Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Saints

The Saints' pass rush, more changes in the secondary and even the weather are areas of potential concern when the Buccaneers play host to New Orleans on Sunday

The 5-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to complete a sweep of their three-game homestand this Sunday when they welcome the New Orleans Saints to town for a rematch of Tampa Bay's 48-40 victory in the Superdome in Week One. A win for the Buccaneers would finish their first season sweep of the Saints since 2007 and, more importantly, would keep their admittedly-slim playoff hopes alive. New Orleans, on the other hand, is a near lock for the postseason with its 10-2 record, which was built on a 10-game winning streak that started after the loss to Tampa Bay and ended with a Thursday Night defeat in Dallas in Week 13. The Saints would clinch their second straight NFC South title with a win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

The Saints are led, as always, by quarterback Drew Brees, yet another NFL MVP candidate plying his trade in the Buccaneers' division. Brees has been putting up resume-building seasons for the Hall of Fame since he arrived in New Orleans in 2006, but somehow he may be having his best season yet at the age of 39 (he turns 40 in January). Most notable is his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 30-3, which reads like a typo, but he's also on pace to set an NFL record with a 75.5% completion rate and he has a career-high 123.2 passer rating. That, too, would be a new league record if he can maintain it. As if that wasn't bad enough for Saints' foes, Brees is supported by the league's ninth-best rushing attack and his running backs, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, are also intricately involved in the passing game.

Though the Bucs put up 525 yards and 48 points against the Saints' defense in Week One, that crew has produced much better results since. New Orleans' greatest strength on defense is a fierce pass-rush that has created 37 sacks, including 25 in the last seven weeks, most in the NFL, but the Saints have also allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. (For more on the Saints' strengths and weaknesses, read this week's Scouting Report.)

Slowing down the Saints offense will be challenging, but here are five specific issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Saints contest:

View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.

1. Can the Buccaneers continue their resurgence in takeaways against a team that rarely turns it over?

The almost inconceivable turnover drought experienced by Tampa Bay's defense isn't quite a distant memory, but it hopefully is a thing of the past. Tampa Bay's defense did not force a single turnover from the second quarter of its third game through the 10th game of the season, with the team's only takeaway in that span coming on special teams. Justin Evans' interception off Ben Roethlisberger in Week Three was the Buccaneer's only pick of the season…until they exploded for six more the past two weeks.

Those six interceptions were obviously critical to turning a four-game losing streak into consecutive wins over San Francisco and Carolina. Those were also the first two games in which the Buccaneers won the turnover battle since their Week One victory in New Orleans. Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted that as one of his main reactions to that win in the Superdome, in which his team recovered two fumbles, one of which Evans returned for a touchdown.

"The two things that pop in my head are number one, we have an explosive offense," said Koetter. We've done a really good job in that area of being explosive – we're in the top of the league. The other thing is, as a football team, when we win the turnover battle, we're hard to beat. When we lose it, it might go the other way."

Unfortunately for the Buccaneers' defense, it's going to take quite an effort to keep the floodgates open on that turnover surge. As noted above, Brees has only thrown three interceptions all season, and in their last four games the Saints have turned it over just twice while taking it away 11 times. While all six of the Bucs' interceptions in the past two weeks have been claimed by defensive backs, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy knows it will take the entire defense to get the ball away from Brees and company.

"Take the ball away, man – it helps," said McCoy. "It's a collective effort. I'm not just saying we take the ball away like all the DBs are finally getting picks – no. Taking the ball away is a group effort. You can take the ball away as a D-lineman on a sack-fumble or it can be a run play – somebody poked the ball out. Collectively, the defense just taking the ball away. It changes everything. When we beat them, I think we won the turnover margin. They do a great job of not losing the turnover margin, that's why they win so many games. That's an indicator right there of what we've got to do on Sunday."

