The final outcome may not be clear for a while, but the action this week could determine who is in charge at the end of the year.
And we're not talking about the election.
The 5-2 New Orleans Saints visit the 6-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and although its only Week Nine of a 17-week (hopefully) season, the showdown looks like it will be critical in what may be a fierce race to the NFC South championship. It is exactly what the NFL schedule-makers were looking for when they put this game on the prime-time Sunday Night Football national stage.
If the Buccaneers win they will have a 1.5-game lead in the division and will have rendered the Saints' Week One victory moot in the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Saints win, they will not only have a half-game lead in the division but they will own the two-game head-to-head tiebreaking hammer. Either losing team will have its work cut out for it in overcoming those deficits.
In addition, after the Bucs and Saints wrap up their season series on Sunday they will each have three division games remaining, with each scheduled to play the Falcons twice and the Panthers one more time. Tampa Bay and New Orleans also have common remaining opponents in Kansas City and Minnesota.
Of course, those aforementioned schedule-makers also knew that, even if first place in the division wasn't on the line in Week Nine they would still have the marquee matchup of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. That intersection of Hall-of-Fame locks went in favor of Brees and the Saints in Week One, with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut. Brees had the better stat line as well as the in by the end of that game, but Brady has since grown increasingly comfortable in the Buccaneers' offense and comes in with a red-hot right arm, having tossed 17 touchdown passes and just one interception in his last six games.
It's also not often that a game could feature the breaking of the NFL's all-time record for career touchdown passes…more than once. Brees began the season with that record but Brady erased the six-TD gap at the beginning and took over the top spot during the Bucs' Week Seven win in Las Vegas. Brees briefly snatched it back last weekend before Brady's two scores on Monday night against the Giants reversed the order again. As the two set to share the field again, Brady has a one-touchdown lead, 561-560.
The Buccaneers have won six of seven since their opening loss in the Superdome, including the last three in a row. The Saints actually bring a longer winning streak into Sunday night, having won their last four following a two-game dip in September. Both teams are coming off very narrow road wins in inter-division contests. The Saints had to go to overtime to beat the Chicago Bears, 26-23, on Sunday afternoon while the Buccaneers had to break up a two-point conversion attempt to preserve a 25-23 decision over the Giants.
Though Brady and Brees will get top billing on Sunday night, the potentially more important issue for each team is which of their skill-position weapons they'll have around them. Brees could get his top target back after a six-game absence if wide receiver Michael Thomas returns to action from his hamstring injury; Thomas averaged 117.5 catches, 1,378 yards and eight touchdowns over his first four NFL seasons. The Saints' number-two receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, also has a good chance of coming off the reserve/COVID-19 list and returning to action as well. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are expecting to get the newly-signed Antonio Brown on the field for the first time; Brown averaged 114.3 catches, 1,524.2 yards and 11.2 touchdowns from 2013-18. Brady also has the advantage of a Mike Evans who is close to full recovery from his Week Four ankle injury and the possibility of Chris Godwin returning after missing last week with a fractured finger.
All of this will play out on the grass at Raymond James Stadium, as the Buccaneers return home after a successful two-game road swing to Las Vegas and New Jersey. Tampa Bay is undefeated so far on their home field, and this is the first time since 2008 that the team has won each of its first three games at Raymond James Stadium. Protecting that home field advantage, even in a season in which the pandemic has made big and raucous crowds impossible, is important to the franchise's hopes of returning to the postseason. Meanwhile, the Saints will be trying to remind their NFC South foes that division supremacy remains theirs, after three straight South titles, until someone takes it away.
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
New Orleans Saints (5-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2)
Sunday, November 8, 8:20 p.m. ET
Raymond James Stadium (capacity: 65,618…roughly 25% capacity will be in attendance)
Television: NBC (Local WFLA Channel 8)
TV Broadcast Team: Al Michaels (play-by-play), Cris Collinsworth (analyst), Michelle Tafoya (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
The Buccaneers and Saints were frequent opponents in the '70s, '80s and '90s when the NFL's annual game schedule was heavily influenced by the previous year's standings. The Bucs and Saints became even more acquainted when the league changed its scheduling format to a divisional rotation in 2002, when a 32nd team was added and the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions. The Buccaneers left their old NFC Central haunt that year to join the new NFC South, which also drew in the Saints, Panthers and Falcons. That meant two games against the Saints every year, of course. The Bucs and Saints had split that season series for four straight years until New Orleans took control with a sweep last year.
