The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night for the second time this season, and for the second time the top storyline is the new man the Saints have running their offense.
New Orleans saw an era end in the offseason when Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Drew Brees retired after 15 incredible seasons with the team. The man who got the opportunity to replace him was former Buccaneer Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft. Winston, who prevailed in a preseason battle for the job with Taysom Hill, got off to a good start in his second chance at starting in the NFL, leading the Saints to a 5-2 start while compiling a 102.8 passer rating and a 14-3 TD-INT ratio.
Unfortunately for Winston and the Saints, his seventh start, coincidentally against his former team in Week Eight, ended early when he suffered a torn ACL while being tackled at the end of a scramble. Since then the Saints have actually changed starters at quarterback twice. Trevor Siemian, who gamely finished up that Week Eight win over the Buccaneers, got the next four starts, all New Orleans losses. Hill, who first had to recover from the concussion and a plantar fascia injury that combined to keep him out of four games, took over as the starter in Week 13. The Saints lost their fifth straight contest at Dallas in the first of those two starts but got a blowout road win over the Jets last Sunday. Hill's passing numbers in those two starts have been underwhelming but he has added a serious running threat to the Saints' offense. More on that below.
Also making a welcome return to the Saints' lineup just this past week is running back Alvin Kamara, one of the best dual-threat backs in the NFL for the past five seasons. A knee injury had kept New Orleans' best offensive player on the sideline for four games but he came back looking as good as new, with 145 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in last Sunday's win over the Jets. With high-volume wide receiver Michael Thomas out all season and no other Saints wideout catching more than 31 passes so far, Kamara is the clear focal point of the offense but that doesn't make him any easier to stop. The Saints put the ball in Kamara's hands on 31 plays last Sunday, or 60% of the time he was on the field.
Overall, the Saints' offense ranks 23rd in yards per game (319.4) and 16th in points per game (23.4), but with Kamara and Hill together in the starting lineup for the first time they hung 203 rushing yards and 30 points on the Jets in Week 14. Even with Andrus Peat on injured reserve and standout tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk both missing some games due to injury, the Saints line has continued to get the job done, with the team ranking 12th in sacks allowed per pass play (5.93%) and 14th in rushing yards per game (121.5). Having hard-to-tackle threats like Hill and Kamara have also made the Saints very tough to stop in the red zone, where they rank second in the NFL with a 66.67% touchdown percentage.
A rash of injuries plus a case of COVID-19 for defensive leader Cameron Jordan have caused a lot of shuffling up front for the Saints' defense, and that's reflected in the team's sack numbers. New Orleans ranked no lower than eighth in sacks per pass play on defense in each of the past four seasons but is currently 19th in that category at 6.92% in 2021. Still, there is star power at every level of that defense with Jordan and David Onyemata on the line, linebacker Demario Davis roaming the middle of the field and cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the secondary. The Saints rank 11th in yards allowed (339.5 per game) and 19th in points allowed (21.9 per game). One thing that hasn't changed for New Orleans in 2021 is that the defense remains very tough to run against, ranking first in yards allowed per carry (3.66) and sixth in yards allowed per game (95.0).
Davis, as usual, has filled up his stat line, leading the team with 88 tackles and adding 3.0 sacks, nine quarterback hits, 12 tackles for loss and five passes defensed. Four different players in the Saints' secondary have picked off two or more passes, including rookie third-rounder Paulson Adebo, who has responded well to being thrown instantly into the starting lineup, with two interceptions and four passes defensed.
