In Week Two, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got their first win of the season with a 26-19 decision in New Orleans built on 139 rushing yards and a defense that forced three turnovers. Since that time, the Bucs have been up and down in the takeaway department but their rushing attack has been a force nearly every Sunday. They intend to rely on it again this weekend at Raymond James Stadium as they go for a season sweep of the Saints.
"I think everybody has a formula for success and how they want to win football games," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "Offensively, that's a part of ours. We want to have balance; balance starts with us being able to run the football. Doug Martin has been outstanding the entire year; we'll continue to call on him. The line enjoys blocking for a guy they know if they just give him a little bit of crack he can do some things."
Martin is the NFL's second-leading rusher and he's been one of the team's most valuable players in 2015. He turned in another 95 yards plus a touchdown in last Sunday's win over Atlanta, but he got a lot of help from the team's other star players, including Jameis Winston and Mike Evans, who hooked up for the game-winning touchdown, and Lavonte David, who sealed it with a last-minute interception.
"The reason why they're our best players is, when the games get more and more critical to your football season, your big players normally step up," said Smith. "Mike Evans catching the touchdown pass, Jameis Winston throwing it to him, a big third-down run, and finishing it off with Lavonte David, the best outside linebacker in football."
INACTIVES: MCCOY, DAVID SET TO PLAY VS. SAINTS
David made more news this week as he sustained an ankle injury and ended up on the injury report, with a game-status designation of questionable on the Friday version. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they won't have to play without their leading tackler. They'll also have their leading sack artist back, as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is returning from a one-game absence caused by a hand injury.
"Lavonte David is good to go, just tweaked his ankle a little bit but he's fine," said Smith. "Gerald has done a great job; most people would be out longer. He missed last week's game but he's good to go. He's had a good week of practice and he's ready to go today."
Defensive end Jacquies Smith, who had three sacks in that Week Two win in the Superdome, will need at least one more week to recover from a hamstring injury, and defensive end George Johnson will miss his fourth straight with a calf ailment. In addition, the team is beginning a four-game stretch in which it will be without playmaking rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who is serving a suspension. Bruce Carter will start at middle linebacker in his place. Smith expects all of the defensive fill-ins to rise to the occasion.
"They know the mindset you have to have," said the coach. "No one wants to hear about injuries. Every team in the league has injuries and for us it's always about that next guy up, and that's what we're seeing. We lost the best inside defensive linemen in football last week but were able to overcome it still. Same thing – the guys that can't go, the next guy is waiting in the wings for an opportunity." Johnson and Smith head the Bucs' list of seven inactives this week. The other five, none of which are out due to injury, are QB Ryan Griffin, LB Jeremiah George, T Demar Dotson, TE Brandon Myers and DE Josh Shirley.
The Saints had to put their leading rusher, Mark Ingram, on injured reserve this week due to a shoulder ailment. He'll be replaced in the starting lineup by C.J. Spiller and the team will likely make significant use of Tim Hightower as well. Starting right guard Jahri Evans will miss a second straight game with an ankle injury; he'll be replaced in the starting lineup by Senio Kelemete. Starting LDT John Jenkins is out due to injury as well; he'll be replaced by rookie Tyeler Davison. In addition to Evans and Jenkins, the Saints have deactivated WR T.J. Graham, QB Garrett Grayson, CB Chris Owens, LB David Hawthorne and DE Phillip Hunt.
Only a week after completing a season sweep of division-rival Atlanta, the Buccaneers have an opportunity to do the same against the Saints. More importantly, by beating the Falcons the Bucs remained very much alive in the NFC playoff hunt, which only added to the importance of their Week 14 visit from the Saints. The Bucs felt that extra motivation during their week of preparation.
"Well it did bring a little more excitement to everything we're doing [and] of course in practice," said Smith. "For our football team, it just gets more and more confidence each week as we continue to be a good team. You can tell guys that you're good but they're going on what they see, and now we're beating good football teams. We're playing better, guys are seeing what practicing hard during the week can do for you on the weekend. And to be relevant in December, that's all the motivation you need."
And if they happen to need just a bit more on Sunday they can draw it from a Buccaneer crowd that is starting to remember how it feels to be in a playoff race, too. The end of last weekend's win over the Falcons was as loud as Raymond James Stadium has been in some time.
WATCH: PEWTER PANEL FOR WEEK 14
"They weren't just good, they were outstanding last week," said Smith of the fans. "We need to do our part again, and that's doing something to get the fans fired up about what we're doing on the football field. That's what we plan on doing."
The Buccaneers take on the Saints on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.