Overall, the Saints hold a 36-21 edge in the all-time series, which was first contested in 1977. That initial meeting is famously the first win in franchise history for the Buccaneers, who left New Orleans on December 11 of that year with a 33-14 victory that snapped a franchise-opening 26-game losing streak. The Bucs still had a 3-2 edge in the series by the end of 1982, which would also prove to be the end of the franchise's first run of playoff seasons. The Saints took control of the series by winning six straight in the mid-'80s.
Since they became division mates, the Bucs and Saints have squared off 37 times, 23 of them going in favor of New Orleans. The two teams had a run of season splits from 2015-18, and it wasn't just a matter of the each club holding serve on home field advantage. The Buccaneers actually won at New Orleans in 2015 and 2018.
Weirdly, the Saints beat Tampa Bay twice in that first NFC South season in 2002, even though the Buccaneers would win the 2002 division title on their way to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. Those two games represented half of the Bucs' losses that year. In a minor bit of payback, a 2-12 Bucs team beat a 13-1 Saints team in the penultimate week of the 2009 season, before the Saints would go on to win their first Super Bowl.
The Saints won both games last year by a combined scoring margin of 65-41. The first game in New Orleans, a 31-24 final, appears closer than the 34-17 rematch in Tampa, but Chris Godwin scored a touchdown to make it a one-score with just 13 seconds left in regulation. The Buccaneers and Saints opened the 2018 season together in the Superdome with a wild 48-40 shootout won by the visitors in the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history. However, since the Saints won the rematch in Tampa that season plus another opening-day matchup in New Orleans this year, they actually are riding a current four-game winning streak in the series.
· Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians got his first NFL coaching job in Kansas City from 1989-92 but then returned to the college ranks in 1993. His second crack at the NFL would come in New Orleans, where he was the tight ends coach under Head Coach Jim Mora in 1996.
· Jameis Winston, in his first season with the Saints as a backup to quarterback Drew Brees, spent his first five seasons with the Buccaneers after being selected first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston left Tampa with the franchise's career records for pass attempts (2,548), completions (1,563), passing yards (19,737) and touchdown passes (121). He also set Buccaneers single-season records in all four of those categories in 2019, completing 380 of 626 pass attempts for 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns.
· New Saints LB Kwon Alexander, acquired on Monday via a trade with the 49ers, played his first four seasons in Tampa. A fourth-round draft pick in 2015, Alexander jumped immediately into the starting lineup as a rookie at middle linebacker and was a Pro Bowler by his third campaign. Alexander signed with San Francisco in free agency in 2019.
· Tampa Bay QB Ryan Griffin spent his first two seasons (2013-14) in New Orleans after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane. He went back to training camp with the Saints in 2015 but ended up in Tampa on a waiver claim.
· The Bucs came close to losing TE Cameron Brate to the Saints in 2015. Brate had been released from Tampa Bay's practice squad on September 15 so the Bucs could add depth to a banged-up linebacker squad, but before they could bring Brate back he signed with New Orleans. Brate was actually on the Saints' sideline when the Buccaneers played in New Orleans the following weekend, but he didn't say in Louisiana long because Tampa Bay hastily re-signed him to their active roster.
· Saints DE Noah Spence, who is on the team's reserve/non-football injury list due to a torn ACL suffered in the offseason, was a second-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2016. Spence played in 34 games over three seasons in Tampa and recorded 6.5 sacks.
· New Orleans S D.J. Swearinger had a stop in Tampa in 2015. The Buccaneers claimed Swearinger off waivers from Houston in May of 2015 and he played in seven games for the team before being waived again in November.
· Fred McAfee, the Saints' Director of Player Engagement, played 16 years in the NFL as a running back and that included a very brief stop with the Buccaneers in 1999. McAfee appeared in one game for Tampa Bay that season.
