MVP Candidate Drew Brees Supported by Aggressive Saints Defense

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their 2018 season in an extremely promising fashion, taking down the defending NFC South champions in their house. Tampa Bay's Week One win at New Orleans offered a glimpse of what was to come for the Buccaneers, as they rolled up 529 yards of offense in a 48-40 win – the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history – but also allowed 475 yards and had to hold on at the end for the narrow victory.

The Bucs had the upper hand on that first weekend, but it was the Saints who would follow with 10 straight victories to take control of the division. The Buccaneers committed no giveaways in that win but soon fell well behind in the standings thanks to persistent turnover problems that neutered the NFL's top-ranked offense in terms of yardage. Tampa Bay has righted itself in recent weeks with much-improved defense and a reversal of those turnover fortunes but still finds itself scrambling to hang onto the edges of the NFC playoff hunt. To say in that race, the Bucs will probably need to finish off a season sweep of the Saints on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Given the twists and turns of the season since Week One, Tampa Bay's rousing win in the Superdome seems like a completely different season at this point.

"It does seem like a long time ago," agreed Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Scheme-wise, there’s a lot of things to carry over. When you play your division games, there’s not a whole lot of change-over in scheme. There’s a few players that are gone off both sides that have gone onto IR. There’s a few players that have come back. It does seem like a long, long, time ago when that game was played. As far as scheme, you’re still incorporating what we did against them, what they did against us – that’s still going to be weaved into your game plan on both sides. The unknown is – how much will they change and how much will we change?"

What hasn't changed is the sublime play of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, an MVP candidate who brings a seemingly-impossible 123.2 passer rating into the final quarter of the season. Brees has thrown 30 touchdown passes against just three interceptions and is closing in on an NFL record with his 75.5% completion rate. The Saints are also still making great use of dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara and this time around will also have the services of running back Mark Ingram, who was starting an NFL suspension in Week One. The rest of the Saints' offense has been a bit amorphous throughout the season beyond 91-catch wideout Michael Thomas.

"Their ball distribution is mostly through Thomas and the two backs," said Koetter. "You look at changes on the roster, they’ve gone through a few wide receivers now. Besides Thomas, they’ve gone through a bunch of wide receivers – Ted Ginn being the most noticeable of their downfield [threats]."

The Buccaneers also now have a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the Saints' defense three months into the season than they did in Week One. New Orleans, for instance, is allowing a league-low 75.3 rushing yards per game and has racked up 37 sacks. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against New Orleans on Sunday:

View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.

GAME-WRECKERS

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. We've already noted Brees, so we've highlighted two other players on offense for the Saints. In addition, one of the two defensive Game Wreckers is a change from Week One thanks to a breakout season from a previous first-round pick.

1. WR Michael Thomas. Thomas started the season with 16 catches on 17 targets for 180 yards and a touchdown against the Buccaneers, and by the end of Week Three he already had an incredible 38 receptions. He has, perhaps inevitably, slowed down somewhat since then, though he helped the Saints hand the L.A. Rams their only loss so far with a masterful 12-catch, 211-yard outing in Week Nine. Thomas is so adept at getting open for Brees that he has racked up his 91 catches this year on just 105 targets. No other wideout on the roster has more than 22 catches, so the Buccaneers will obviously be paying a lot of attention to Thomas on Sunday.

2. RB Alvin Kamara. Nothing has changed in this regard since the Buccaneers were preparing for opening weekend. Kamara remains the most dangerous weapon in Brees's arsenal, as evidenced by his 742 rushing yards (4.6) per carry, 65 receptions for 555 yards and 15 total touchdowns. Kamara scored three times against the Buccaneers in Week One, twice on the ground and once through the air, and only the Rams' Todd Gurley has found the end zone more often this year. Kamara can run between the tackles or take it around the edge, and he is an extremely good pass-catcher who can turn short throws into huge gains. This time around, the Saints can spell Kamara with Ingram, which only makes it more difficult to stop both backs.

3. DE Cameron Jordan. Jordan has four sacks over the Saints' last two games and by virtue of that run has hit double digits for the fourth time in the last six seasons. The Buccaneers managed to hold him without a sack in Week One, though he still had six tackles and a pass breakup. Jordan is well on his way to a fifth straight season with at least 20 quarterback hits and he's leading a Saints pass-rush that has taken the passer down more often than any other team over the last seven weeks (just one more than the Buccaneers' defense in that span). Last week, Jordan also forced and recovered a fumble against the Cowboys in New Orleans' narrow loss.

4. DT Sheldon Rankins. We didn’t highlight Rankins leading up to the Week One contest, as the big defensive tackle had recorded just six sacks through his first two NFL seasons. But the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft – a player that Koetter revealed was high on the Bucs' list that year – has come into his own in his third season. Rankins has seven sacks and has given the Saints' defense a source of pressure up the middle to pair with Jordan's consistent outside rush. He also has 10 tackles for loss and has been a big factor in the Saints' impressive ability to stop the run.

