Drew Brees brings his famous 48-game touchdown pass streak to Raymond James Stadium Sunday to face a defense that hasn't allowed a score through the air in three straight outings. Obviously, the Saints' MVP quarterback has kept his streak alive against some very talented defenses, so it will mean no shame for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers if they become number 49. Still, Greg Schiano's defense is scheming to hold Brees in check as much as possible, and the Saints passer sees reason to expect a significant challenge.
"They have a lot of very athletic guys," said Brees of the Buccaneers' secondary. "They're just talented, have some good coverage skills. They do a great job of getting pressure on the quarterback, not only with their four-man rush, so quarterbacks are having to get the ball out sooner than they want. That certainly helps on the back end. They've just got a talented group back there. You've got the leadership of Ronde Barber and his experience and you've got young talented guys like [Mark] Barron. Eric Wright was a big free agent signing. It's just a very solid group. It's all working together. You could be really good on the back end but if you're not getting pressure on the quarterback and they've got all day to throw, the receivers got all day to get open, that can affect the whole thing. The defense as a whole, they've been playing well and it shows."
Brees is obviously very familiar with the Buccaneers, having played against Tampa Bay 13 times, as many as any opponent in his career. His career statistics against the Bucs look gaudy – a 67.2% completion rate and 256.0 yards, 7.38 yards per attempt and just under two touchdowns per game. But, of course, when you average nearly 5,000 yards a season over a six-year span, you're going to have impressive numbers against virtually every team. Brees threw for over 600 yards in his two games against Tampa Bay last year, but knows that the 2012 Buccaneer defense is quite a bit different from a season ago.
"Even though there might be some of the same personnel, the scheme changes whenever you get a new coordinator or a new philosophy," he said. "We've seen that with the Bucs over the last, I guess, five years with some of the changes…definitely from last year to this year. They did a good job in the draft going out and getting some very talented young players.
"And I think from a scheme standpoint, and just an energy standpoint, you see their defense playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of intensity – flying around, a lot of guys around the ball making plays, very aggressive. In all those areas, you see a marked difference."
Brees hasn't faced Barron or fellow Buc rookie Lavonte David yet, but he's quite familiar with one of the pillars of Tampa Bay's defense, third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. McCoy has actually missed three of the four Bucs-Saints games since he arrived in Tampa (he actually was active for the second meeting last year but quickly aggravated what would prove to be a season-ending injury). However, he and Brees have trained together over the past several offseasons, and that has led to a healthy level of mutual respect.
"He's a stud, he's a stud," said Brees of his workout partner. "I watched him work out the last couple offseasons and his mindset, his work ethic – he comes ready to work every day. He's just a big, strong, talented guy. He's got a confidence and a swagger to him. He's on his way to becoming one of the better defensive tackles, three-techniques, in this league. He's probably just scratching the surface because he's still young. I know he's been sidelined by injuries the last two years in the middle of the season, and I know he's champing at the bit to prove himself."
Obviously, Brees has very little left to prove as an NFL player, but he does think the public at large has an errant perception of his team this year. The Saints lost their first four games on the heels of a difficult offseason that included the suspension of Head Coach Sean Taylor for the entire year. It's easy and understandable to connect the Saints' tough start with their series of offseason setbacks, but Brees says his team is under control and still expecting good things.
"People on the outside might think that it's crisis for us, but on the inside it's not that at all," he said. "Our expectation level is obviously much higher than the way we started this season. We're a prideful group. We've got great leadership, great work ethic, great character. We've always felt that as long as we do things the right way, good things are going to happen to us. We're going to catch a break. It just seems like everything that could go wrong went wrong in those first four weeks. But we got better. If you want to look at the positive side of it, the bright side, each week we turn on the film and [say], 'Hey, I know it didn't end up in a positive result, but we got better.' We got closer and closer, and finally we broke the seal two weeks ago, going into the bye week, against San Diego. I think that was big for us, just getting over the hump and now it's like, 'Hey, let's get on a roll here.'"