The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held Drew Brees and the NFL's second-highest-scoring offense to 20 points three weeks ago despite giving up 383 passing yards, and perhaps because they also snared three interceptions.
Similarly, the Bucs' defense succeeded against Brees despite not sacking him once on 45 drop-backs, but perhaps because the pressure on the Saints quarterback was significant despite that goose-egg.
Tampa Bay's secondary did its job three weeks ago, taking advantage of those moments when, as Head Coach Raheem Morris often says, technique meets opportunity. And though it wasn't quite as evident in the stats book as were those three interceptions, the defensive line did its job as well, according to the Bucs' coaching staff.
"The pressure all year has been awesome," said Morris. "We made Brees scramble three times in a game – that has never happened in the history of us playing the Saints. When that happens it's usually a good thing because he's not throwing it down the field to some stellar receiver and dicing us. He's a really good football player, but these guys have been getting off the ball and causing havoc and causing disruption."
The Bucs had 26 sacks of opposing quarterbacks last season, their third straight season with fewer than 30. After drafting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers and getting 2010 draftees Gerald McCoy and Brian Price back from injury to start the season, the team expected much better pass-rush numbers this year. So far, Tampa Bay has come up with 12 sacks, which is on pace for a little over 27 over 16 games. On the face of it, that would seem as if the team has failed to improve, but Morris insists that the pressure has been much better, the sack numbers notwithstanding.
"The pressure's gone up tremendously," he said. "It's how the pocket looks – it's not as clean, they're not throwing out of a comfortable, nice cushion back there. They're having to move around, step up, do different things, get the ball out of their hands quicker. All that stuff has been great for us."
Obviously, the Buccaneers would like to take Brees out of his comfort zone on Sunday, because that zone can be very damaging to the opposition. Brees has thrown for an NFL-best 2,746 yards already this season, an average of 326.8 per game. He has been sacked 19 times, however, and intercepted 10 times, two stats that often go hand in hand. Six of those sacks came last week in a 31-21 loss to the previously-winless St. Louis Rams. Brees has been sacked only five times in three home games, so the Bucs don't expect it to be easy to duplicate what the Rams were able to accomplish last weekend.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to the Rams, too," said Morris. "They've got a first-rounder in Chris Long and they've got another first-rounder in [Robert] Quinn at the other end position. They've got some studs rushing. The Saints, they've got two Pro Bowl guards. They've had to move around a little bit at tackle this year but they got the starter back in [Zach] Strief. I expect them to be back to their old form."
The Saints' old form is quite good. During Brees' first five seasons in New Orleans he suffered an average of just 18.4 sacks per season despite dropping back an incredible 621 times per campaign. Of course, his own pocket savvy and quick release have had a lot to do with that, as well.
"It's difficult to get pressure on him anyway," said Morris. "He's so calm and so patient in the pocket. He has the ability to move around in the pocket and step up, be in the right area. They've got a great protection plan. It's just difficult to get him, period. But definitely, with the four-man rush you'd like to get to him because you can play a little more coverage, have more people back to see Brees throw the ball. It's difficult to blitz him because he's so smart. He understands everything and he's always going to get them into the right play."
Injury Situation Looks Favorable
The Buccaneers finished their week of Saints preparation with a long injury list that features 11 different players, including nine starters. Fortunately, it appears that most of them will be able to play Sunday in New Orleans.
The Friday version of the NFL injury report is the only one that includes game-status designations – probable, questionable, doubtful or out. With this week's Buccaneer report, there is no middle ground: nine of the 11 players are considered probable; the other two have already been ruled out.
"We're as healthy as we've been," said Morris. "It's nice to see these guys running around being healthy, playing fast like they're supposed to do."
The two Bucs who definitely will not play in New Orleans are defensive tackle Frank Okam and center/guard Jeremy Zuttah. In both cases, the team also has returning players at those positions to ease any depth concerns.