STRENGTHS

The Saints are just plain good on offense in virtually every category, ranking ninth in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, sixth in total yards per game, fifth in yards per play, third in sacks allowed per pass attempt, second in interceptions per pass attempt, third in first downs per game, sixth in third-down success rate, fifth in red zone touchdown rate, second in average time of possession and third in points per game. Brees rarely makes a mistake and the Saints have committed the second-lowest total of giveaways on offense, with 10. As noted above, New Orleans also boasts the NFL's top-ranked rush defense. Some other bright spots for the Saints, statistically:

·     You may have heard rumblings in the past couple seasons that Brees has seen a decline in his arm strength, which is why the Saints throw a lot more shorter passes to the likes of Kamara and Thomas these days. There's some truth to that in terms of play selection, but the reports of the demise of Brees's right arm seem greatly exaggerated. Consider this: The Saints (that is, Brees) boast the NFL's top passer rating on balls thrown more than 20 yards downfield, at 139.0.

·     The Saints' offense does a good job at staying out of bad down-and-distance situations by succeeding on first down more often than not. Brees and the Saints have recorded four or more yards on 57.7% of their first-down plays this season, the best percentage in the league.

·     New Orleans has scored 30-plus points in nine of 12 games this year and has two wins by more than 40 points, so it stands to reason that their opponents have frequently been playing catch-up. That can artificially improve a team's run defense, as the opposition is forced to abandon the ground game in an attempt to catch up quickly. That said, the Saints appear to be legitimately good against the run, as seen in the average of 3.3 yards per carry they've given up on first down. That's the best mark in the entire NFL.

·     Saints kicker Wil Lutz has been very, very busy…and nearly automatic. He has tried 45 extra points and has only missed once. He has also been good on 23 of 24 field goal attempts, including 11 of 12 from 40 yards out or farther.

WEAKNESSES

As one might expect from a 10-2 team, the Saints do not have many glaring deficiencies. Their defense ranks 21st in third-down conversion rate allowed, though not much separates the teams ranked 13th through 23rd. If we're making an effort to be critical, there are the following issues:

·     Opposing teams have been able to move the ball through the air against the Saints, as the Buccaneers did in Week One with 26 first downs, including 17 of the passing variety. New Orleans has allowed a 70.1% completion rate and 174 passing first downs this season, the former of which ranks 30th in the NFL and the latter 31st.

·     When the Bucs and Saints met in the season opener, Brees drove the Saints down the field for a touchdown on the game's opening possession. However, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers answered right back with a TD drive ending in a 58-yard score by DeSean Jackson. That's been a trend for the Saints, who have allowed 51 points on their opponents' first possessions this year. That's the second-highest total in the NFL.

·     The Saints have a good rushing attack behind Kamara and Ingram, averaging 127.4 yards per game. However, in what seems like an anomaly, they have not had a high percentage of breakaway runs. New Orleans has gained 10 or more yards on 33 of their 363 rushing plays this year; that 9.1% percentage of runs that go for double digits is actually the third lowest in the NFL.

·     New Orleans has gotten very little out of its punt return game this year. The Saints have just 97 punt return yards on the entire season, averaging 5.4 yards per runback to rank 29th in the NFL in that category. Kamara has 12 of the team's 18 returns and a 6.8-yard average, with a long of just 16.

NEW FACES IN 2018

In this case, we're focusing on changes to the roster and depth chart since the last time the Bucs and Saints met three months ago. New Orleans has added a new starter to its secondary and has seen a good amount of turnover in its receiving corps.

1. CB Eli Apple. Prior to the trade deadline the Saints sent fourth and seventh-round draft picks to the Giants for a cornerback who went 10th overall in the 2016 draft. The 6-1, 203-pound Apple is good in press-man coverage, which makes him a good fit for a Saints defense that likes to play man-to-man defense. Apple has contributed 35 tackles, one interception and four passes defensed since putting on a Saints jersey.

2. QB Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints also traded with the Jets for Bridgewater, the former Vikings starter who had to work his way back from a catastrophic knee injury suffered on the practice field in 2016. Bridgewater is admittedly unlikely to be a factor in Sunday's game – Brees essentially never misses games due to injury – but he would be the next man in if something unexpected happens to the Saints starter.

3. RB Mark Ingram. Ingram isn't a newcomer to the Saints but he will be making his first appearance in this year's season series with the Buccaneers. Ingram was serving an NFL suspension when the season began. Since returning, Ingram has gone right back to being a prolific complement to Kamara, gaining 602 yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. WR Michael Thomas. The Saints' leading receiver was not participating in practice when the week began due to an ankle injury suffered last week against Dallas.

2. T Terron Armstead. Armstead started at left tackle against the Buccaneers in Week One but he has missed the last three games due to a pectoral injury. Veteran Jermon Bushrod has been starting in his place.

3. WR Ted Ginn. The deep-threat receiver had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' Week One loss to Tampa Bay, but he suffered a knee injury in Week Four and has been on injured reserve since mid-October. He is not yet eligible to come off I.R.

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