Marcus Davenport, the 14th-overall pick in the 2018 draft and the player New Orleans hoped would have a breakout season after the free agency departure of Trey Hendrickson, leads the Saints with 5.5 sacks. Like Kamara, Davenport, Armstead and defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson all returned to the lineup just last week after missing multiple games due to injuries. The Saints, who have had some very difficult injury luck in 2021, are getting healthier as they face a crowded four-week battle for (likely) one of the last two Wild Card spots. Of course, New Orleans has also won six straight regular season games against the Buccaneers and will surely continue fighting for the division title as long as it is a possibility. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they get their prime-time rematch with the Saints on Sunday:
When the Buccaneers visited the Saints in Week Eight, we focused on the following four players as difference-makers in this section: linebacker Demario Davis, running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and wide receiver/kick returner Deonte Harris. We could easily choose three of those four again this week (Harris is serving an NFL suspension), but in the interest of variety we will look at four different Saints instead. Fortunately for this exercise, and unfortunately for Saints' opponents, it is easy to find four more difference-makers on New Orleans very talented, if injury-plagued, roster. That begins with the man who has been running the Saints' offense for the past two games. So, continue to keep your eye on Davis, Kamara and Lattimore but here are four more Saints who could help swing the game in their favor on Sunday night:
1. QB Taysom Hill
Hill is still working to establish himself as an elite NFL passer, but in the meantime he is already making a big difference with his legs. In just his last two starts, Hill has rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 7.9 yards every time he takes off on the run. The reason is as simple as it is confounding for opposing defense: The 6-2, 221-pound Hill is just hard to get to the ground. That's reflected in his 144 rushing yards over expected (RYOE) this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In addition to his tackle-breaking prowess, Hill has legitimate game-breaking speed in the open field. He has already reached a max speed of over 20 miles per hour twice this season and he's been over 19 miles per hour three more times. Since switching from Siemian to Hill under center, the Saints have amped up their designed rollouts from 3% of their plays to 14% and Hill has made 18% of his throws on the run. He's also averaging 7.1 scramble yards per dropback. As a passer, Hill does have a strong arm, but he currently has a 2-5 TD-INT ratio and a 60.1 passer rating. In a slightly higher sample size last season, Hill went 3-1 in four starts and had a 4-2 TD-INT ratio and a 98.8 passer rating.
2. DT David Onyemata
Onyemata has long been overshadowed by linemate Cameron Jordan (we'll get to him in moment) but the sixth-year pro is consistently one of the toughest Saints defenders to handle. Onyemata plays primarily on the inside and combines great length with explosiveness off the line and a lot of power. He can get after the passer but his length and strength making him particularly hard to beat in the running game, and he's one of the main reasons the Saints annually rank among the best run-defense teams. But Onyemata can also move out to the edge when the Saints go into a dime package, and he's done that a bit more in recent weeks as New Orleans has had to work around a number of injuries to their defensive ends. Onyemata has just a half-sack so far this season but he tallied 6.5 last year and added 16 quarterback hits.
3. RB Mark Ingram
Everyone was happy when Ingram returned to his first NFL home via an October 30 trade with the Houston Texans, from Saints fans to Alvin Kamara to Ingram himself. Ingram is the Saints' all-time leading rusher, with 6,240 yards and he's produced 233 yards and a touchdown on the ground plus another 130 yards on 18 catches in five games, averaging 5.0 yards per scrimmage touch. A first-round pick in 2011 who spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans, Ingram helped the Saints get through the last month without Kamara and now the duo can resume their very effective load-sharing in the backfield. Ingram did miss the Saints' game last weekend, which saw Kamara return to action, after landing on the COVID list, but he should be activated this week in time to play in Tampa. Like Hill, Ingram is simply difficult to tackle. He is best running between the tackles, which makes him a great complement to Kamara, who can and does run inside but is particularly dangerous outside the tackles and out in space on pass routes.