· DE Will Clarke is currently on the Saints' practice squad. He most recently played in the NFL with Tampa Bay, seeing action in 18 games over the 2017-18 seasons.
· Saints Assistant Special Teams Coach Phil Galiano held the same post in Tampa under Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012-13.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
· Tampa Bay:
· Head Coach Bruce Arians
· Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
· Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
· Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
· Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
· New Orleans:
· Head Coach Sean Payton
· Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael
· Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen
· Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi
· Assistant Head Coach/Tight Ends Dan Campbell
KEY 2020 ROSTER ADDITIONS
· QB Tom Brady (UFA)
· RB Leonard Fournette (FA)
· TE Rob Gronkowski (T-NE)
· T Joe Haeg (UFA)
· WR Tyler Johnson (5th-round draft pick)
· RB LeSean McCoy (FA)
· DT Steve McLendon (T-NYJ)
· C A.Q. Shipley (FA)
· K Ryan Succop (FA)
· RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3rd-round draft pick)
· S Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd-round draft pick)
· T Tristan Wirfs (1st-round draft pick)
· LB Kwon Alexander (T-SF)
· LB Zack Baun (3rd-round draft pick)
· FB Michael Burton (UFA)
· T James Hurst (FA)
· S Malcolm Jenkins (UFA)
· RB Ty Montgomery (FA – currently on injured reserve)
· C Cesar Ruiz (1st-round draft pick)
· WR Emmanuel Sanders (UFA – currently on reserve/COVID-19 list)
· TE Adam Trautman (3rd-round draft pick)
· QB Jameis Winston (UFA)
ADDITIONAL 2020 CHANGES OF NOTE
· Though it is noted in the "Roster Additions" section above, it's worth further elaborating on the extremely dramatic change the Buccaneers made at the game's most important position. After five seasons, the team moved on from Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and filled the starting quarterback spot with the man many consider the G.O.A.T., former Patriot Tom Brady. Brady brings 20 years of experience and six Super Bowl championship rings to Tampa in one of the most notable free agent signings in NFL history. Brady's move to the Buccaneers also prompted former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and he was promptly traded to Tampa Bay for a fourth-round draft pick.
· Tampa Bay debuted new uniforms in Week One in New Orleans. The uniforms are largely inspired by the ones the team wore during its Super Bowl era and overall from 1997 through 2013. Some elements of the uniforms introduced in 2014 remain, such as the sharper, more detailed skull-and-crossed-swords logo and the larger flag on the helmet (though not as large as before). The uniforms debuting in 2020 also include an all-pewter version that is completely unique in team and NFL history and was worn for the first time in Denver in Week Three.
· The Buccaneers have two new additions to their coaching staff in 2020: Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Keith Tandy and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach Cory Bichey. Tandy worked at the high school and college levels in 2019, the latter at his alma mater of West Virginia, but he begins his NFL coaching career with the same team that drafted him in 2012. Tandy spent six seasons in Tampa as a safety and special teams standout before finishing his playing career in Atlanta in 2018. Bichey comes to the Buccaneers from Mississippi State University, where he previously worked under current Buccaneers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli.
· The Buccaneers used their franchise tag during the 2020 offseason for the first time in eight years. That tag was employed to retain outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who went from a rotational reserve in Denver to the NFL's 2019 sack leader after signing with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. Barrett's 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers broke Warren Sapp's single-season franchise record and made him one of the team's top priorities in the offseason. Barrett and the Bucs were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the 2020 offseason, in part due to the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so Barrett will play on the tag's one-year contract this fall.
· The Buccaneers lost one of their key defensive players in Week Five when third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a broken leg and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Vea recorded 2.0 sacks through the first five games and was a key member of the team's league-leading run defense.
· Mike Nolan, who served as the Saints' linebackers coach for the past three seasons, left in the offseason to take the offensive coordinator job in Dallas. To fill Nolan's spot, the Saints promoted Michael Hodges, who had been promoted from defensive assistant to assistant linebackers coach in 2019. New Orleans also added Cory Robinson as a defensive assistant; Robinson had previously served a training camp internship with the Saints in 2019.
