The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Chris Godwin. Godwin is coming off a career-high 12 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns, which came against a pass defense that had ranked fourth in the NFL coming into that weekend. This week's opponent, the Saints, rank 24th in the same category and have had particular troubles defending their opponents' "number two" receivers. Obviously, Godwin's production makes him more like a 1B to Mike Evans' 1A, but he could end up with a favorable matchup. Godwin's precise route-running has allowed him to get open with frequency and Jameis Winston is taking advantage, particularly on third downs. All 12 of Godwin's catches against the Rams resulted in first downs, which is a rare performance. Beyond all those sparkling numbers – he ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards and is tied for first (with Evans, among others) with four touchdown catches – he is a superb blocker who is making a noticeable impact even on plays on which he doesn't get the ball.
Devin White. White has missed two games and almost all of a third with a knee injury suffered in Week Two, but he received no game-status designation (questionable, etc.) on Friday's injury report so he should be making his return on Sunday. Veteran Kevin Minter has filled in quite well in White's absence, but the rookie 'backer, taken fifth overall in this year's draft, is likely to step right back into the starting lineup next to Lavonte David. David reminded everyone of what a big play-maker he is in Week Four with a critical interception of Jared Goff that set up a touchdown. The Buccaneers think they have another player of that ilk in White, who has the speed, range and instincts to make plays all over the field. White has yet to have his first "wow" moment in the NFL, but it probably won't take much longer to get there. If both offenses are clicking in the Superdome on Sunday, as they were a year ago in the Bucs' amazing 48-40 shootout win, it might just be a single big play on defense that proves to be the difference, and perhaps it will be White who provides it.
Jordan Whitehead. The second-year safety snared his first career interception last Sunday against the Rams, reacting to a floater of a pass that was caused by a Shaq Barrett hit on Goff. That was one of three passes defensed on the day for Whitehead, who leads all Buc players in that category with four. The other two came on blitzes as he timed his leap well to tip two balls right after they left Goff's hand. Whitehead's successful blitzes highlighted how Todd Bowles uses him all over the field, as he has also been a key part of the Bucs' run support, and of containing opposing quarterbacks when they try to scramble. Whitehead has been an impact player this year close to the line of scrimmage, and he could factor into the team's group effort to slow down WR Michael Thomas, perhaps the most high-volume pass-catcher the Buccaneers will face this season.
Ali Marpet. The Buccaneers had a plan last weekend to slow down Aaron Donald, the Rams' two-time defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and it worked. Some of that involved double-team blocks and running backs who were hyper-aware of where Donald was at all times, but on other occasions Donald was simply held in check with perfect blocks by Marpet, the left guard. Marpet was part of an effort that kept Winston mostly clean throughout Sunday's shootout, allowing two sacks on very long-developing plays but only one other quarterback hit. In addition, Marpet has excelled this season at run-blocking, and Tampa Bay has been effective running up the middle, which is Head Coach Bruce Arians' preference. According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers are gaining 4.99 yards per carry behind the three interior linemen, which ranks sixth in the NFL.
Shaquil Barrett. Until and unless his incredible run slows down, we have to continue to include Barrett in this part of the countdown every week. He's already tied the NFL records for most sacks through three and four games, and he is in position to set a new standard for five games. Plus, last week he added a nifty tipped-pass interception to his repertoire and saved his biggest moment for when the Bucs most needed at the end, spinning past the Rams right tackle for a strip-sack that turned into seven points. The question now is whether upcoming opponents, starting with the Saints, will start to do what the Rams did not, and that is treat Barrett as the Bucs' pass-rusher most in need of a double-team. The Saints have a very good offensive line, anchored on the edges by one of the league's best pairs of tackles in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, so it won't be easy for Barrett to get to Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday, but not much has slowed him down yet.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 47.06%/66.7%. The first number is the Buccaneers' touchdown efficiency in the red zone on offense so far this year. It's not a great number – teams aim to be over 60% and the Bucs rate ranks 24th in the league – but it's a significant improvement from just a week ago, when Tampa Bay was second-to-last in that category. That's because the Bucs scored five touchdowns in their six red-zone trips in L.A., which is a big reason why they set a new team single-game scoring record with 55 points. Think that will be important again this week against the Saints? Scroll down to Bruce Arians' quote at the bottom of this page. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense is tied for 24th in preventing red zone touchdowns, as that second number above indicates.
