The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Antonio Brown. While the legendary quarterback pairing of Tom Brady and Drew Brees gets top billing, the debut of new Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown makes the movie poster for this one, too. Brown, who hasn't played an NFL game since catching four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown from Tom Brady in Week Two of the 2019 season (when they were Patriots teammates for about two weeks), is expected to jump right into the action after just two full-speed practices as a Buccaneer. Head Coach Bruce Arians suggested that Brown could play anywhere between 10 and 35 offensive snaps, depending on how well things are going overall for the Bucs' offense. What the Buccaneers are not revealing, of course, is just how they will utilize Brown in their offense – what personnel groupings he'll be in and where he'll line up on the field – but in recent weeks the Bucs have ramped up their percentage of three and four-receiver sets. The Buccaneers may be planning to put Brown, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and, say, Scotty Miller on the field at the same time to see how the Saints' defense will sort out who are the biggest threats. When Brown was at the top of his game, as recently as 2018, he was a high-volume playmaker who runs precise routes and catches passes in every area of the field, with big-play ability once the ball is in his hands. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact Brown makes on the Bucs' offense in his first action.
DL William Gholston. Gholston didn't practice this week after choosing to isolate himself because he came in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. However, he announced that he himself does not have the virus (though he previously did catch it and then recovered before the season) and that he expects to play on Sunday night after rejoining the team. That would be a good outcome for the Buccaneers, who have relied on Gholston to be a big part of their top-ranked rush defense and also to provide more backfield pressure than he has in most of his previous seasons. In fact, Gholston ranks second on the team with 11 quarterback hits to go with his 2.0 sacks. The Bucs' powerful defensive front has already lost nose tackle Vita Vea for the season to a leg fracture and would surely be less stout without another one of their main interior run-stoppers. In the first meeting with the Saints in New Orleans in Week One, Gholston racked up seven stops and made two tackles for loss, one of them on dangerous running back Alvin Kamara. Through the first five games of the season, Gholston played between 44.4% and 58.7% of the team's defensive snaps as he was the down lineman most likely to come off the field when the Buccaneers went to a nickel package. However, his usage has gone up to 60.4% of the defensive snaps since Vea landed on injured reserve, including nearly 70% in the Week Seven win in Las Vegas. Even with the addition of former Jet Steve McLendon, that would be a lot of snaps for the Bucs' defense to make up if Gholston were unavailable, and McLendon has basically been splitting time at nose tackle with Rakeem Nunez-Roches
T Joe Haeg. Haeg has made two starts for the Buccaneers already this season, but both of those were as an eligible sixth offensive linemen in jumbo packages the last two weeks. On Sunday, Haeg will likely join the starting O-Line proper as he takes over at left guard for Ali Marpet, who is out due to a concussion. Those will be big shoes for Haeg to fill, as Marpet was one of the top performers on an offensive line that has been among the league's stingiest in giving up sacks. The Buccaneers do have a couple of other options they could turn to if need be – center Ryan Jensen could slide to guard with reserve A.Q. Shipley stepping in at the pivot, but Arians indicated that Haeg will get the call. Said Arians on Friday: "Joe Haeg has played a bunch of football and Joe will start in Ali's spot." Indeed, Haeg was one of the first players the Buccaneers targeted in unrestricted free agency in March (not the first, as that would be Tom Brady) and they liked both his 35 games of starting experience in Indianapolis and his history of playing multiple positions. Since Marpet has been out of action since the week began, Haeg has had the advantage of practicing all week with the starting line and getting in synch with Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith. As noted below, the Saints' defense ranks in the top 10 in sacks per pass play so Haeg's ability to replicate the level of blocking that Marpet usually provides could be critical in making sure Brady has time to throw.
