The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their season in the same place they started two years ago, but it's safe to say that 2020 is nothing like 2018.
The biggest difference in terms of the depth chart is that Tom Brady is now in charge of the Buccaneers' offense after coming over from New England in one of the most momentous free agent signings in league history. Two years ago in New Orleans, Ryan Fitzpatrick started the season opener for Tampa Bay while Jameis Winston was serving a league suspension. Fitzpatrick is now in Miami and Winston is now on the other side of this rivalry, having signed with the Saints to back up Drew Brees.
The Saints won both ends of the intradivision rivalry last year on their way to a 13-3 record and a third straight NFC South title. The additions of Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy along with the team's aggressive work to re-sign their own defensive stars signal that the Buccaneers are all-in in 2020 in an attempt to unseat the Saints from the top of the division. That will be no easy task as the Saints have lost little from their 2019 roster and made some key additions of their own, but this kickoff showdown in the Superdome should give an early indication of how tight the division race will be.
The Bucs and Saints finished with fairly similar rankings last year, as Tampa Bay was third on offense and 15th on defense while New Orleans ranked ninth and 11th, respectively. The two teams also happened to score the exact same number of points on the season, at 458. However, New Orleans had two distinct areas of domination in the head-to-head matchup that the Buccaneers must overcome in 2020 to have a better shot: Pass protection and turnover ratio.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
In those two Saints wins over the Buccaneers last year, New Orleans sacked Winston eight times while the Tampa Bay defense, which had 46 sacks in its other 14 games, only got Saints quarterbacks down once. Meanwhile, New Orleans also forced four Buccaneer turnovers while giving it away just once. Overall, the Saints finished the season at plus-15 in turnover ratio, compared to minus-13 for Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers hope that having Brady at the helm will help immensely with both of those issues. Certainly, the NFL spotlight will be shining on both Brady and Brees as the two leading passers in league history do battle to open the second century of NFL football. The Buccaneers will also be looking to build on the defensive momentum that they established during the second half of the 2019 season under first-year coordinator Todd Bowles.
Prior to last year, the Bucs and Saints had split their season series for four straight seasons. The last time the Buccaneers got a season sweep was 2007, which was also the last time they made the playoffs. Tom Brady may be about to end that drought, and a postseason run would get a great start from a Week One win in New Orleans. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter in New Orleans when football returns on Sunday:
The Saints' offense obviously runs through Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, the former a record-setting wideout with an unprecedented volume of touches and the latter a dual-threat running back who is electric in the open field. However, New Orleans also saw veteran tight end Jared Cook gradually develop into a serious weapon last year and have now added a more formidable number-two receiver than they have had in years in Emmanuel Sanders. The defense is still led by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had his third straight double-digit sack season last year and went to his fifth Pro Bowl. That group welcomed back an old friend when the team signed safety Malcolm Jenkins after losing Vonn Bell to free agency. There are stars at every level of the defense with linebacker Demario Davis earning 2019 all-pro honors and cornerback Marshon Lattimore going to his second Pro Bowl in three NFL seasons. We'll stipulate that Drew Brees is the number-one difference maker on this crew, but here are four other Saints who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday, including three already noted above.
1. WR Michael Thomas. No non-quarterback was probably more crucial to his team's offensive success last year than Thomas, who puts up big numbers on a weekly basis even though every opponent knows the ball is headed in his direction. Thomas has elite route-running skills and is able to get open on every level of the defense but particularly on quick-hitters that allow him to run after the catch. Thomas caught an NFL single-season record 149 passes last year and it wouldn't be surprising to up that to 160, or 10 per game in 2020. Thomas's career per-catch average of 11.7 (it was 11.6 last year) doesn't look particularly elite – in contrast, Mike Evans averaged 17.3 and Chris Godwin 15.5 in 2019 – but the volume is so high that it doesn't matter. Last year, Thomas ran about 75% of his snaps from an outside receiver position but the Saints do also use him in the slot on a relatively frequent basis. Not only is he elusive but he's also very physical and the 6-3, 212-pound pass-catcher can be very hard to bring down in the open field.