· 13-184-1. You may have seen the stat going around this week about Jameis Winston being the league's best passer when facing a blitz this season, with stats that include a perfect 158.3 passer rating and a 6-0 TD-INT ratio. The numbers above are a complementary note, as they describe Chris Godwin's receiving numbers – catches-yards-TDs – on passes thrown against a blitz. That's on 13 targets, so every time Winston has looked to Godwin when needing to beat a blitz, it has worked.
· 44.8/90.9/13.0. The first number is the Saints' net punting average, which ranks third in the NFL thanks to the good work of veteran punter Thomas Morstead. Morstead was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September. The second number is the Saints' field goal percentage, as Wil Lutz has made 10 of 11 tries so far, with his only miss coming from _. The Saints are tied for sixth in that category. And the third number is the Saints' sixth-ranked punt return average, thanks to the good work of rookie wideout Deonte Harris, who already has a 53-yard touchdown return on his NFL ledger. The Bucs are facing a very good special teams crew this Sunday and will need to hold their own in that phase of the game.
· 113.4/105.9. Those are Teddy Bridgewater's passer ratings on balls thrown to the left and right sides, respectively, between the hashmarks and the numbers. He has been much more effective in these areas, where he's notched both of his touchdown throws and completed 72.7% of his passes. He has also been good over the middle (between the hashmarks), with a rating of 95.4 on 21 passes in that area. The Buccaneers' defense should probably be more concerned with the middle of the field than the sidelines (between the numbers and the sideline), as Bridgewater's rating on throws to those areas are 67.0 to the left and 53.9 to the right.
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for their matchup against the Saints.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Buccaneers WR Breshad Perriman will not play on Sunday due to a hamstring injury. He was generally the third receiver in when the Bucs went to "11" personnel, which is quite often. Arians said on Friday that young receivers Bobo Wilson and Scotty Miller would split the work that usually goes to Perriman.
· The Saints just got Sheldon Rankins back last week, making an already imposing defensive front even stronger. Rankins suffered an Achilles tendon tear in the playoffs last year and the Saints took a cautious approach to his return, holding him out of the first three games of this year. He returned last Sunday to play 65.5% of the Saints' defensive snaps, logging two tackles and a quarterback hit as New Orleans held Dallas to 10 total points.
· CB Ryan Smith was activated from the exempt list on Saturday and could make his return to action on Sunday after serving a suspension for the first four games of the season. Smith may not factor in the Bucs' defense right away, but he has been one of the team's better special teams players the past two seasons.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
One week after playing the team that represented the NFC in last year's Super Bowl, the Bucs take on the team they beat to get there, and only barely with the help of one of the most controversial no-calls in league history. The Saints came within four points of the big game and obviously did not need much of a roster overhaul. The Buccaneers already have experience facing most of the players who will provide the biggest challenges on Sunday in the Superdome, though the change in quarterback from an injured Drew Brees to Teddy Bridgewater is obviously an enormous difference in this particular Bucs-Saints meeting.
The most certain thing in the Saints' offense, no matter who is under center, is that they are going to get the ball to Michael Thomas. He led the NFL in 2018 with 125 catches, which came on "only" 147 targets. Thomas's receptions/target rate of 85.0% was easily the highest in the NFL among wide receivers; only two others were even above 80%. Thomas does some good work out of the slot and the Saints find ways to get him matched up on linebackers, which rarely works out for the defense. But Thomas is also a force on the sidelines and he doesn't need much separation to haul in passes, especially when thrown to his back shoulder. An excellent route-runner, Thomas torches man defenses with option routes but also is very good at finding the holes in zone coverage. Thomas already has 42 targets and 34 receptions this year; no other wideout on the team has more than 17 and 12.
We noted the return of Sheldon Rankins above. He mixes in with Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Trey Hendrickson (potentially injured this week), Malcom Brown and David Onyemata to give the Saints a destructive front. Tampa Bay's offensive line is coming off a fantastic outing in the win over the Rams but will have their hands full with this crew and might have trouble deciding who to double-team. Jordan is the obvious choice, as he has 27 sacks over his last 36 games, but Rankins' presence (he had 8.0 sacks last year) and the quiet emergence of Onyemata makes that a riskier approach. Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are capable of putting up big numbers against any secondary, but that becomes much harder if the Saints' talented big men are cutting down on the time Winston has to operate.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the Bucs' offense scoring touchdowns on the game's opening drives two weeks in a row, and how important a similarly fast start will be in the Superdome:
"Yeah, that's always huge. Get up first to get the crowd down. But yeah, I think as a play caller, that's one of the things you take pride in, and Byron [Leftwich] has done a heck of a job with that drive the last couple weeks and Jameis has been spot on. So, getting off to a fast start – touchdowns will be premiums in this game because field goals aren't going to get it done."