4. DE Cameron Jordan
There's not much we haven't already said about Jordan over several seasons of these Saints scouting reports. For instance, last year we noted that Jordan was already fifth on the Saints' all-time list for career Approximate Value (AV) as compiled by Pro Football Reference; since then he's moved up to fourth. AV is a catch-all and cumulative statistical measure, and if it accurately measures how much value a player has provide to his team only Drew Brees, Rickey Jackson and Jahri Evans have meant more to the franchise. Jordan has a well-honed array of pass-rush moves and a long wingspan, and he displays impressive stamina throughout a long game. Like Ingram, he was on the COVID list for last week's game, but in his case that constituted the first game he has ever missed since arriving as a first-round pick in 2011. His streak had reached 172 straight games, of which he had started 171 while amassing 98.5 career sacks and 197 quarterback hits. He has also broken up 54 passes and caused 12 fumbles in his career. So far this season, Jordan has 4.0 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, four passes defensed and one forced fumble. He hasn't had less than 7.5 sacks in any season since his rookie year and is likely to come back from his one week off with plenty of motivation to finish his 12th season strong.
The Saints always seem to have one of the NFL's best offensive lines, and with tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk returning from recent injury absences that unit should be strong down the stretch. Alvin Kamara also returned to action last week and Mark Ingram is expected back this week; with those two and Taysom Hill under center, the Saints should have a fearsome rushing attack. They have rushed for 256 yards as a team in Hill's two starts. The New Orleans defense is once again very stout against the run and it also ranks seventh in interception percentage (3.05%), with a total of 14 interceptions. Most of all, New Orleans has been absolutely dominant in the red zone on both sides of the ball. In terms of the percentage of red zone drives that result in touchdowns, the Saints rank second on offense (66.67%) and first on defense (43.59%). Here are some more specific ways in which the Saints have performed well in 2021:
· One of the keys to the Saints' success in the red zone is its per-play efficiency. The New Orleans offense has averaged 3.71 yards per play inside the opponent's 20-yard line, the best mark in the entire league in that category. The Saints are also tied for sixth in red zone touchdown passes with 19, which makes up 76% of their total of 25 passing TDs. In addition, the Saints' offense has converted 56.7% of its third-down attempts in the red zone, which is second best in the league and significantly better than their overall conversion rate of 38.0%.
· When the Saints defense gets its interceptions – and as noted above, that is frequently – they also make a lot out of them. New Orleans has averaged 19.8 yards per interception return and have already had seven returns of 20 or more yards. That's tied with Dallas for the most in the NFL and more than double league's per-team average of three. That's a big reason why the Saints are also tied for the NFL lead in drives that start inside the opponent's 20-yard line, with six.
· If the Saints have the ball near the end of either half on Sunday night, the Buccaneers' defense may have to take it up a notch to keep up. New Orleans has done an excellent job of tacking on scores in the last two minutes of the half in 2021, with a league-leading 80 such points. Much of that has come on 11 touchdowns after the two-minute warning, also the most in the NFL. The Saints' end-of-the-half scoring has been split almost perfectly down the middle, with 41 coming in the second quarter and 39 in the fourth quarter.
· One of the reasons the Saints have the NFL's sixth-best run defense is that they routinely take care of business on first downs. New Orleans has faced 184 rushing plays on first down this season and only 66 of those have been "successful" plays, that is, ones that gain at least four yards. That first down success rate allowed of 35.9% is the second lowest allowed in the NFL this season, behind only Washington.
Even with the dynamic Kamara on the field, the Saints are averaging just 5.15 yards per play and 3.87 yards per run, figures that rank 27th and 24th in the NFL, respectively. The Saints have some talented pass-rushers on defense but only rank 20th in sacks per pass play at 7.10%. New Orleans is second-to-last in field goal percentage (50.0%) without Wil Lutz but may have found a solution last week by replacing Aldrick Rosas with Brian Johnson. In addition:
· The Saints' defense was tough on the Jets' Zach Wilson last Sunday, holding him to 19-of-42 passing for 202 yards, but that unit has shown one weakness this season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Saints went into that Week 14 game as one of the worst defenses against quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds from snap to pass). New Orleans had allowed 7.9 yards per attempt on such throws, the most in the NFL. The team's 115.9 passer rating and 81.9% completion rate allowed on quick passes also ranked 32nd in the league.
