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 Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Vita Vea. The NFL world learned something this week: Vita Vea, the Buccaneers' 347-pound defensive lineman played running back in high school. And he was quite large back then, too. After Vea played on offense during the late-game goal-line sequence that produced the winning touchdown against Arizona, Buccaneers brass shared Vea's high school offensive highlights with the "Good Morning Football" crew on NFL Network, and it underscored how athletic the big defender is. That was also on display on Peyton Barber's touchdown run, in which Vea blocked three different Cardinals defenders in a quick one-two-three sequence. The Bucs might be motivated to get Vea in on offense again this week, and the results are likely to be entertaining. Oh, and Vea still has that side job on the Bucs' defensive line, where he is one of the main reasons that Tampa Bay's rush defense continues to be the stingiest in the league. This week, the Bucs' interior linemen will be going against an excellent Saints offensive front that might be a bit weakened by the absence of usual starting left guard Andrus Peat. Vea has seven quarterback hits on the season and could be a more active presence in the Saints' backfield this weekend.
Mike Evans. The Saints certainly had their eyes on Evans when these two teams met, and they made a point of rolling coverage his way to try to force the ball elsewhere. It worked, as Evans was held without a catch for just the second time in his increasingly-impressive career, though the Buccaneers were left believing they should have tried harder to get the ball in his hands. There's a good chance they'll find a way in Sunday's rematch, and not just because top corner Marshon Lattimore will miss the game with a hamstring injury. Evans has averaged more than 115 yards per game in the Bucs' other eight contests and he's been particularly hot since that Week Five trip to New Orleans, with 556 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Evans says he feels no extra motivation to produce against the Saints this week based on that contest in the Superdome, but he definitely wants the ball as often as possible. If he gets it enough times to put up at least 76 yards, Evans will also reach another incredible milestone during Sunday's game, as that would make him just the second player in NFL history to open his career with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. The first was Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss.
Shaquil Barrett. Barrett may not have been able to sustain the ridiculous sack pace that made him the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September, but he hasn't been shut down. In fact, he's on another streak of getting at least a half-sack in three straight games and has only been completely shut out in two of seven games so far. Of course, one of those was against the Saints in Week Five. At that time, Jason Pierre-Paul was still on the reserve/NFI list; since his return, Barrett has collected 2.5 sacks in three games and now has 11.5 to share the NFL lead with Arizona's Chandler Jones. Since Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson went down with injuries in Seattle in Week Nine, Barrett has played 97.2% of the Bucs' defensive snaps over two games (Pierre-Paul has also played 93.8% of the snaps in that span). Nassib and Nelson have been ruled out for Sunday's game, as well, so the Buccaneers will continue to lean heavily on Barrett and Pierre-Paul on the edges. Despite all of that work, Barrett and Pierre-Paul were still going strong near the end of last Sunday's game, with both players recording a quarterback hit in the last five minutes of play. If Barrett continues to record sacks on nearly a weekly basis, the Buccaneers' single-season record of 16.5, set by Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp in 2000, will be in jeopardy.
Ryan Jensen. Like the Buccaneers, the Saints have a collection of stout interior defensive linemen – Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, David Onyemata – who make it difficult for opposing teams to run against. The Saints are allowing just 90.8 rushing yards per game, tied for fifth-lowest in the NFL. That won't stop the Buccaneers from trying to establish their run game early, and they have the size and strength in the middle to match up with the Saints. On the pivot is Jensen, who sets the tone for the Bucs' line and is thus an important figure in what should prove to be a very intense and physical battle in the trenches. Jensen is in his second season with the Bucs after arriving as an unrestricted free agent in 2018, and he has come on very strong in 2019, according to his head coach, Bruce Arians. Said Arians: "He's doing a heck of a job. He does all the identification up there and he's playing at a really high level right now. I love his attitude when he plays."
Sean Murphy-Bunting. The Buccaneers got Carlton Davis back from injury this week but will still play their second-round rookie extensively, particularly after the early-week release of Vernon Hargreaves. Murphy-Bunting is in a starting role now, but he also could see work inside in the slot in nickel packages. The Buccaneers will need all of their corners to be on point this week if they want to slow down Michael Thomas, the NFL's leading receiver. Even last week when the Falcons shockingly held Drew Brees and the Saints' offense to three field goals, Thomas still had 13 catches (on just 14 targets) for 152 yards. Thomas is on pace to break the single-season record for receptions and will surely get his share of catches, but Murphy-Bunting and company will need to be sound in their tackling and try to limit his yards after the catch. Arians has praised Murphy-Bunting's recent play, and the confident rookie appears to be getting steadily better week by week.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 43.1%/33.0%/53.3%/25.0%/16.7%. That's a lot of different numbers but they all describe subsets of the same category: Third-down conversions. That first number is the rate at which the Saints' offense converts third downs, which is 11th-best in the NFL. However, the second number is what the Buccaneers' defense has allowed this year on third downs, which is sixth-best in the league. So that's already an area of contention, and one that is likely to prove crucial on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. But let's get a little more specific. The third number are what the Saints were able to convert on offense against the Buccaneers in a Week Five win – 8 of 15, to be precise. However, the fourth number is what the Falcons held the Saints' offense to on third downs last week as part of their upset victory. Can the Bucs do something similar? They certainly have been of late. The fifth and final number in that line is the third-down percentage the Bucs have allowed in just the last two games, as the Seahawks and Cardinals combined to go three for 18.