2. Will the anticipated soggy weather on Sunday significantly affect how well two high-powered offenses operate?

The forecast for Sunday in the vicinity of Raymond James Stadium calls for almost certain rain during game time, and the possibility of relatively high winds, as well. The Buccaneers (and surely the Saints, as well) have been monitoring that forecast all week and are anticipating having to deal with less-than-ideal conditions.

"We started to look at it on Monday and then we monitor it during the week," said Koetter. "One thing I've learned in my time here, whatever's projected four or five days out that probably isn't what it's going to be on Sunday. This time their sticking to it that it's going to be 74 and stormy, so wear your raincoats."

The Buccaneers and Saints produced 88 combined points in Week One, but that was in the controlled environment of the Superdome. Both offenses have continued to put up big numbers since, though not often in foul weather. One could theorize that the home team would be more used to handling wet conditions, and the Bucs did encounter rain in the preseason against Detroit and briefly in Cincinnati. However, one could also note that the Buccaneers' offense is more dependent on the passing game than is the Saints attack, as New Orleans' ground game is picking up 127.4 yards per outing compared to 98.2 for the Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay has the NFL's most productive passing attack and has only run the ball on 37.1% of their snaps this season, which includes 72 runs by the quarterback, most of which came on what were initially intended to be passing plays. In contrast, the Saints have run on 47.3% of their plays and only 25 of those are Drew Brees carries. (The Saints do have 32 carries from reserve QB Taysom Hill but those are generally designed plays as Hill has only thrown three passes. Reserve Teddy Bridgewater has also kneeled seven times.)

The Saints also have the edge in run defense, allowing a league-low 75.3 per game to the 121.0 allowed by Tampa Bay. New Orleans has a rushing yardage differential against its opponents of 41.9 per game, which is the best in the league and a potential advantage if the rain makes a difference on Sunday.

All of that said, Koetter says it's too early to know exactly how weather will affect the game or if either team will have to adjust.

"There's plenty of people out there that think a wet field is advantage-offense just because you know where you're going and the footing," he said. "There's wet and then there's sloppy wet, there's cold wet, there's wet and windy. Let's just see how it is. It's not going to be freezing cold – it's going to be in the 70s. They're saying 10 to 15 [mph] wind. We've played in wet before. The other thing would just be if it's really bad and the field gets torn up and it gets sloppy then we've just got to adjust. Same for both teams. Footing just becomes – guys have got to be able to stay on their feet, whoever can do that if the field gets torn up. We'll worry about that when it happens. We're prepared, but you just can't control it. You've got to wait and see what happens."

3. Which defense will be more effective at pressuring the other team's quarterback?

The Buccaneers' defense is riding a streak of three straight games with at least four sacks, and their 24 QB takedowns since Week Seven are second-most in the NFL. The one team with more in that span: the Saints, with 25.

Both the Buccaneers and the Saints can come at opposing fronts with a good combination of inside and outside pressure. Defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib have combined for 16 sacks for Tampa Bay off the edge, with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy adding six up the middle. For the Saints, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has had a breakout season in his third year since being drafted 12th overall, collecting seven sacks to compliment perennial Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan (10.0 sacks).

"I think that guys – the staff and the players – are doing a good job of mixing it up," said Koetter of a Buccaneers pass rush that has picked up steam as the season has progressed. "Mixing up the man coverage, zone coverage – different types of man, different types of zone. We're playing a few more packages. I think our D-line has kind of settled into a rotation where our pass rush games, all the different combinations of picks that they run for each other, I think we're doing a lot better job of that and I think we're getting the most consistent play from those two ends. I said before – JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) and [Carl] Nassib – that's nothing against anybody else on the D-line, but I think those two ends are setting the tone."

The Buccaneers have had a deeper rotation of pass-rushers of late, particularly with Vinny Curry returning to the mix, and that has been helping the linemen have fresh legs into the fourth quarter. On the other hand, the Saints' top-ranked rush defense is good at putting opponents into unfavorable down-and-distance situations, allowing the pass rush to feat on third downs. New Orleans has 17 third-down sacks, tied for third-most in the NFL.

