The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their 2018 regular season this Sunday with a visit to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to take on the New Orleans Saints. The Buccaneers' NFC South rivals are coming off a playoff campaign in 2017 in which they won 11 games, took the division title on a tiebreaker over Carolina and won one postseason game before losing in unforgettable fashion in Minnesota.
The Saints had the league's second-best offense in terms of yards last year and the fourth-highest scoring attack. New Orleans' defense, long a troublesome counterpart to its prolific offense, took a huge leap forward in 2017 and allowed the 10th-fewest points in the league. Here is a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face in New Orleans to open the season.
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Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. QB Drew Brees. It's obvious but no less true. At some point not too deep into this season, Brees is going to pass Peyton Manning and Brett Favre to become the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards. In 25 career games against the Buccaneers, Brees has a 95.8 passer rating which, to be fair, is nearly identical to his career mark of 96.7. He has averaged roughly 280 yards and two touchdown passes per game against Tampa Bay, though his 26 interceptions in those games is tied for his most against any team.
2. RB Alvin Kamara. Kamara was more like a league-wrecker in his 2017 debut campaign. He had 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns and actually had a bit more yards on receptions (826) than runs (728). He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per catch, both outstanding figures for running backs. With backfield mate Mark Ingram serving a suspension and unavailable for this game, Kamara should be even more squarely in the Bucs' crosshairs.
3. DE Cameron Jordan. For years, Jordan was the one bright spot on a bad Saints defense, making the Pro Bowl twice and never recording fewer than 7.5 sacks in any season from 2012 to 2016. Last year, when that defense got much better around him, Jordan took his already great game to another level with 13.0 sacks and first-team All-Pro honors. His 9.5 career sacks at the Bucs' expense are second only to his 10.0 against Atlanta.
4. CB Marshon Lattimore. Another member of the Saints' incredible 2017 draft class, Lattimore instantly emerged as one of the league's best cover corners. He made the Pro Bowl, racked up five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and added 18 passes defensed. Lattimore did not, however, pick off a pass in two games against Tampa Bay last year.
Drew Brees threw for 4,334 yards last season which, amazingly, marked his lowest total in 12 years as a Saint. And that wasn't a bad thing! With the emergence of a dangerous rushing attack featuring Ingram and Kamara, Brees and the Saints happily presented opponents with a more balanced attack. Brees rarely absorbs a lot of sacks, but his 20 times taken down last year were his lowest since the 2009 Super Bowl season. Some other bright spots for the Saints, statistically:
· Brees's targets don't drop the ball often. Saints players dropped only 3.0% of their catchable passes in 2017, the lowest percentage in the entire NFL.
· Watch out for the quick strike. No team in the NFL had more than the 89 plays of 20 or more yards (passing and running) the Saints recorded last year.
· The Saints' offensive balance makes second down tough on opponents. No team did better running the ball on second down in 2017 than New Orleans, which averaged 5.59 yards per tote in that situation.
· New Orleans coaches do something right in the halftime locker room. In all of 2017, the Saints only allowed three points on their opponents' first drive after halftime. The league average was 32.
· A ball-hawking defense sets up scoring chances. The Saints picked off 20 passes in 2017, third-best in the league. They turned their 30 overall takeaways into 89 points, eighth-most in the NFL.
· Opponents need to establish a running game early. The Saints' pass defense is particularly good on first down, allowing a passer rating of 76.9, third-lowest in the NFL.
View exclusive photos of the Buccaneers' 2018 Preseason from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
These are hard to come by on offense in particular, but every team has areas in which it can improve. For instance, the Saints' rush defense was just middle of the road in 2017 and its yards allowed per carry was in the bottom five. In addition:
· The Saints weren't spectacular on third downs in 2017. Their conversion rate of 37.6% ranked only 19th, and they were just 23rd-best on third-and-medium (40.4%).
· The Saints also lost 10 fumbles last season, which was slightly higher than league average.
· New Orleans didn't get much out of its punt-return game in 2017, ranking 25th in average yards per return (6.4) and breaking off just one runback of 20 or more yards.
· While the Saints were great coming out of the intermission, their defense was not terribly strong at the very start of the game. New Orleans allowed 49 points on their opponent's first drives of the game, second-worst in the NFL.
· As good as the Saints' secondary was in 2017, particularly in comparison to some recent seasons, it was occasionally susceptible to letting the ball get behind it. New Orleans allowed 57 completions of 20 or more yards, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.
· That admonition above to get the running game going early against the Saints? It is possible. New Orleans allowed four or more yards on 44.3% of opponent runs, the 24th-worst mark in the NFL in 2017.
NEW FACES IN 2018
New Orleans had a draft class for the ages in 2017 with the selections of Lattimore, Kamara, tackle Ryan Ramczyk and safety Marcus Williams, among others. It would be hard to duplicate that level of success in 2018, but there are some new players on the Saints' roster with whom the Bucs will want to be familiar.
1. DE Marcus Davenport. New Orleans made a very aggressive move to trade up in the first round of this year's draft, surrendering their first-round selection next year to leap 13 spots and take the raw but talented Davenport, a pass-rusher out of Texas-San Antonio. It could take Davenport a while to get used to the NFL game, but if he emerges as a threat opposite Jordan, that will spell big trouble for opponents.
2. TE Benjamin Watson. Watson is only sort of a new face in New Orleans, as he previously played for the Saints from 2013-15 and gave his long career new life in '15 with 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns. Watson then moved on to Baltimore and, after missing the 2016 season with an Achilles tendon injury, came back to have another productive campaign in 2017. The 37-year-old vet is surely happy to be hooked up with Brees again.
3. CB Patrick Robinson. Robinson began his career in New Orleans as a first-round pick in 2010 but never really emerged as a star for the Saints. He has since played for three other teams and now he's coming off a very good campaign as part of Philadelphia's championship squad. He's back and will likely take over as the slot corner.
Others: Former Bears WR Cameron Meredith could emerge as a top option in the slot. LSU center Will Clapp could be the heir apparent to Max Unger. The Saints have productive safeties in Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell but added depth with former Panther Kurt Coleman.
1. RB Mark Ingram. As noted above, Ingram will definitely be unavailable to play against the Bucs on Sunday as he begins a four-game PED suspension handed down by the league in May. Ingram ran for 1,124 yards and scored 12 total touchdowns last year.
2. LB Nate Stupar. Stupar is a good special teams player and he had a strong preseason but he was released earlier in the week to make room for the signing of RB Mike Gillislee.
3. RB Shane Vereen. Vereen was no lock to make the active roster but it became a moot point when he was placed on injured reserve.