The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have run the gauntlet of quarterback challenges already this season, from Super Bowl star Eli Manning to 2011 sensation Cam Newton to the league's newest star, Robert Griffin. A week ago, the Buccaneers drew a different sort of assignment in Kansas City Chiefs fill-in Brady Quinn, making his first start in three years, but that reprieve was short-lived. Into Raymond James Stadium this Sunday walks Drew Brees, the most prolific passer of the last half-decade.
The visiting New Orleans Saints are a surprising 1-4 so far this season, but Brees has still commanded the NFL's top-ranked passing attack. The Bucs are intimately familiar with Brees, having faced him twice a year since 2006, and know that he's capable of putting up big numbers against even the best defenses. It's obvious that slowing down #9 for the Saints is the key to keeping any game with New Orleans within reach.
That said, the Bucs actually expect Brees to hand it off a little more on Sunday.
"I do believe they are going to run it a little bit more today," said Bucs Head Coach Greg Schiano. "My feeling is they're looking for some balance. When you look back, they're a little bit heavier on the pass than they've been, and I think that's part of their solution, to run the ball and maybe gobble a little bit more time in the time-of-possession battle. So this will get interesting, but at the end of the day we all know it goes down to #9. When we're playing defense, we have to find a way to stop Nine."
Despite a ranking of #25 in total yardage, the Bucs' defense has impressed most onlookers this season. Tampa Bay ranks 12th in points allowed, which is clearly the more significant stat, and is ninth in the NFL with a turnover ratio of 3. Moreover, the team's more aggressive approach has resulted in a lot more negative moments for their opponents.
"I think the guys are playing extremely hard," said Schiano. "What that does is, it allows you make to some plays. We lead the National Football League in TFLs, tackles for loss, and we've played one less game than a lot of those teams. Those plays are what are really helping us get people behind schedule, and when you get them behind schedule they become one-dimensional. We need to continue to do that."
Schiano pointed out several elite performers on the Saints' offense, from Brees to do-everything scatback Darren Sproles. The Bucs don't have to contend with Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who is out with an ankle injury, but losing one weapon has rarely slowed down the Brees-led Saints offense.
"It's a big challenge," said Schiano. "Offensively they do so many things, and they do so many things well. You go from one area of preparation to the other and they're ranked third in the NFL in that, and they're ranked first in that and fourth in that. So we know we have our hands full, but that's exciting. That's what challenges are about."
Experienced veteran Daniel Thomas gets the start at tight end for the Saints on Sunday. In addition to Graham, the Saints declared the following players inactive: RB Chris Ivory, CB Elbert Mack, LB David Hawthorne, DT Tyrunn Walker, T Bryce Harris and DE Turk McBride. Hawthorne is also out due to injury and will be replaced in the starting lineup by Will Herring. New Orleans is also likely to get LB Jonathan Vilma into the game, which would be Vilma's first action of the season.
G Carl Nicks (foot) and WR Vincent Jackson (calf) are both cleared to play, as expected, so the Bucs have no one out due to injury. Their seven inactive players are RB Michael Smith, DB Keith Tandy, LB Jacob Cutrera, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR Chris Owusu and TE Danny Noble. CB LeQuan Lewis, who was just promoted from the practice squad on Sunday, will suit up and is expected to help on special teams.
The Bucs and Saints will kick off their Week Seven matchup at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be televised in the Bay area on WTVT FOX 13 and will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Buccaneers.com will post a running blog of all the action on Sunday, and will also provide coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.