· 6/6. Last week, as the Bucs prepared to face the Arizona Cardinals, the defense knew it would be a challenge to create turnovers. Prior to the Bucs-Cardinals game in Week 10, Arizona had turned the ball over fewer than any other team, with just four interceptions and no fumbles. The Buccaneers did manage to secure one of each, both critical second-half takeaways. Now Tampa Bay's defense is right back in the same situation, as they are once again facing a team with the fewest giveaways in the league. Arizona and New Orleans are now tied for that distinction with six turnovers each. By taking care of the football, the Saints have kept their defense out of bad situations most of the year. In fact, opposing teams have scored a league-low six points off turnovers against New Orleans.
· 8/3. As Arians noted earlier in the week, the Buccaneers' offense, and Jameis Winston in particular, have thrived in two-minute situations at the end of halves this season. Tampa Bay has 65 points scored in those time periods, by far the most in the league. That includes eight offensive touchdowns and one defensive score on Ndamukong Suh's fumble return at the end of the Week Four game against the Rams. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense, which has been quite good in most categories this season, is the only one that has allowed as many as three touchdowns during the final two minutes of either half.
· 75/26-3/3-6. Since Alvin Kamara brought his all-around game to the Saints' offense in 2017, New Orleans' fortunes seemed to have hinged on how well they have gotten him into the open field. Kamara has played 38 NFL games and in 29 of them he has recorded at least 75 yards from scrimmage. The Saints are 26-3 in those games. In the other nine games, in which opponents have held Kamara below that 75-yard line, the Saints are 3-6.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Vernon Hargreaves started all nine games before he left, so the Buccaneers will definitely have a new lineup in the secondary to open Sunday's game. Carlton Davis, who had been starting opposite Hargreaves since the beginning of the season, remains questionable due to a hip injury that cost him two games but Arians was optimistic about his chances to play on Friday. The Bucs will also lean heavily on rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean.
· The Saints will be without one key starter on each side of the ball as the forearm and hamstring injuries suffered last Sunday by, respectively, left guard Andrus Peat and cornerback Marshon Lattimore will have them sidelined again this week. After Lattimore left the Falcons game, slot corner P.J. Williams moved outside and rookie safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson joined the nickel package. Former Buccaneer Patrick Omameh is listed as the backup at left guard on the Saints' depth chart.
· With outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson out again, the Buccaneers are likely to keep Sam Acho and Kahzin Daniels active on Sunday, as they did a week ago. Acho, signed last week, has previous experience in Todd Bowles's defense from his time in Arizona; Daniels is a rookie who was promoted from the practice squad but was with the team in training camp and the offseason. Both made their Buccaneer debuts last week.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
The New Orleans offense lands in the middle of the league rankings in most categories but has a superstar trio in QB Drew Brees, RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas that can seriously stress any defense. The Saints' defense is led by an aggressive and physical front line that has the team ranked 10th in the NFL in sacks per pass play and was able to drop Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston six times back in Week Five. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
As noted above, Thomas has hardly been slowed down by any opposing defense this year, thanks to his precise route-running and his well-established connection with Brees on difficult-to-defend option routes. If the Saints' offense is going to get a sudden big play, however, it's more likely to come from Kamara, who is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league and is extremely dangerous when he gets into the open field. Kamara owns a career average of 9.2 yards per catch, which is very high for a running back. The only player in the NFL with more yards after the catch since the start of 2017, when Kamara arrived as a second-round draft pick, is Carolina's MVP candidate, Christian McCaffrey. Kamara can take screens and swing passes out of the backfield but he can also line up in the slot and run routes usually reserved for wide receivers. Tampa Bay has the NFL's top-ranked rush defense, so it could be tough for Kamara to pile up the yards between the tackles, but the Saints can still use him to great effect in the passing attack. A positive note: The Buccaneers have already faced the similarly-talented McCaffrey twice this season and fared very well against him.
The Saints defense is tied for 12th in the league with 25 sacks, and as usual their pass rush revolves around four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan has accounted for eight of those 25 takedowns and is one big game away from his fifth double-digit sack season. He also has 14 quarterback hits this year and 107 over the last five seasons combined. Jordan doesn't come off the field often, even though the Saints have good front-line depth; he has played 88.0% of the team's defensive snaps so far. The former 2011 first-round pick boast an impressive combination of size and speed but can also play the power game against opposing blockers. Jordan also has great instincts, developed over nine seasons, and is good at anticipating what the quarterback is going to do. He had one of the Saints' six sacks of Jameis Winston in Week Five, and the Buccaneers will have to do a better job of keeping Jordan off their quarterback in the rematch.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if hustling and playing hard at all times is a major point of emphasis for his teams:
"Yes. You control your attitude and your effort. You don't control a lot of things, but you control those two and they'd better be good."