CB Jamel Dean. There was a small shift in the Buccaneers' defensive lineup in Week Eight, and it appears to mean more snaps for Dean moving forward. In the first seven games, the Bucs utilized their top three corners the same way they did so effectively down the stretch in 2019, with Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting starting in the base defense, with Dean coming in to play one of the outside spots when Murphy-Bunting moved into the slot. Against the Giants, Dean started instead of Murphy-Bunting, who played only in the nickel and not in base. In a way, it's not an enormous switch, since the Buccaneers' defense is in the nickel more often than any other personnel grouping. Still, against the Giants Dean was on the field for all 74 snaps, as opposed to 38 for Murphy-Bunting. The switch, if it is maintained, gives Dean more opportunities to make plays, and since the start of 2019 only Davis and two other NFL players have had more than his 23 passes defensed. Dean is one of the Bucs' fastest players, so he can stick with opposing deep threats, but he's also quick with his hips and his feet and frequent extra film study has made him much better at diagnosing where a receiver is going to go after the snap. If Michael Thomas returns to action for the Saints on Sunday after missing six games, the Bucs may choose to shadow him with Davis, given how effectively Davis did that in Week One. That may leave Dean with the primary assignment of covering Emmanuel Sanders, who has played 63% of his snaps split out wide this year.
RB Ronald Jones II. For much of October, Jones dominated in the Bucs' backfield, posting three consecutive 100-yard rushing games against the Chargers, Bears and Packers. At that time, Leonard Fournette was recovering from an ankle sprain and only saw action on one snap in those three contests, that one a kneel-down to end a half. Since Fournette returned to action in Week Seven, the backfield has been very much of a time-share between those two, and the Bucs have on occasion ridden Fournette's hot hand. Fournette had 26 carries for 102 yards in those games, while Jones had 20 for 57. Ideally, the Buccaneers would like to see both backs have productive outings in the same game, which came closest to happening in the Las Vegas game in Week Seven. That could happen on Sunday night if Jones starts fast and gets back into the groove he was in in October. Jones had 66 yards on 17 carries against the Saints in Week One, and if he can duplicate that or better while Fournette is adding his own tally to the pile, it will make it a lot easier for Brady to crack the Saints' pass defense. Though Fournette has gotten more work lately, the Buccaneers know that Jones is having a strong season, with 529 rushing yards through the first half and an average of 4.5 yards per carry. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jones' 117 carries were expected to produce 437 yards but he gained 92 more than that, which is the fifth-most added yards of any back in the NFL this season.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 9 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 42%/23.1%. According to Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers' defense sent five or more pass-rushers at Drew Brees on 42% of his dropbacks in Week One, which is not a strategy many teams employ against the savvy veteran. No other team this season has blitzed Brees on more than 22% of his dropbacks in a game. The strategy was somewhat effective, as Brees was limited to six completions in 12 attempts for 40 yards on plays on which he was blitzed, though one of those completions was a touchdown.
· 60%. Expect to see Marshon Lattimore covering Mike Evans for much of the evening on Sunday. The two have done battle in six previous Bucs-Saints contests and in all six Lattimore has been the primary cover man on Evans for at least 60% of the receivers' routes. According to Next Gen Stats, Evans has been targeted on 18 passes while Lattimore was in coverage on him, producing nine catches for 197 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
· 3.24%/3.52%/9.59%/7.92%. Based on sacks-per-pass-play rates, this Sunday night's game will pit two of the top four offenses in terms of protecting the quarterback against two of the top seven defenses in terms of getting to the quarterback. The Buccaneers rank first in the NFL in that category on offense, which is the first of the four numbers above. The second number, the Saints' sacks-allowed-per-pass-play percentage is just a bit behind the Bucs and ranks fourth. The third and fourth numbers above are the Bucs' and Saints' sack rates on defense, respectively, and that ranks fourth and seventh in the NFL.
