The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff at the Louisiana Superdome. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tom Brady. Just because it's painfully obvious doesn't make it irrelevant. Reviews from the practice field and meeting rooms from Brady's teammates and coaches have been unfailingly glowing, and on Friday General Manager Jason Licht said the 43-year-old quarterback has even surprised with his arm strength. But Buccaneer fans want to see Tom Brady play like Tom Brady in a game, in a red and pewter uniform, and especially against a division opponent. The theme of Brady's own media session this week, as he applied it to most topics including the shape of the Bucs' offense with him under center, would be a process that remains in development for some time. That's surely true, particularly under this season's unusual circumstances, but any sort of productive attack that is not turnover prone will be an encouraging start, particularly in New Orleans against the Saints. And yes, of course, the fact that Drew Brees will also be there for a matchup of the two leading quarterbacks in NFL history puts Brady and his opposing passer even more at the center of attention.
Shaquil Barrett. The NFL's 2019 sack leader had 19.5 QB takedowns overall and at least one in 12 of his 16 games in his first season as a Buccaneer. Two of the four games in which he was shut out came against the Saints. New Orleans always has a strong offensive line, and Brees is a master of getting rid of the ball quickly, but Barrett was still not satisfied with his own performance in New Orleans in Week Five last year. Fans can surely forgive one goose egg after Barrett had piled up nine sacks in his first four weeks, but that game has left him determined to be more effective against the Saints this year. He doesn't have to wait long, drawing New Orleans in the Superdome in Week One. Barrett is another player who drew rave reviews during camp, with opposing blockers waxing on about his repertoire of moves and his "slippery" invasions into the backfield. Barrett is out to prove that his breakout season was the beginning of something big and not a fluke, and he'd like to get off to a hot start in Week One.
Scotty Miller. All of the Bucs' young receivers will be worthy of more attention on Sunday if a hamstring strain keeps Mike Evans out of the lineup, but Miller is poised to make an impact regardless. Both he and Justin Watson are likely to see action as the third receiver in the Bucs' "11" packages along with Evans and Chris Godwin, but Miller in particular is a deep threat who seems to have forged a quick connection with Brady. Miller may be small, by NFL standards, and quick but that doesn't mean he's a direct analog for such Patriots slot stars as Julian Edelman and Wes Welker. Rather, the Buccaneers like to use Miller on the outside quite a bit, with Godwin dominating in the slot, because the second-year receiver's top-end speed affects coverages even when the ball doesn't come his way. Miller could end up with all or most of the third-receiver snaps in Week One if Evans is indeed sidelined, because Watson is a more direct replacement in the offense for what Evans does. Miller had just 13 catches as a rookie, but he averaged 15.4 yards per grab and showed the ability to make big plays downfield on multiple occasions.
Devin White. COVID-19 restrictions on NFL traveling parties won't allow White to see as much of New Orleans as he would probably like to, but the former LSU star is sure to be thrilled to be playing in Louisiana anyway. He did not play in last year's game in the Superdome as he was still recovering from his Week Two knee injury. Big things are expected in 2020 from White, who was the fifth-overall pick in the 2019 draft and the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in both November and December. White was voted by his peers as a team captain in just his second season as his natural leadership skills have blossomed as he's become more and more comfortable on the field in Todd Bowles' defense. White has a rare skill set that the Buccaneers believe will make him a star defender who can do it all – hunt down ball-carriers, make plays in coverage and even rush the passer. White has set a goal for himself of five interceptions in 2020, though he said he'd be fine substituting in five sacks. Maybe he can do both – running mate Lavonte David did that in 2013 – in which case it won't take long for him to achieve that star status.
O.J. Howard. We could have chosen Rob Gronkowskihere to go with his old pal Tom Brady in their shared Buccaneer debut, but there's an interesting dynamic potentially in play here. Is it possible that the arrival of Gronkowski will actually push Howard's career to a new level, rather than diminish his opportunities? Howard spoke excitedly during training camp about how he could already tell what a matchup problem it was for defenses when he and Gronkowski were on the field together in "12" personnel. Because the Bucs have those two plus Cam Brate and stud blocker Antony Auclair, Head Coach Bruce Arians has mentioned that the Bucs might use those two-TE packages more than the 20% of snaps they did in 2019. Howard didn't have the breakout season many expected in 2019, but he steadily improved during the campaign as he got more familiar with Arians' offense, which asks a lot of its tight ends. Trade rumors, whether based in any reality or not, swirled around Howard last season and into the 2020 offseason, but the Buccaneers had no intention of getting rid of him after adding Gronkowski. Gronkowski may or may not return to his 1,000-yard form after a year off to get healthy, and he may or may not lead the Bucs' tight ends in targets. But there's a chance that Howard becomes the team's most productive tight end in 2020 and it will be interesting to see how he, Gronkowski and Brate are utilized in the opener.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· +28. That's the difference between the Buccaneers' turnover ratio (-13) and the Saints' turnover ratio (+15) in 2019, and that difference is probably the biggest single reason New Orleans swept the season series and finished six games ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings. Amazingly, the Saints only committed eight giveaways all of last year, which is an all-time single-season NFL record. The Buccaneers committed 41. Tampa Bay's defenders were actually pretty good at taking the ball away and even scoring last year, but couldn't do enough to overcome the offense's giveaways and the bad position into which it often put them in. In the two games between the Saints and Bucs, New Orleans won the turnover battle, 4-1.