· Though their starter remains the same, the Saints also made several headlines at the quarterback position in the offseason. After Teddy Bridgewater signed with Carolina to replace Cam Newton as the Panthers' starter, the Saints signed Winston to a one-year deal. Winston will have a chance to be the primary backup to Drew Brees, as Bridgewater was last year, but New Orleans is likely to continue to keep three quarterbacks active on game days. That's because the third one, Taysom Hill, is really a Swiss Army knife of an offensive weapon who has lined up at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver. Perhaps portending an even larger role in the offense in 2020 for Hill, the Saints re-signed him in the offseason to a lucrative two-year contract extension. Brees also signed a new two-year contract in March, though that has become a relatively routine transaction in New Orleans.
· The Saints surprised some pundits in May when they released starting right guard Larry Warford, who was coming off his third straight Pro Bowl campaign. However, the team had used a first-round pick on Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, who could step right in at Warford's spot. If he does, the Saints' excellent offensive line would be comprised completely of players the team has drafted in the first three rounds since 2013, including first-rounders Ruiz, center Erik McCoy and left guard Andrus Peat.
· The Saints went back to the future in their secondary. With starting safety Vonn Bell leaving for Cincinnati via free agency, the team re-signed Malcolm Jenkins, who left the Philadelphia Eagles after six seasons and three Pro Bowls. Jenkins returns to his first NFL home, as he started for the Saints for most of his first five seasons (2009-13). The Saints also saw cornerback Eli Apple, who started 15 games last year after coming over from the Giants in a 2018 midseason trade, leave for the Panthers. Apple could be replaced in the starting lineup by another Jenkins and another former Giant, as Janoris Jenkins arrived as a waiver claim in mid-December of last year.
· Drew Brees has been without his top receiver for most of the season. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, who averaged 117.5 receptions per season during his first four years in the NFL, has not played since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener against Tampa Bay. In addition to the ankle injury, Thomas has been sidelined by a team suspension and a hamstring injury. He has three receptions for 17 yards in 2020.
Division Supremacy at Stake – As noted above, the difference in the Bucs' place in the NFC South standings will swing dramatically based on the results of Sunday's game. A win would give them a 1.5-game lead over the Saints with seven to go (eight for the Saints), and with the two teams facing a very similar schedule the rest of the way. A loss would put the Saints back in the lead by a half-game and would mean the Buccaneers would need to win the division outright since that two-game head-to-head tiebreaker would rule if the two teams end up tied. The Buccaneers have won six of seven since losing to New Orleans in Week One, with only a one-point loss at Chicago as a blemish, but they can't really claim control of their own division until they vanquish the Saints. New Orleans has won four straight games in the head-to-head series and also owns each of the last three division titles. With the Falcons and Panthers both under .500 at the midway point, this looks to be shaping up as a two-team race, and the winner on Sunday night will have pole position. New Orleans also has a 5-1 record against NFC opponents, including one over the same Bears who defeated Tampa Bay in Week Five. Tampa Bay is 3-2 in NFC games, having swept their first three AFC West foes for the rest of their victories. There will still be a very long way to go in the NFC South chase after Sunday night's game no matter who wins, but when the race is over this one may prove to be the key in hindsight.
Brady vs. Brees, Part 2 – The potential hot-potato routine with the all-time TD pass lead is entertaining but this would be a big deal even without that note. We already had Part 1, of course, and it went in Brees's favor in Week One, although neither passer had his best day. Both threw for two touchdowns but Brady was also picked off twice – the only game this year in which that has happened – and one was returned for a touchdown. Brees did not throw an interception but his 160 yards and his 60.0% completion rate were well below his usual standards. In Brady's case, it was apparent that the Buccaneers' offense had a ways to go and was going to be a work in progress as it tried to integrate a new quarterback who didn't get the benefit of any preseason action. Since, that progression has been evident and Brady has become much more efficient while also showing off great touch on deep balls. Brees is not throwing it deep often but is getting good results, with a 106.5 passer rating that is a tick ahead of Brady's 103.1. Both quarterbacks have benefitted from outstanding protection, with Brady taking 10 sacks in eight games and Brees nine in seven games. The 43-year-old Brady and the 41-year-old Brees are blazing new NFL trails as they continue to perform among the NFL's best quarterbacks, which makes the bigger question of how long each intends to keep playing more relevant by the day. Having both Brady and Brees on the NFL's biggest prime-time stage is a one of the biggest storylines of the week across the entire NFL.
