For the first time since 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are playing one of their division rivals twice within a three-game period. For the Buccaneers, the rematch is an opportunity for a rare season sweep of the powerful New Orleans Saints. For the Saints, it's a chance for revenge. And for both teams, first place is on the line.
Head Coach Raheem Morris guided the Buccaneers to a tight 26-20 win over their NFC South foes at Raymond James Stadium on October 16, but he made sure his players aren't taking a repeat for granted.
"Obviously you showed them your cut-ups and you showed them your film study, but really you don't talk about the result of that game because that really has nothing to do with what is going to happen today," said Morris. "We've got to go out today and play fast, play hard, play smart and play consistent again and try to get another win."
What the Buccaneers can count on is that a repeat of the formula they followed three weeks ago will greatly improve their chances of getting another win over the Saints. In addition to the four-part mantra Morris repeated above, the Buccaneers also started fast (a relatively rarity this season) and won the turnover battle (always a recipe for success).
In fact, the Bucs' start against the Saints in October ranks as their best of the year. They scored a season-high 20 points before halftime and had their most productive quarter, a 17-point second period, of the year, all of which allowed them to hold off a furious and almost unavoidable Saints rally.
"It helps when you get an early lead and you can maintain it throughout the game," said Morris. "The team has a really good knack for hanging on and running the football and doing what you need to do to keep moving the chains when you have the lead. They also have a knack for coming back."
The Bucs also had their best turnover ratio of the season in that victory, taking it away four times and not turning it over once. Three of those takeaways were interceptions off prolific QB Drew Brees, who has tossed 10 picks this season and 32 since the start of 2010. Brees continues to pile up huge passing numbers, especially in the Superdome, but takeaways can help counter that damage.
"You're talking about a phenomenal offense," said Morris. "You're talking about an offense that's going to go out there do what they do, and do it well. You have to take advantage of the opportunities that are provided for you, and the only way that happens is if technique and opportunity meet. When that happens, you have to capitalize by catching the ball, picking the ball off, getting your sacks and getting your plays on defense. We have to go out there and do the same thing we did last time against the Saints."
One of the reasons the Buccaneers were able to close out the game against New Orleans three weeks ago was the 106 tough yards churned out by running back Earnest Graham, who was starting in the place of the injured LeGarrette Blount. Now it's Graham who is unavailable, landing on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon, but Blount is ready to return after a two-game absence. Blount suffered a knee injury in San Francisco on October 9 but came back to practice this week and made it through without incident.
Blount will return to the starting lineup, as will defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) and center Jeff Faine (biceps), two others who have not played in several weeks. Rookie Mason Foster will start at middle linebacker after missing the majority of the last three games with recurring ankle sprains. The additional rest afforded by the bye week has helped the Buccaneers return to almost full strength. The most notable absence is that of starting left guard Jeremy Zuttah. Ted Larsen, who started much of the 2010 season and the 2011 opener at that spot, will slide back into the starting five.
Reserve defensive tackle Frank Okam, who started the last two games in McCoy's absence, is also out due to a calf strain. First-year man George Johnson, primarily an end, could help with the interior line depth by logging some snaps inside.
In addition to Zuttah and Okam, the Buccaneers deactivated WR Sammie Stroughter, CB Myron Lewis, LB Zac Diles, T James Lee and DE Tim Crowder.
The Saints are missing two of their key performers as well. Starting middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a former Pro Bowler, is out with a knee injury and rookie running back Mark Ingram is sidelined with a heel ailment. On defense, the Saints will slide strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar into the middle and bump Jonathan Casillas into the starting lineup on the strong side.
In addition to Vilma and Ingram, the Saints deactivated CB Johnny Patrick, FB Korey Hall, T Ray Willis, WR Adrian Arrington and DE Jeff Charleston.
The Buccaneers aren't exactly at the midpoint of their season, but the bye week provides a natural dividing point, and Morris is looking at Sunday's game as the start of the second half, and an opportunity to begin a playoff push. To meet that goal, the Bucs will need to experience fewer ups and downs than they went through in the first seven games.
"You always want to talk about being more consistent and playing smarter in the second half of the season," said Morris. "We've got to cut down on some of our penalties and some of those things. We were able to bring that to their attention and show them some of those things. We went through that process, and it's a learning process for a young football team like we are. It's been fun and it's been healthy for us."
The Bucs and Saints kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.