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Michael Thomas is High-Volume Focal Point of Saints' Offense

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For the first time this season, Week 11 will feature nothing but intra-divisional play in the NFC South. While the 5-4 Carolina Panthers play host to the 2-7 Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte on Sunday, the 3-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be at home taking on the 7-2 New Orleans Saints. Depending upon how those two games play out, the Buccaneers' division could be a lot tighter or a lot more spread out by the end of the weekend.

The Buccaneers will be seeing the Saints for the second time this season, following a 31-24 Week Five loss in the Superdome, but they'll be facing old foe Drew Brees for the first time in 2019. Brees missed five starts with a thumb injury suffered in Week Two and Teddy Bridgewater was at the helm when the two teams met in October. Bridgewater threw four touchdown passes in the Saints victory and, in fact, was 5-0 as a starter. Strangely, the Saints are only 2-2 with Brees at the helm following last Sunday's surprise home loss to the Falcons.

That doesn't mean the Buccaneers believe they're getting a more favorable matchup this time around. They've faced Brees 27 times over the last 14 years and seen the Saints quarterback walk away with 17 wins. He's thrown 52 touchdown passes in those contests, averaging 282.9 passing yards per game. Tampa Bay's best hope for keeping Brees in check will be to put constant pressure on him, though that has historically been difficult given the Saints' long-standing ability to build strong offensive linemen in front of him, plus his own quick decision-making. That said, the New Orleans' line struggled last Sunday against Atlanta, allowing six sacks, and Brees had a rare game in which he finished with no touchdown passes.

The New Orleans' defense was arguably the bigger challenge for the Buccaneers in Week Five, in particular a front that is brimming with talented pass-rushers. Jameis Winston was sacked six times in that contest, and while he still threw two touchdown passes and had a 104.6 passer rating he was held to 204 yards, the vast majority of it going through Chris Godwin. That's the lowest passing yardage total of the season for Winston and the only game in the last seven in which he has not surpassed 300 yards. Mike Evans was held without a catch in an extremely rare occurrence and nobody other than Godwin had more than 27 receiving yards.

The Buccaneers will try to forge a season split with New Orleans for the fourth straight year. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities they will encounter when they get their rematch on Sunday:

SAINTS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

The Saints have a lot of contributors to an offense that is averaging 368.0 yards and 22.7 points per game in 2019, including one of the league's best dual-threat running backs in Alvin Kamara. Kamara missed some time around midseason due to injury but returned last week and caught eight passes in a game in which New Orleans struggled overall. The New Orleans defense is 10th in the league in sacks per pass attempt and are led by four-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan with 9.0 QB takedowns. We included Kamara and Jordan in our Difference-Makers section when the Bucs and Saints squared off in Week Five, and while they remain obvious choices for that distinction, here are four other Saints who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. WR Michael Thomas. Thomas is more important to his own team's passing offense than any receiver in the NFL, and he is nearly impossible to shut down significantly. Thomas has only been held to fewer than eight receptions for 89 yards once in nine games this season and his catches-per-target ratio is freakily high. For instance, the 14 balls thrown in Thomas's direction in last Sunday's game against the Falcons produced 13 catches for 152 yards. He runs routes from all over the formation and he runs them precisely, with quick cuts that are hard for a defender to match. He and Drew Brees are also on the same page when it comes to option routes, making it even more difficult for a cornerback to get between the two. Thomas has a league-high 1,027 receiving yards – 114.1 per game – and no other player on the Saints' offense has more than 326 receiving yards. The next wideout on the list is Ted Ginn, with 296 yards. Thomas's average of 11.9 yards per reception is not anywhere near the league leaders but he operates with such volume that his production is through the roof.

2. S Marcus Williams. Williams was part of that 2017 draft class in New Orleans that produced both the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year (Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore), not to mention an outstanding starting right tackle (Ryan Ramczyk). Williams hasn’t joined his draft-mates in the Pro Bowl yet but he's been very productive, particularly in pass coverage. He leads the Saints defense with three interceptions so far this season, which gives him nine in his first three campaigns. Since the start of the 2017, the only safety in the NFL with more interceptions than Williams is Tennessee's Kevin Byard. Williams is also tied for the team lead with 10 passes defensed, which is the most by any safety in the NFL through Week 10.

3. WR/KR Deonte Harris. The Saints signed Assumption's Harris, the NCAA's all-time leader in return touchdowns, believing the 5-6, 171-pound receiver could make big plays in the NFL, too. Eye-opening work in the preseason won him a spot on the active roster and both the punt and kickoff return jobs, and he has indeed been the author of some big plays. That includes a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown at Seattle in Week Three and a 46-yard kickoff return this past weekend against Atlanta. Harris almost made a difference in a negative way when the Bucs and Saints met in Week Five, losing a fumble on a punt return that led to a controversial call of no-clear-recovery when the Buccaneers challenged. He also muffed and recovered another punt. Despite some rocky early-season plays like that, Head Coach Sean Payton pointedly stuck with the rookie, believing his electric return skills couldn't be taught but his ball-security issues could be corrected. Harris had 128 return yards against Atlanta on Sunday and the Bucs will have to make sure he doesn't sting them with big plays.

4. DT David Onyemata. Onyemata had to sit out the Saints' opener due to a suspension and he was clearly missed in the rush defense, which gave up 180 yards to Houston. Two weeks later, that same defense faced Dallas and Onyemata's presence helped the Saints hold Dallas's Ezekiel Elliott to 35 yards on 18 carries. Onyemata also has pass-rush ability, as shown by his 4.5 sacks in just four starts last year for the Saints. Onyemata is starting now and has 2.0 sacks to go with 23 tackles and five quarterback hits. With Sheldon Rankins back from the Achilles injury that ended his 2018 season in the playoffs and Malcom Brown added in the offseason, the Saints have a very stout interior defensive line.