Seeing Red – The Bucs are riding one of the most remarkable streaks on offense in the NFL, as they have now scored touchdowns on all 22 possessions on which they've reached a first-and-goal. That's the most successful goal-to-go drives to start a season for any team since the information was tracked in 2000. Those drives, obviously, are a subset of the Bucs' overall work in the red zone, which has also been exemplary. The Buccaneers are first in the NFL in red zone scoring percentage as the only team that is still perfect in that regard, with 24 touchdowns and seven field goals on 31 drives. Tampa Bay's touchdown percentage in the red zone, 77.4%, is third-best in the NFL. This is an area that could lean heavily in the Bucs' favor on Sunday night. While New Orleans' defense ranks in the top 10 in a number of categories – including yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, yards allowed per carry and sack rate – the team's red zone defense has been extremely porous. In fact, New Orleans ranks last in the entire NFL in touchdown percentage allowed, at 83.3%. That's 20 touchdowns allowed on 24 possessions, with three of the other four resulting in field goals.
Still in the Spotlight – The Buccaneers waited four seasons to get back into the Sunday Night Football spotlight…and then waited two more weeks beyond what was originally scheduled. Thanks in large part to the arrival of Tom Brady, the Bucs were blessed by the NFL's schedule-makers with five prime-time nationally televised games, the most they've ever had on a single season's schedule. However, their scheduled Sunday Night Football Game in Las Vegas got rescheduled to a late-afternoon kickoff due to the Raiders' COVID-19 concerns that week. So Sunday's game against the division rival Saints is Tampa Bay's first SNF game since a December contest at Dallas in 2016. It is the first time the Sunday Night Football crew has come to Tampa in a dozen years, with the last one a 20-10 win over Seattle on October 19 of 2008. Having split their first two prime-time games with a Thursday night loss at Chicago and last Monday's squeaker of the win over the Giants, the Bucs have two more chances to show their talents to a nationally audience before the postseason. In addition to this week's big divisional showdown, the Buccaneers will also have a home game against the Rams on Monday night two weeks later.
Returning Receivers – The last time the Buccaneers and Saints met, in Week One, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans was running on a balky hamstring and wide receiver Chris Godwin had a concussion by the time the game was over. Evans hasn't missed any games this year but he's had to play through that injury and a Week Four ankle sprain that is just now being put behind him. Godwin missed one game with that concussion, two more with a hamstring injury and is now a question mark for a second straight week with a finger fracture. Bruce Arians said the Buccaneers won't have Godwin try to catch a football until Friday, so there's clearly no guarantee he'll suit up on Friday night. However, Antonio Brown will be in uniform for the Bucs for the first time and Arians suggested he would play between 10 and 35 snaps. While Godwin missed one game due to an injury from the opener, Saints star wideout Michael Thomas hasn't played since. After being held to 17 yards on three catches in that game, Thomas was sidelined by an ankle injury and then later developed a hamstring ailment. His return to the lineup would be a huge boost to a passing attack that has run primarily through running back Alvin Kamara. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was supposed to be the best complement to Thomas in years, has been out the last two weeks recovering from COVID-19 but will probably return this week against Tampa Bay. The Thomas and Godwin developments, in particular, are critical and could end up being a major advantage for one team or the other. Last year, when Thomas led the NFL with 107.8 receiving yards per game, Godwin was second with 95.2.