2. DE Cameron Jordan. Jordan has been a season-in, season-out difference-maker for the Saints since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2011, and at this point he has essentially established himself as one of the best players in franchise history. According to Pro Football Reference, Jordan is tied for fifth on New Orleans' all-time Approximate Value (AV) list, behind only a few luminaries like Brees and Rickey Jackson. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, the 31-year-old Jordan is also still very much in his prime, having recorded a career-best 15.5 sacks after getting 12.0 and 13.0 in the previous two seasons. He has a well-developed toolbox of pass-rush moves and a long wingspan, but Saints coach Sean Payton has said that his greatest strength may be his stamina. Jordan may still be putting his stamp on Sunday's game well into the fourth quarter. Oh, by the way, Jordan also has 47 career passes defensed, including 11 in 2017, an incredible total for a defensive lineman and an indication that he can short-circuit a play even when he doesn't get to the quarterback.
3. T Ryan Ramczyk. On an offensive line full of top performers, Ramczyk may be the toughest blocker for defenses to defeat. One of a long line of outstanding linemen out of the University of Wisconsin, Ramczyk has it all: size (6-5, 310), athleticism, instincts, poise, balance, strength, and lateral agility. Though Drew Brees's field vision and quick release help quite a bit, the Saints are always among the league's best in sacks per pass attempt allowed; last year they ranked third in that department at 4.30%. Ramczyk is obviously a key part of that good protection and it didn't take long for the rest of the league to realize he is one of the best right tackles in the game. A first-round pick in 2017, he has started every game over the last three seasons and was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro last year.
4. LB Demario Davis. Ramczyk wasn't the only Saint to earn first-team All-Pro honors for the first time last year, but it took Davis a little longer to get to that level. A third-round pick by the Jets in 2012, Davis started for most of four seasons in New York to relatively little acclaim, then spent one season in Cleveland before going back to the Jets in 2017. After he led the league that season with 97 solo tackles, the Saints signed him in 2018 and it is after that move that he has really blossomed. Over the past two seasons he has 221 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, 20 quarterback hits, 12 passes defensed and an interception. Davis is the prototypical all-around linebacker, excelling in pass coverage but also able to rush the passer and a sure tackler in between. He is also responsible for calling the defensive plays and getting all of his teammates in the right spot.
New Orleans tied Tampa Bay for third in scoring last season and its offense was incredibly hot down the stretch, averaging 36.3 points per game over the last seven weeks, with at least 34 points in six of those seven outings. As noted above, the Saints were also good at protecting the football on their way to the second-best turnover differential in the league. No team turned it over less frequently last year than New Orleans, which committed only eight giveaways, or one every two games. In fact, no team has ever been that careful with the football before, as the Saints' set a record for fewest giveaways in a season. The Saints' defense ranked eighth in sacks per pass play and sixth in preventing third-down conversions and was particularly good at stopping the run (91.3 yards allowed per game. Here are some more specific areas in which the Saints should be expected to excel based on what they did in the 2019 season:
· The New Orleans defense racked up 51 sacks last year, four more than the Buccaneers and good for third in the NFL. The defensive end trio of Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Trey Hendrickson led the way with a combined 26 sacks and Davis, the multi-talented linebacker, added four sacks of his own. The Saints had a sacks-per-pass-attempt rate of 8.46%, which was eighth-best in the NFL.
· The Saints signed undrafted wide receiver Deonte Harris out of Assumption University for his return skills last year and hit the jackpot. Harris was so good as a rookie that he made the Pro Bowl after averaging 9.4 yards per punt return (with one touchdown) and 26.8 yards per kickoff return. That latter statistic helped the Saints rank fifth in starting field position after kickoffs, as they opened drives at an average of their own 26.6-yard line.
· As one would expect of a team featuring Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, the Saints were close to automatic in their short passing game last year, particularly to the two outside zones. New Orleans threw the third-most passes to the short left zone and the fifth-most to the short right zone, at 195 and 205 plays respectively. The Saints were particularly effective on short passes to the right side, ranking fourth in average gain (6.52 yards) and first in completion percentage (75.1%).