· 42/195/13/61. Since the arrival of Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles in 2019, the Bucs' defense has forced 42 turnovers and has scored 195 points off those takeaways. That's the fourth-most takeaways in the NFL in that span and the most points scored off turnovers by any team. On the other hand, the Saints have only turned it over 13 times in the same span, with those giveaways resulting in 61 points. Those are the lowest and second-lowest totals in the NFL, respectively. Something has to give.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Joe Haeg is expected to start at left guard for the Buccaneers after the usual starter at that spot, Ali Marpet, was ruled out on Friday due to a concussion. This marks the first game that any of Tampa Bay's five starting offensive lineman will miss in 2020. Haeg, who signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent, started 35 games over four seasons with the Colts, including action at right guard as a rookie in 2016.
· The Saints have a chance to get both of their starting receivers back after Michael Thomas missed the last six contests with ankle and hamstring injuries and Emmanuel Sanders spent the last two weeks on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Thomas was limited throughout the week of practice and was labeled as questionable on Friday's injury report. Sanders was taken off the reserve list on Wednesday and returned to practice.
· Buccaneers starting wide receiver Chris Godwin was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report but he practiced fully on Friday and was able to catch the ball despite his recovery from a fractured finger and subsequent surgery. Arians said he expected Godwin to play and that the issue was pain tolerance. Godwin missed half of the Bucs' first eight games due to that injury plus an early-season concussion and a hamstring strain.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
Among those to whom Brees will be distributing the ball on offense, the biggest concern for the Buccaneers will be running back Alvin Kamara. It becomes more of a 1A and 1B situation if Michael Thomas returns, but even with Thomas in the mix the Saints have more ways to sting the Buccaneers with their do-everything defense. Kamara not only leads the Saints in rushing but is on pace to set a new NFL record for receiving yards by a running back. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is the Saints' leader on defense and usually finishes the season with double-digit sacks, and veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins is being used to rush the passer frequently in his second stint with the team. Here are two other specific challenges, one on each side of the ball, the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Taysom Hill has been on the field for between 10 and 20 snaps in each game this season for the Saints, and that's usually not the profile of a player who is a defense's top concern. The problem is, Hill's presence on the field is often a sign that something creative and possibly unanticipated is about to happen. That was the case in Week One when Hill took a fourth-quarter backward pass from Brees and then uncorked his own throw downfield to a wide-open Kamara for 38 yards. Last week in win over the Bears, Hill had a big role, getting the ball in his hands on half of the 14 offensive snaps that he played. That included five runs for 35 yards, generally on direct snaps, and two catches for 30 yards and a touchdown. Four of those seven touches produced first downs. The Saints line Hill up just about everywhere on offense, which makes it difficult from snap to snap to decipher their intentions. In his career, he's logged 30 or more snaps at quarterback, as a running back in the backfield and lined up tight, wide and in the slot as a receiver or tight end.
Tampa Bay's blocking schemes will surely still pay a healthy amount of respect to Cameron Jordan's presence, but he's not the only edge rusher to worry about this season when facing New Orleans. First, 2017 third-round pick Trey Hendrickson has emerged as a legitimate pass-rushing threat, with a team-best 5.5 sacks through just seven games. That's just one fewer sack than Hendrickson had in his first three seasons combined. In addition, 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport, who at the time was viewed as a talented small-school pass-rusher who needed some refinement of his game, has recently returned from injury and has deepened the Saints' pass-rush rotation. Davenport has 1.5 sacks and five QB hits in the three games he's played since his return. The Saints eased Davenport into action with a combined 44 snaps in his first two games back but had him on the field for 45 defensive snaps against the Bears. With Davenport on the field over the past two years, the Saints' QB pressure rate on drop-backs is 30.7%, up significantly from the team's 24.8% rate without him.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On what the Buccaneers still need to improve on despite going 6-2 in the first half of the season:
"I think we need to improve in every area all the time. Our penalties are down [and] our turnover ratio is good, but we have to maintain those things. We can run the ball better at times and defensively, the same thing. Special teams have been solid, but there's room for improvement every week."