1. Buccaneers T Donovan Smith vs. Saints DE Trey Hendrickson
Like Demario Davis last year, Hendrickson is the breakout star on the Saints' defense in 2020. After starting just three games and recording a total of 6.5 sacks from 2017-19, the former third-round pick out of Florida Atlanta has started every game this year and already has 5.5 sacks through seven games. That not only makes him a great complement to five-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan but also the team's sack leader, as Jordan has been limited to 2.5 QB takedowns so far. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Hendrickson also has the best pressure rate among the Saints' defensive linemen, at 11.9%, compared to 7.0% for Jordan. And Hendrickson has been particularly effective on third downs, recording a pressure rate of 25.7% that leads the entire NFL among players with at least third-down pass rushes. Hendrickson and Jordan mostly stay on their own sides, with Hendrickson primarily rushing from the right edge of the Saints' line, and that will make him the responsibility of Smith, the Bucs' left tackle, for much of the evening. Smith has helped anchor an offensive line that has played very well in 2020, particularly in terms of protecting Tom Brady, and Smith has the job of keeping rushers off Brady's blindside. Brady has only been sacked twice in the last three games combined and has only been hit nine times in that span. Tampa Bay ranks first in the NFL on offense with a sack rate of 3.24%. When Smith is at the top of his game, he has the power, size and quick feet to shut down any opposing edge rusher.
2. Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Buccaneers ILB Devin White
The potential returns of wide receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders could change the Saints' approach in Week Nine, but for most of the 2020 campaign the team's offense has been the Alvin Kamara Show. And it has drawn very good reviews. In fact, here's one on Tuesday from Bruce Arian: "I coached Marshall Faulk, and this guy is scarier." That is extremely high praise, but it's worth noting that Kamara is on pace to break the NFL's season-season records for catches and receiving yards by a running back, the latter of which currently belongs to Faulk. Kamara leads the Saints in rushing with 431 yards, and while he has been splitting the ground game workload with Latavius Murray (87 and 71 carries, respectively), he is far and away the team leader with 66 targets in the passing game. Nobody else on the team has more than 36, though again that will likely change significantly when Michael Thomas returns. Drew Brees is only averaging 6.0 air yards per pass this season, one of the lowest figures in the NFL, which is obviously because he is so often quickly getting it into Kamara's hands and letting the great open-field runner do his work. There is little doubt that the Buccaneers' linebackers, White and Lavonte David, will have multiple opportunities to try to stick with Kamara in pass coverage, and both Buccaneer 'backers have multiple pass break-ups this season. While White has made his biggest plays this season while rushing the passer – 5.0 sacks in his last three games – he does have the speed and open-field tackling ability to counter teams that throw to their running backs frequently. Kamara scored twice in the Week One matchup of these two teams, but he was held to 67 yards from scrimmage; in his other six outings, Kamara has averaged 153.3 yards from scrimmage.
3. Buccaneers WR Scotty Miller vs. Saints CB Patrick Robinson
The Buccaneers have three potentially big stories at wide receiver this weekend, as noted above: Antonio Brown's debut, Chris Godwin's return and Mike Evans' near-complete recovery from an ankle injury. So why are we focusing on a fourth receiver in Miller? Precisely because those other stories could see the Buccaneers' extremely fast second-year wideout get a little lost in the noise. Miller actually leads the Buccaneers with 400 receiving yards through eight games and his average of 16.0 yards per catch is also the best among all Tampa Bay pass-catchers. He has developed into a reliable deep threat who clearly has the trust of quarterback Tom Brady, and his 33-yard back-corner end zone catch in Las Vegas might be the Buccaneers' prettiest play of the season. Miller had five catches for 73 yards against the Saints in Week One and it was essentially a 100-yard game because he also drew a 28-yard pass interference penalty on Patrick Robinson. There's a good chance that Miller will draw a lot of coverage from Robinson again, as the Saints like to try to shadow Evans with Marshon Lattimore. However, it's a bit more difficult to predict what the New Orleans defense approach will be with Brown and possibly Godwin in the mix. Either way, Miller could be the one who springs open for the game's big play if the Saints are trying to figure out what to do with all those other pass-catchers.