· Given Kamara's effectiveness in the open field, one might expect the Saints' rushing attack to emphasize getting him around the edge. In fact, New Orleans was extremely good at running between the tackles in 2019. New Orleans' average of 5.0 yards on runs between the tackles, according to NFL Next Gen stats, was the best in the entire NFL last year.
The Saints did not have a lot of glaring weaknesses last year, as might be expected from a 13-3 squad. Their pass defense only ranked 20th in yards allowed, though that may have had a lot to do with opponents often having to play catch-up. They ranked 27th in both penalties and penalty yards against them and didn't often score in two-minute drills. In addition:
· If the Buccaneers' can get a first down inside the Saints' 10-yard line on Sunday, there's a good chance they'll take it always to the end zone. Last year, New Orleans allowed touchdowns on 81.48% of the goal-to-go drives they tried to defend. That was the fourth-worst percentage in the league.
· The Saints' defense was middle-of-the-pack in interceptions last year, with 13 total to tie for 12th among NFL teams. But they didn't get many picks from their cornerback position in particular. No New Orleans cornerback had more than one interception in 2019 and together they combined for just three picks.
· Perhaps the return of Malcolm Jenkins will make a difference in 2020, but the Saints' secondary had a bit of trouble defending the deep pass down the middle of the field last year. On 23 such plays, opposing teams averaged 23.0 yards per attempt, which was the second-worst average by any defense in the NFL. Those opponents also completed 69.57% of those passes, which put the Saints' defense at 29th in the rankings.
· It might not actually qualify as a weakness since the offense was still very productive, but the Saints don't air out the football very much anymore. Last year, Brees threw deep on only 7% of his passes, which was the third-lowest rate in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2020
Thanks to a couple of trades made this year and last year, the Saints only made four picks in the 2020 draft, including just one after the first round. They still found a new starter for their offensive line for the second year in a row on draft weekend. Their biggest addition on defense was actually a player returning to his original NFL home, while the offense got a new piece that could make it a little tougher to defend Michael Thomas.
1. G Cesar Ruiz. The first player the Saints drafted in 2019 (in the second round), center Erik McCoy, stepped right into a starting job on the O-Line and acquitted himself quite nicely. This year, the Saints spent their first-round pick on a player billed as a center, too, though Michigan's Cesar Ruiz is actually slated to start at right guard. The Saints' skill at identifying top line prospects in the draft makes it likely that Ruiz will add to an already strong offensive front.
2. S Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins returns to the team that drafted him 14th overall in 2009 after a very strong six-year run with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints needed a new starter in their secondary after losing one to Cincinnati in free agency (more on that below) and they got one they can maneuver all around the field like a chess piece.
3. WR Emmanuel Sanders. Michael Thomas led the NFL in catches and yards last year and was targeted an incredible 185 times, but no other Saints wideout had more than 56 targets or 30 receptions. Sanders, who has averaged nearly 70 receiving yards per game over the last six years, should get more attention than that as a second option. He has already shown how effective he could be as a number-two receiver during the peak years in Denver with Demaryius Thomas.
1. S Vonn Bell. That safety that Jenkins is replacing is Bell, who went to the Bengals. Bell is a good defender in his own right and a younger option than Jenkins but he also has just one interception in four NFL seasons so far.
2. QB Teddy Bridgewater. Brees started at least 15 games in each of his first 13 seasons with the Saints, so it was a brand new experience for Sean Payton's team when he was sidelined for five weeks by a thumb injury last year. Incredibly, the Saints went 5-0 in Brees's absence, thanks in large part to the steady play of Bridgewater. Bridgewater turned that run into a starting gig in Carolina and now Brees is backed up by Taysom Hill and former Buc Jameis Winston.
3. LB A.J. Klein. Klein started 15 games for the Saints last year next to star Demario Davis on a defense that played the majority of its snaps with only two linebackers on the field. Klein departed for Buffalo in the offseason, and the Saints are expected to start 2019 seventh-round pick Kaden Elliss in his place. Zack Baun, a 2020 third-round choice, could also be a consideration.