· As good as the Saints have been at scoring shortly before time expires in both halves (see the Strengths section above), it has struggled equally as much getting going at the start of games. New Orleans has played 13 games, which means they've had 13 game-opening drives, and they have yet to score a touchdown on such possessions. In fact, those 13 drives have netted just two field goals and the Saints' opening-possession point total of six is the worst in the league. No other team has fewer than 13 points on such drives and the league average is 28.
· The departure of Trey Hendrickson in free agency and a round of injuries and COVID diagnoses that caught most of the defensive end room have surely been big contributing factors in the Saints' pressure rate falling steeply from last year. In 2020, the New Orleans defensive front created pressure on 33.3% of its non-blitz pass rushes. That was the third best mark in the league. Through the first 13 weeks of this season, the Saints had created pressure on 21.0% of their non-blitz pass rushes to rank 28th in that category.
· Saints pass-catchers have not generated a lot of YAC – yards after the catch – this season. As a team, the Saints have a YAC total of 1,296 in 2021, second lowest in the league and better only than Chicago, which overall has the least productive passing attack in the NFL. Yards after the catch have accounted for 47.9% of the Saints overall passing production, which ranks 21st in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2021
The Saints have a different kicker from the last time they faced the Bucs as Brian Johnson has since been replaced by Brett Maher. Johnson himself was a replacement for opening-day kicker Aldrick Rosas, who was brought in because long-time Saint Wil Lutz was dealing with a groin injury. Lutz has since had a setback and is out for the season. New Orleans traded for running back Mark Ingram just before the Bucs' Week Eight visit, bringing back a fan favorite to help lighten the load on Alvin Kamara. While the Saints' 2021 offseason was more about subtraction to deal with a salary cap overflow, the team did add pass-rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon and bring in some help for the secondary.
1. LB Pete Werner. The Saints made the former Ohio State standout their second pick in this year's draft and he has contributed quite a bit despite being in and out of the starting lineup. Werner has started seven of the 11 games in which he has appeared and has pitched in with 46 tackles, four tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.
2. CB Bradley Roby. While the 11th-hour signings of cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Desmond Trufant didn't work out, the Saints do still have Roby, who they acquired in a trade with Houston on September 9. The eighth-year veteran has played in 12 games with one start and has recorded one sack and one interception to go with his 20 tackles. Roby recorded 75 passes defensed and 10 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns) over seven seasons in Denver and Houston.
3. P Blake Gillikin. Technically the Saints brought in Gillikin, an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, in April of 2020. However, he spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve and only got his shot to replace long-time Saints punter Thomas Morstead this year. Gillikin has handled the job well, with a 48.6-yard gross average and a 42.1-yard net average.
1. DEs Tanoh Kpassagnon and Payton Turner. The Saints have had to deal with a string of injuries and COVID hits to their pass-rushing crew and currently have Kpassagnon and Turner, their 2021 first-round draft pick, on injured reserve. Turner, who suffered a shoulder injury in Week Nine, has been on the I.R. list since November 11 so he could return for Sunday's game, but he has not yet been designated to return to practice. Head Coach Sean Payton said the injury was not season-ending. Turner also missed the first Bucs-Saints contest with a calf injury. Kpassagnon is dealing with an ankle injury and was placed on injured reserve on December 2, so he will not be eligible to return this week.
2. WR/KR Deonte Harris. The NFL suspended Harris for three games after he was sentenced to probation after a DUI arrest. The suspension started last week and he will be out three Week 16.
3. G Andrus Peat. When the Buccaneers played in New Orleans in Week Eight, standout Saints guard Andrus Peat was just coming off a pectoral injury suffered in the team's previous game. He was eventually placed on injured reserve the day before the Bucs' visit after having surgery to repair the damage. It was feared at the time that the surgery would be season-ending and, indeed, Peat has not returned to action since.