4. Saints WR Deonte Harris vs. Buccaneers CB Ryan Smith
Harris has recently seen more playing time on offense with Emmanuel Sanders sidelined, as he was in on 53% of the Saints' snaps in Chicago and caught three passes for 19 yards. He also had four grabs and a touchdown in Week Seven against Carolina. However, the area where Harris threatens to hurt the Bucs the most remains on special teams, and especially on punt return, where he is averaging a robust 16.1 yards per return on 11 tries. In the season opener, Harris had four punt returns for 59 yards, including an 18-yarder, as he helped the Saints post a huge edge in average field position to start drives. He made the Pro Bowl last year as an undrafted rookie for his return prowess and will be a big consideration when the Buccaneers are deciding how to target their punts. Last week in Chicago, Harris set up a pair of field-goal drives with a 42-yard punt return and a 31-yard kickoff return, the latter of which sent the game into overtime. Smith is essentially the stand-in here for the Buccaneers' entire coverage units, as he is usually one of the two punt gunners and has been the team's best special teams player for the past few seasons. Smith is one of the fastest players on the Bucs' roster and he's adept at getting around the blockers who are trying to slow him down at the line. If Bradley Pinion does kick the ball where Harris can get to it and try a return, it will be critical for Smith and other Bucs coverage men to be on top of him quickly before he make a couple sharp cuts and find the open field.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
· CB Jamel Dean (illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· S Mike Edwards (groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· WR Chris Godwin (finger) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
· G Ali Marpet (concussion) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.
· WR Scotty Miller (hip/groin) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
· S Antoine Winfield (shoulder) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· QB Drew Brees (right shoulder) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· WR Marquez Calloway (ankle) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· C/G Nick Easton (concussion) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· DB Justin Hardee (groin) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: Placed on injured reserve.
· RB Alvin Kamara (foot) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· RB Ty Montgomery (hamstring) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
· DT Sheldon Rankins (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP. FRI: Placed on injured reserve.
· WR Michael Thomas (ankle/hamstring) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
Evening Game: Early-evening showers, low of 73, 40% chance of rain, 82% humidity, winds out of the ENE at 13 mph.
Head referee: John Hussey (19 seasons, 6 as referee)
· Favorite: Buccaneers (-4.5)
· Over/Under: 51.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 71
Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 7
Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 2,189
Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 103.1
Rushing Yards: RB Ronald Jones, 529
Receptions: WR Mike Evans, 30
Receiving Yards: WR Scotty Miller, 400
Interceptions: CB Carlton Davis, 4
Sacks: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 6.5
Tackles: ILB Devin White, 68
Points Scored: K Wil Lutz, 68
Touchdowns: RB Alvin Kamara, 7
Passing Yards: QB Drew Brees, 1,898
Passer Rating: QB Drew Brees, 106.5
Rushing Yards: RB Alvin Kamara, 431
Receptions: RB Alvin Kamara, 55
Receiving Yards: RB Alvin Kamara, 556
Interceptions: CB Janoris Jenkins/CB Marshon Lattimore/CB Patrick Robinson/S Marcus Williams, 1
Sacks: DE Trey Hendrickson, 5.5
Tackles: LB Demario Davis/S Malcolm Jenkins, 42
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
Scoring Offense: 4th (30.9 ppg)
Total Offense: 14th (368.4 ypg)
Passing Offense: 8th (265.8 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 23rd (102.6 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 15th (22.4)
Third-Down Pct.: 17th (42.6%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 1st (3.24%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 3rd (77.4%)
Scoring Defense: 7th (20.6 ppg)
Total Defense: 3rd (299.5 ypg)
Passing Defense: 14th (229.1 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 1st (70.4 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: t-2nd (18.0)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 10th (38.6%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 4th (9.59%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: t-13th (60.9%)
Turnover Margin: 4th (+6)
Scoring Offense: 7th (29.4 ppg)
Total Offense: 10th (385.9 ypg)
Passing Offense: 7th (266.7 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 14th (119.3 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 7th (23.7)
Third-Down Pct.: 5th (49.5%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 3rd (3.52%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: t-15th (62.1%)
Scoring Defense: 23rd (28.1 ppg)
Total Defense: 8th (328.4 ypg)
Passing Defense: 17th (237.9 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 3rd (90.6 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 12th (21.1)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 22nd (47.9%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 7th (7.92%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 32nd (83.3%)
Turnover Margin: t-12th (+1)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
· As noted above, Tom Brady and Drew Brees head into Week Nine as the top two players on the NFL's all-time regular-season touchdown pass list, with Brady just ahead, 561-560. Brady could pad his lead or relinquish it back to Brees, or they could even end the day tied. In terms of the opposing defenses, the Saints have given up 19 touchdown passes this year and the Buccaneers have allowed 11.
