game, and hit him a team-leading eight times for 46 yards. Sproles also gained 16 yards on his only carry and picked up 69 yards on three kickoff returns against one of the NFL's best kick coverage units.
And, believe it or not, that was essentially a win for the Buccaneers' defense. Of course, the main reason for saying so is that it was contained inside an actual Tampa Bay victory, as the Bucs held on to a 26-20 decision despite giving up 453 yards of offense. In a more micro sense, Tampa Bay's defense felt satisfied that it had kept Sproles from really busting out with a big play. His longest reception went for nine yards, and the Bucs limited him to fewer yards per catch than any other opponent has done this season.
Brees has targeted Sproles at least six times in every game the Saints have played this season, and he's averaged more than seven catches a game and, on those catches, 7.4 yards after the reception. However, the Bucs held him to 5.3 yards per play after the catch, the only time he's been held below 6.2 all season. Also, Sproles' single carry was a season low; he's had as many as six on four occasions and already has single-game rushing totals of 51, 75 and 88 this year.
The combination of no breakout runs-after-catch and a light load in the rushing game was, according to Bucs' Head Coach Raheem Morris, a matter of both strong defensive play and good fortune.
"We got lucky," said Morris. "We played some pretty coverage on him. He dropped the ball [on a play] that could've been a big one. We put some people in that had a chance to cover him. We had to mix it up a little bit, a little bit of Ronde [Barber], a little bit of Sean Jones, a little bit of Tanard Jackson."
Morris, who calls the Buccaneers' defensive plays, knows he has to be constantly vigilant in countering Drew Brees' efforts to get Sproles into a big-play situation. That holds true on special teams, as well, because Sproles is a threat on both punt and kickoff returns. The Bucs used their fabulous punter, Michael Koenen to play keep-away in the last meeting, and on the one punt that Sproles was able to field, he was chased into a 10-yard loss.
"We've got to get away from getting premium matchups which he absolutely can exploit," said Morris. "If he gets caught with the wrong guy at the wrong time he can make a big play at any time in the football game, including special teams. That's just what you've got to do. You've got to have everybody, the total package, to stop or contain a guy like that, because they certainly can ruin a football game."
In the first meeting, Sproles also had a 17-yard catch-and-run called back on a holding penalty shortly before halftime. The play would have resulted in a first down at the Bucs' 29 with 15 seconds left in the first half, giving Brees a crack at the end zone before what eventually became a field goal. Sproles is outstanding at moving the chains; he has accounted for 31 first downs already this season. However, against the Buccaneers he tied a season low with just two first downs, one each rushing and receiving. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Saints have lost both of those games (also last Sunday at St. Louis).
The Bucs would love to contain the Saints' dangerous new weapon to similar numbers this Sunday in the Superdome, but Morris knows it won't be easy.
"He's a pain in the neck," said the Bucs' coach. "He loves football, is tough, hard, smart, had a great relationship with Drew Brees at the time in San Diego. He's one of those guys you shake hands with at the last game and said, 'Good job.' He ran off the field with a lot of pride. It didn't shock me one bit that he's been as dynamic as he is."