"When you're watching the tape, it's just because they're good, but you could also say because they're playing with the lead a lot and teams are throwing the ball," said Koetter. "Still, when you watch the tape you go, 'Man these guys are pretty good against the run.' I think their front seven is really playing hard and I think their two ends are really playing well."

The Buccaneers pass rush faces a quarterback and an offense that doesn't give up many sacks. Brees has been sacked just 12 times in 396 drop-backs this year. It's a big challenge for Pierre-Paul and company but gaining the upper hand in terms of pass rush could prove to be a deciding factor.

4. How important will the Mike Evans-Marshon Lattimore matchup be?

The Saints had a famously great draft in 2017, which started with the selection of Lattimore, the Ohio State cornerback, 11th overall. Lattimore went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and he played well in two games against the Buccaneers, helping to hold Mike Evans to a total of six catches for 78 yards.

In this year's opener, however, Evans had a big game, catching seven passes for 147 yards and a score. Four of those catches, including the 50-yard touchdown, came with Lattimore in coverage.

Much as the Panthers have chosen to do with their top corner, James Bradberry, the Saints have tended to plaster Lattimore to Evans on most snaps. Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken said on Friday that he expects the same approach from the Saints this time around, and that means the Evans-Lattimore battle will probably be one of the keys to the game's outcome.

Evans hasn't slowed down much from that big opening game, averaging more than 93 receiving yards per game. He's having his best season yet, which is impressive considering how well his first four years went overall, and the reasons for his improvement should help him once again fare well against Lattimore and the Saints.

"Mike's not afraid to say he wants to be the best," said Koetter. "He knows he's good, but he wants to be great. We're in a league of outstanding quarterback and receiver play, and Mike's in the upper echelon of that group and his numbers bear that out. His consistency – Mike's an extremely hard worker. I think he's in the best condition that he's been in in my four years here. I think he consistently runs his route at a faster tempo. His catch radius and his natural athleticism, those are what they are. Mike's continued to work on his game and tried to be the best he can."

5. How will the Buccaneers arrange their ever-shifting secondary this week?

There are 12 defensive backs on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster, but three of them were ruled out on Friday. With Justin Evans (toe), Isaiah Johnson (concussion) and Carlton Davis (knee) all unavailable, the Bucs are down to nine DBs and may keep them all handy on Sunday against Brees and the Saints' dangerous passing attack.

Complicating matters is how those nine players split between the two levels of the secondary. A week after being reduced to four healthy cornerbacks, including one just called up from the practice squad, the Buccaneers now have six corners available but only three safeties. As such, the team has worked on contingency plans involving players manning multiple positions.

"M.J. [Stewart] is able to play both spots," said Koetter on Friday, confirming that Stewart would be a candidate to fill in at safety if needed. "We've had so many [injuries] that behind the scenes we're cross-training guys left and right. I think we're going to have nine DBs up. Those nine guys have got to be able to fill five to six spots, depending on if you're in base, nickel or dime."

Evans and Johnson were hurt in last Sunday's win over the Panthers, leaving the safety position with rookie Jordan Whitehead and two players who have been added to the roster since the season began in Andrew Adams and Josh Shaw. Adams is coming off a three-interception game against Carolina. The Buccaneers did not have starting corners Davis or Brent Grimes last week but Grimes practiced fully this week and is likely to return. Without those two, the Buccaneers started Ryan Smith and De'Vante Harris on the outside and used Javien Elliott in the slot against the Panthers and the secondary played well. So it remains to be seen who will start this week and whether or not the team will use all of its now-healthy cornerbacks at some point. At safety, the Bucs could pair Whitehead with either Adams or Shaw, though they are also likely to continue using Adams as something of a hybrid linebacker in a dime packa

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