· Brady has thrown 189 consecutive passes without an interception, dating back to the Week Four game against the Chargers. The Buccaneers' all-time record for consecutive passes without a pick is 197, by Jeff Garcia in 2007, which means Brady needs nine more to start the night on Sunday to set a new mark.
· Rob Gronkowski has caught a touchdown pass in three straight games. If he finds the end zone again against New Orleans, he will tie the record set by current teammate Cameron Brate for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch by a tight end. Brate did it in four straight games during the 2017 season.
· After breaking into the Bucs' all-time top 10 in sacks in Week Six, OLB Jason Pierre-Paul moved up another spot into ninth when he got another one against the Giants, putting him at 27.5 since he arrived in Tampa in 2018. That broke a ninth-place tie with Broderick Thomas and now one more would move him past Ronde Barber (28.0) into eight place.
· Tampa Bay's defense has intercepted at least one pass in seven straight games, their longest run of games with picks since one that spanned the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. If a Buccaneer defender can make it eight games in a row on Sunday night, it will be the franchise's longest such streak since a run of nine games in the 2004 season.
· The Buccaneers have already matched their best eight-game start to a season, with a 6-2 mark that equals what the team did in 1979 and 2002. Both of those teams also won their ninth contest to go to 7-2, so another victory for the 2020 team on Sunday would obviously match that record as well.
· Head Coach Bruce Arians on what makes Saints running back Alvin Kamara so difficult to defend: "I think we always knew he was a great runner. He's got great speed [and] breaks a ton of tackles. But, when you start looking at backs catching eight, nine [or] 10 balls a game, that's a very rare guy who can run routes and easily catch footballs out away from the formation. Marshall [Faulk] was one of the best I'd ever seen [and] I thought David Johnson was going to become one of those guys. His ability to not just catch it, but be instant with it in his hands with a burst to take it to the house – he's probably one of the better screen runners in the game. The more he touches it, the more good things happen."
· Wide receiver Antonio Brown on returning to the football field this week for the first time in more than 14 months: "I'm extremely grateful to be here with such a great organization [and] to be around some great players. For me, first and foremost, being away from the game for a year and a half – just to be able to be a part of the process. To be out there with the guys today was surreal -- something I'm not going to take for granted, something I have a great appreciation for, a better perspective about and a lot of gratification. To do what I love – it's a blessing."
· Cornerback Carlton Davis on a preseason story ranking the Bucs' secondary 32nd in the league and that group still not getting much attention: "We never listen to the media guys. We know what we are, who we are and what we can do. The 32nd [ranking] was definitely just fuel to the fire. We're capable of doing anything that any other DB group can do, and we knew that. Our confidence has always been high. We've got some sleepers out there, but we're going to continue to prove them wrong. We love the feel, we love for them to continue to sleep, we love for the critics to continue to talk because it only makes us go harder. We've got a lot of season left so keep on fueling the fire [and] we're going to keep going."·
· Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh on the Buccaneers successfully fitting a lot of veteran players into their team: "I think it first and foremost starts with coach B.A. (Bruce Arians). He sets the tone for us and truthfully, from that standpoint, it trickles down through the current veterans that we do have – Lavonte David, Mike Evans, so forth and so on. With that being the case, we have a particular standard here. We want to come in here and [are] trying to be a dominant defense and a high-powered offense. If you're about those two things – first and foremost – I think culture as well as personalities will all mend when they have a common goal."
· Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles on the Buccaneers having 11 interceptions at the midway point of the season after having 12 all of last year: "I think [Cornerbacks] Coach [Kevin] Ross does a great job with them. We dropped a few last year; we should have had more than that. But they're coming down with them this year and they've got a lot more attention to detail. They're a lot more comfortable back there, that's really the main thing, and they're attacking the ball. They come in bunches. Sometimes you practice them a lot and you don't get any; sometimes you don't practice them at all and you get a bunch. We'll try to get some every week and keep it going."