· 107.6. That was Tom Brady's passer rating on deep passes in 2019, as defined and recorded by NFL Next Gen stats. He ranked seventh among all NFL quarterbacks in that category. It's certainly fair to question whether a quarterback's arm strength is waning as he enters his third decade of play, but that doesn't seem to be the case with Brady. As noted above, Jason Licht believes Brady's arm looks stronger this year in Buccaneers practices than what he saw on tape as he prepared for a run at signing the legendary passer in free agency. Brady and the 2019 Patriots did not air it out particularly often, but now he's playing within Arians' no risk-it, no biscuit offensive framework. Arians and Offensive Coordinator will definitely bend that offense to the strengths and likes of Brady, but when the quarterback is asked to throw deep he should have no problem hitting his targets.
· 11.6/3.0. That first number is Michael Thomas's yards per reception in 2019, which ranked 68th among all qualifying NFL pass-catchers. The second number, however, tells a much different story. That is the average number of yards for Thomas per route run. Even without an elite per-catch average, Thomas is the driving force in the Saints' offense, because he is the highest-volume receiver in NFL history. His single-season record 149 catches last year came on 185 targets, or 11.6 per game. That also led the NFL, and by a wide margin, as Atlanta's Julio Jones was next at 157. Arians noted on Thursday that essentially no opponent keeps Thomas in check; the Bucs need to limit the damage done by all the other Saints' skill-position players.
· 96/12. The Buccaneers' young defense led the NFL in 2019 with 96 passes defensed, seven more than second-place New England. The Bucs surged to the top of that list with 57 of those pass-breakups in the last eight games, which is a rather remarkable average of just over seven per outing. Carlton Davis was second in the NFL with 19 passes defensed and Jamel Dean was close behind with 17. That second number, however, is interceptions, a stat in which that same defense only tied for 17th in the NFL. One of the main focal points for Tampa Bay defenders in 2020 is to turn more of those break-ups into turnovers, and they certainly don't want to pass up any opportunities Brees may give them on Sunday, because there probably won't be many.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Two rookies are slated to start for the Buccaneers in their respective NFL debuts on Sunday. First-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs got the first crack at the right tackle job handled for most of the last decade by Demar Dotson and he did nothing to give up his spot. Second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. did not open training camp as a starter but after making plays on a daily basis in training camp he surpassed Mike Edwards to get the opening-day nod.
· The Saints drafted Michigan center/guard Cesar Ruiz in the first round in April and a few weeks later bid farewell to Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford. Ruiz was slated to take over for Warford as the starting right guard, and he is listed as such on the depth chart on the Saints' official website, but Ruiz missed practice this week due to an ankle injury and may not be ready to make his NFL debut by Sunday. The Saints list fifth-year pro Nick Easton behind Ruiz on their depth chart; Easton started six games for the Saints last year.
· Tampa Bay's primary injury concern during the week was with wide receiver Mike Evans, who did not take part in any practices due to a hamstring injury. Evans is considered a game-time decision, but if he can't play he would likely be replaced in the starting lineup by third-year man Justin Watson, with Scotty Miller working as the third receiver in "11" packages.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
The Saints will likely always have a productive offense as long as Brees is at the helm, though it has become more balanced and less dependent on downfield throws in recent years. New Orleans tied the Buccaneers for third with 458 points scored last year, and the top targets for Brees remain Thomas and Alvin Kamara. On defense, the Saints were only a few spots behind the top-ranked Bucs in yards allowed but also ranked 10th in yards allowed per pass play. Their secondary is led by young star cornerback Marshon Lattimore but it also welcomed back heady safety Malcolm Jenkins in the offseason. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
It took Jared Cook a little while to get going in his first season in the Saints' offense last year, but by season's end he was an important part of that attack and one of the league's most dangerous tight ends. Cook didn't hit 50 receiving yards in any of his first six games with the Saints, but after that he averaged 53.7 yards per outing and scored eight of his nine overall touchdowns. He found the end zone five times in the last quarter of the season alone. The former Titan, ram, Packer and Raider has had many productive NFL seasons, but his 16.4-yard per-catch average and nine touchdowns last year were both career highs for him. The Saints didn't have much in the way of a second receiver to pair with Thomas, but Cook gave Brees a viable third alternative after Thomas and Kamara. New Orleans has since added Emmanuel Sanders, which could eat a bit into Cook's targets but he is definitely a player the Bucs will have to keep an eye on Sunday.
The Saints have Lattimore in their secondary and All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis to anchor the middle of their defense, but their biggest star on defense remains defensive end Cameron Jordan. An All-Pro himself in 2017 and a five-time Pro Bowl selection, Jordan set a new career-high last year with 15.5 sacks, just four behind Barrett's league-leading 19.5. That gave him 40.5 sacks over the last three seasons, third among all NFL players behind Arizona's Chandler Jones and the L.A. Rams' Aaron Donald. Jordan is tall and long-limbed and he has a bevy of pass-rush moves, but he's also tough to handle because he rarely lets off the accelerator. His head coach, Sean Payton, has praised his stamina, which allows him to continue to make an impact for four full quarters. Oh, and Jordan also has 20 passes defensed over that same three-year span, second to Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap (23) among all players with at least 20 sacks in the same time period.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if he is more excited about opening day this season given the team's high expectations and how long it has been since its last football game:
"It's just been the most exciting day every year. Come out of that tunnel and to be able to do it – when you sit back and go do something else, you realize how much you miss it. It was really special last year coming out for that first one and it will be really exciting this year, too. Each year is so different, but opening day is opening day.
"I'm always excited about the next [season]. It's better than not being in coaching – that's for sure. I think this football team is a very close team – they have a lot of fun. It's going to be fun watching them play and hopefully we can play as well as we've been practicing."