View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 10 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.

STRENGTHS

The Saints' offense clearly has some very dangerous weapons but in 2019 it ranks 16th in the NFL in scoring with 22.7 points per game and 14th in yards with 368.0 per game. As would be expected on a Drew Brees team, that offense is good at protecting the ball and avoiding drive-killing sacks, ranking in the top eight in both interception rate and sacks allowed per pass play. On defense, New Orleans is allowing the fifth-fewest overall yards per game (316.6) and is in the top 10 against both the run and the pass, not to mention third-down percentage and first downs allowed. Here are some more specific areas in which the Saints have done well through the first half of the 2019 season:

·    As noted above, the Saints are like the Buccaneers in that they have stout interior linemen who make it difficult to run the ball between the tackles. Overall, the Saints are 14th in the league with 4.15 yards allowed per carry, but those numbers go down in the inner lanes. Opposing teams have averaged 2.39 yards per tote up the middle, 2.38 over right guard and 3.97 over left guard.

·    For the second straight week, the Buccaneers will face a team that rarely turns the ball over. After forcing the first lost fumble by Arizona all season in Week 10, the Bucs' defense now draws a Saints offense that has committed a league-low six turnovers. That's one fumble lost (on just five balls put on the ground), three interceptions by Brees and three by Bridgewater. Those six turnovers have also only resulted in six points for the Saints' foes, tied for the lowest against any team.

·    The Saints' defense has been able to get off the field with a 33.0% third-down conversion rate allowed that is the fifth-lowest in the league. Because of that, their opponents have tended to have more short drives. Of the 96 possessions the Saints' defense has faced, 24 of them have been over in three plays or fewer. That's 25% of all the drives they've face, which is tied for the third-highest mark in the NFL.

·    The New Orleans offense has also been good on third downs, converting 43.1% of the time. One reason is that the Saints tend to do well on first downs, producing fewer long third-down situations. In fact, no team in the league gets four or more yards on first down more consistently than the Saints, who have done so 55.8% of the time.

WEAKNESSES

The Saints' defense has not taken the ball away often. Besides the three picks for Marcus Williams mentioned above, New Orleans has just one other, by Marcus Lattimore, and ranks 27th in the league in interception percentage. The Saints' offense has mostly middle-of-the-pack rankings but has only turned 48.48% of its red zone trips into touchdowns, which ranks 24th in the NFL. In addition:

·    The Saints may have a dynamic kick returner in Deonte Harris but their coverage units have also given up some big plays. New Orleans ranks last with an average of 29.9 yards per kickoff return allowed and 25th with an average of 8.8 yards allowed per punt return. Those results on kickoffs include a 102-yard touchdown return allowed.

·    One strength of the Buccaneers that could play well against the Saints is their impressive work in two-minute drills, especially in recent weeks. Tampa Bay has the most points scored in the final two minutes of either half while the Saints have the fourth-most points allowed in that situation.

·    When the Buccaneers and Saints first met in Week Five we noted in the scouting report that the New Orleans offense hadn't to that point had much success throwing the ball downfield. That remains true six weeks later, as the Saints have a passer rating of just 61.7 on balls thrown 21 or more yards downfield in the air. That ranks 25th in the league. They really haven't tried that often, either, throwing only 22 such passes, which is tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL.

·    The Saints' run defense has been quite good, allowing only 90.8 yards per game, tied for the fifth-lowest in the league. Some of that has to do with play selection, as teams have thrown on them 63.7% of the time, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. However, one area in which the Saints haven't produced is stopping runs behind the line of scrimmage. Only 10 of the 197 runs against them have resulted in negative yardage, or 5.2%, which ranks 39th in the league.

NEW FACES IN 2019

The Saints didn't have a first-round pick in this year's draft thanks to the trade up for Marcus Davenport the year before, but they still found an instant O-Line starter in the second round. After a 13-3 regular season that was very nearly followed by a trip to the Super Bowl, the Saints didn't need to make wholesale roster changes and were more of bargain shoppers in free agency. However, they did find three new contributors to the offense.

1. C Erik McCoy. As noted above, McCoy was an instant starter to open his rookie campaign, which has looked very promising so far. McCoy replaces veteran Max Unger, who retired back in March, and the Saints' line hadn't missed a beat until last week's stumble against the Falcons.

2. RB Latavius Murray. New Orleans had a one-two running back punch in 2017 and 2018 with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, but Ingram departed after last season in free agency to join the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints responded by signing former Raider and Viking Latavius Murray who had 1,320 rushing yards over two seasons in Minnesota. The Saints leaned on Murray when Kamara was recently out for two games and he responded with a pair of 100-yard rushing games and three touchdowns.

3. TE Jared Cook. Cook replaces Ben Watson, as the Saints have run through a number of options at tight end after trading Jimmy Graham away. Cook didn't produce much in the first six weeks of the season and then he, too, missed two games due to injury. In his return last week, Cook put up his biggest numbers yet with six catches on 10 targets for 74 yards.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. CB Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore left last Sunday's game with a hamstring injury suffered on a non-contact play, and it is often difficult to predict how much time a player with such an injury will be out but he is unlikely to be ready by this weekend's game in Tampa.

2. G Andrus Peat. The Saints' starting left guard left Sunday's game against Atlanta with an arm injury and did not return. If he can't play against the Buccaneers it will be the first start missed this season by any of the Saints' starting offensive linemen.

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