-There has been a lot of talk this week about how the Buccaneers will be playing their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints, for the third time this season as they try to advance to the NFC Championship with a win in the Superdome this Sunday. With two teams that are already familiar with each other, what more is there to learn? How do you maintain an element of surprise?
Turns out it may be pretty simple for Tampa Bay, considering they aren't exactly the same team as they were in Week Nine when they last played New Orleans, much less in the season opener when they hadn't had a true offseason or preseason to mesh together with so many new offensive pieces.
"I don't know if it's strategy – just have to do what you're doing at this point in the season [well]," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We're doing different things than we were doing back then, especially in the opener. Just a matter of [doing] what you do and do it better than how they do it."
Since that Week Nine matchup, the Bucs have averaged 347.0 yards per game on offense, the most in the league in that span. They've also averaged a top-five 38.0 points per game. It seems that the proverbial click everyone had been waiting for happened – it just didn't happen until the season series with the Saints was already done.
"I think we've just been going through our growing pains throughout the season, which happens whenever you have a new quarterback," said wide receiver Chris Godwin on Wednesday. "It takes some time to build that chemistry and I think over the last couple of weeks we've done a better job of doing that. We're still working on it. I don't know if much has changed outside of that. We're just a little bit more confident and executing a little better. We have to do a better job of that moving forward."
Meanwhile, the Saints have had chemistry on their side from the beginning. And will continue to have that advantage, not only having roster continuity – but recent playoff experience.
"Well, we know they've been together for a long time, so their chemistry is great, number one," said running back Leonard Fournette about New Orleans. "I think we're getting there as a whole [with] our team on offense. We just have to find ways to execute and not shoot ourselves in the foot with the small penalties. It's taking it play by play. It's going to be a dog fight. They've been here before. It's our first time together – our first time being here – so we've got to come with our 'A' game and fight."
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs will be ready, too. Though defensively, they've done well against New Orleans' major playmakers. Consider that they held Alvin Kamara to 16 yards on 12 carries and just 67 total scrimmage yards in Week One. The second time around, Kamara was held to just 49 scrimmage yards. Wide receiver Michael Thomas was held to a career-low 17 yards on three receptions in Week One then just 51 yards on five receptions in Week Nine. It'll be up to the defense to continue that trend and figure out a way to stop quarterback Drew Brees from willing his team to a win.
"I think we've got to let our guys just be [themselves]," said inside linebacker Devin White about the defense, who will return for Sunday's game after missing the previous two due to being on the reserve/COVID-19 list. "We can't overdo anything and we can't get out of our means. We've got Jason Pierre-Paul and we've got Shaq [Barrett], so we've got to let those guys get after him because that's what they do [and] that's what we pay them to do. We need to let them do it. We've got to stay sound in the front with our two tackles without letting them push the pocket and let the outside guys do what they've got to do. I think the thing that [can] throw Drew Brees of is we've just got to be physical with the receivers, tight ends and the running backs. Don't let them play pitch and catch – I think that will be the biggest 'it factor' for us. If we come out physical and we get our hands on those guys, I think we'll do a great job."
"It's definitely a great rivalry," said wide receiver Mike Evans. "When we play each other, [there] is a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality. As players, we love it – we love this rivalry. I know the fans love it. I would say it is our biggest rivalry."
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