Okam started against the Saints in Week Six at Raymond James Stadium because usual starter Gerald McCoy had suffered an ankle injury the weekend before in San Francisco. Okam also started against Chicago in London in Week Seven, but he suffered a calf injury in practice on Wednesday and has not returned to the field since. McCoy is one of the nine "probables" on Tampa Bay's report and according to Morris should be able to play on Sunday without any concerns about limiting his snaps.
Zuttah has started the last game at center, sliding over from left guard after Jeff Faine suffered a biceps injury in the first Bucs-Saints game. Zuttah followed Faine to the sideline a week later with a knee injury suffered in London, and he did not practice this week. However, Faine did take part in all four of the week's workouts and is expected to return against his former team. Ted Larsen will remain at left guard, where he started the season opener before being replaced by Zuttah, and where he started last week with Zuttah at center.
"We've got Larsen starting at the guard position and we've got Jeff Faine back," said Morris. "We got back to the original starting group."
Rookie Mason Foster, the starter at middle linebacker, is expected back as well. He has actually started all seven games this season but has left each of the last three earlier due to a pair of ankle sprains. Obviously, that leaves one concerned that he'll be subject to another early exit this Sunday, but Morris believes Foster is in much better shape after the bye week.
"He looked good," said the coach. "He looked great this week. He had full participation in everything and this is probably the best I've seen him in look in three or four weeks. I was really excited about that."
Safety Tanard Jackson returned to practice on Friday after sitting out on Thursday. Any alarm bells his absence on Thursday caused were premature; the Bucs merely held their playmaking free safety during the "bonus" day of practice afforded by the post-bye week schedule as a precaution against his formerly tweaked hamstring. Morris indicated on Friday that Jackson is fine, and he is one of those nine aforementioned "probable" players.
The other five players listed as probable on the Bucs' injury report are running back LeGarrette Blount (knee), quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb), defensive tackle Brian Price (illness), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) and tight end Kellen Winslow (not injury related). The expected return of Blount should have a big impact on the Bucs' offense Sunday, particularly if he has early success and thus gives the play-action option more bite.
"That's what we're hoping for," said Morris. "That's kind of the basis of the offense. You want that to be your bread and butter. You want to be able to hand him the ball 20 or so times, get him going downhill, and then be able to play off your play-action passes. When he gets going, it certainly opens up everything. He's tough to tackle, he's big, he's physical. When he's running the correct way, he's tough to deal with."
Earlier in the week, Blount mentioned that he was confident not only about returning to the field but about getting some work on third downs with Earnest Graham now on injured reserve. Morris confirmed on Friday that Blount should expect some third-down action, though he won't get all of the snaps in that situation.
"He has a third-down role," said Morris. "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm fully confident to put him out there every single third down, because he won't be. But he does have a third-down role and he has things he does for us on third downs. That's pretty good for him. He's getting better and he's improving. He had no role up until this year."
The Buccaneers pulled the trigger Friday on the expected – and, at this point, necessary – move of activating long-snapper Andrew Economos from the exempt list. The team had 21 days to determine Economos' readiness after his stint on the reserve/non-football injury list, during which he did not count against the 53-man roster. It has been a foregone conclusion that he would return to the active roster since the team released rookie long-snapper Christian Yount last week.
That meant, however, that a spot had to be cleared on the roster on Friday. The Bucs took care of that by waiving rookie safety David Sims, who signed with the team on Tuesday, filling the opening left by Yount's release.
Economos has played in 67 regular-season games, all with the Buccaneers. He first joined the team in 2006, first on the practice squad and then, three days later, to the active roster after Dave Moore was injured in the season opener. The Georgia Tech grad handled the snapping duties for the next three games, then landed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Moore retired after serving as the NFC's long-snapper in the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season, and in 2007 Economos stepped seamlessly into that underappreciated job.
He played in 64 consecutive games through the 2010 campaign before suffering a torn Achilles tendon during an offseason workout in 2011. Not only has he been essentially flawless on his punt and placekick snaps throughout his NFL career, but the 6-1, 250-pound Economos is a valuable asset in kick coverage, with 24 career special teams tackles and one forced fumble.