The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints in Week 15 on Sunday, and we're counting down the long hours to the 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shaq Barrett. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Friday that Barrett "has been playing at a really high level" in recent weeks, and last Sunday against Buffalo Barrett looked like he might be peaking at the right time. Barrett not only recorded 1.5 sacks of the hard-to-tackle Josh Allen in Tampa Bay's overtime win over Buffalo but also notched a season-high five quarterback hits and, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, seven quarterback pressures. Barrett needs just one more sack to hit double digits in that category for the second time in just three seasons as a Buccaneer. This week, Barrett and the Buccaneers other edge rushers will face a doubly hard task as they try to put pressure on the Saints' Taysom Hill without leaving openings for the hard-charging quarterback to get out in the open around the ends.
Mike Evans. Evans is always worth watching when the Buccaneers play the Saints because his battles with cornerback Marshon Lattimore sometimes become epic. In Week Eight, Evans caught two passes for 48 yards, both with Lattimore in coverage, one of which went for a 41-yard touchdown. In each of the last four Bucs-Saints games, Lattimore has shadowed Evans on at least 65% of his snaps, and twice on 75% of them or more. Evans has not put up big receiving numbers in the last two seasons against the Saints but did score a touchdown in the Bucs' win in last year's playoffs while Lattimore was in coverage. Lattimore plays a lot of press coverage and that's led to both good and bad results for the Saints' defense. According to Next Gen Stats, Lattimore has forced the highest incompletion rate in the league when in press coverage but has also allowed four touchdowns on those plays. Evans can obviously handle press coverage and if he can beat Lattimore off the line may be in position for some more big plays like his long touchdown in the Superdome in October. Regardless, it's always entertaining to watch Evans, who caught his 11th touchdown pass last Sunday and is now just 115 yards shy of his eight straight 1,000-yard season.
Andrew Adams. Adams made his first two starts in the last two weeks due to an injury that has kept Jordan Whitehead sidelined and a three-game suspension handed down by the league to Mike Edwards. Whitehead could return to action this week but now Antoine Winfield, Jr. is questionable with a foot injury so Adams has a good chance to remain in the starting lineup for at least one more week. Against Buffalo, Adams surprisingly made his biggest impact rushing the passer, knocking down two passes while in the midst of blitzing and chasing Josh Allen into a Shaq Barrett sack on another backfield incursion. Despite signing free agency deals with Detroit in 2020 and Philadelphia in 2021, Adams has ended up back in Tampa for four straight seasons and has started 17 games in that span. He's been productive when he's gotten a chance to play, too, with 106 tackles, five interceptions and 14 passes defensed in 30 games overall, most of that coming in his starts. One exception was his three-interception game against Carolina in 2018, which allowed him to join Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib as the only other Bucs ever to pull off that feat.
Tristan Wirfs. The 2022 Pro Bowl rosters will be announced on Monday night and it will be interesting to see if the Buccaneers send an offensive lineman to the all-star game for the first time since 2015. Th fact that the Buccaneers lead the NFL in lowest sack rate allowed despite also leading the league in pass attempts suggests there are multiple big men up front having all star-type seasons for Tampa Bay. Wirfs, in fact, has been playing at an extremely high level since he first took the field as a day-one rookie starter in 2020. The former Iowa standout gave up just one sack during his rookie season and so far this year has also been credited with one sack allowed by Pro Football Focus, and that's on a whopping 907 snaps (tied for sixth in the league among offensive linemen). Wirfs has a challenge awaiting on Sunday night with the edge-rushing duo of Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport (more on him below), and his ability to help the O-Line keep Tom Brady clean once again will be crucial to the game's outcome.
Devin White. White hasn't missed a start this year but he did recently play through a quad strain that had him on the injury report in Weeks 11-13 and limited his practice time. White was not on the injury report in Week 14 and he subsequently hit the Bills with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits. On Friday, Arians said that White was back to playing like his normal self. White seems to enjoy playing against the Saints, as he has hit double-digit tackles in all five of his career outings against them. In the Bucs' NFC Divisional Playoff win over the Saints, White played a huge role in the Buccaneers' second-half rally to a 30-20 win, setting up two scores with an interception returned 28 yards and a fumble recovery returned 18 yards. White will likely be one of the most important Buccaneer defenders in the efforts to keep quarterback Taysom Hill in check when Hill tucks the ball and starts to run. White should also have a busy afternoon tracking down running back Alvin Kamara, since a high percentage of the Saints' offense is sure to go through Kamara.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 6-0/37.5/438.0/+114. The Buccaneers will put their perfect 2021 home record on the line Sunday against the Saints, who have won their last three games at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs will also be looking to extend an impressive scoring streak on their home turf. In their six home wins so far, the Bucs have scored an average of 37.5 points, the most for any team on their home field this season. The Bucs' 438.0 yards per game and +114 scoring differential at home also rank first in the NFL this season. In 2007, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a 6-0 start in home games, on their way to a 16-0 regular season, and New England scored 30+ points in each of those first six contests at home. They were the only team ever to accomplish that feat before Brady and the Bucs matched it this season. New England only scored 30 points in their seventh home victory in 2007, so the Buccaneers could be the first team in NFL history to extend such a streak to seven games. Tampa Bay could also set a new franchise record with a win, as that would be their ninth straight victory at home. The team previously had eight-game home win streaks in 1996-97 and 1999-2000.
· 57.6/115.7. Brady has excelled at every level of passing – short, intermediate and long – since joining the Buccaneers, as evidenced by his 76 touchdowns, 302.3 yards per game and 103.1 passer rating in 29 regular-season starts in red and pewter. The Saints' defense, however, has managed to limit his success in the intermediate range far more than the rest of the Bucs' opponents. Brady's passer rating on intermediate throws (10-19 air yards) in his 26 starts not involving New Orleans is 115.7, with an 18-3 TD-INT ratio and an excellent 10.6 yards per attempt. Against the Saints, Brady's numbers on intermediate throws include a 57.6 passer rating, a 5-7 TD-INT ratio and 8.7 yards per attempt. On the other hand, Brady has excelled on short passes (0-9) air yards this season, with a 124.6 passer rating, and the New Orleans defense has allowed a passer rating of 103.3 on such throws to rank 25th in the NFL.
· 203/4.6/3. The Saints road game against the Jets last Sunday marked the first time this season that their offense has had Taysom Hill starting at quarterback and Alvin Kamara in action. The result was a dominant rushing attack. Kamara logged a career-high 27 carries and turned them into 120 yards and a touchdown. Overall, the Saints ran the ball on 64.7% of their plays and racked up 203 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Oh, by the way, Sunday night's game at Raymond James Stadium will be the first one that features Hill starting, Kamara in action and Mark Ingram also ready to contribute.
· 65.52%/43.59%. This one is very straightforward and could easily be the deciding factor in Sunday's game. The Buccaneers' offense has been very good in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 65.52% of their drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line and averaging 5.29 points scored per red zone possession. Those figures rank fifth and fourth in the NFL, respectively. However, the Saints just happen to have one of the best red zone defenses in the league. They lead the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage allowed (43.59%) and rank third in yards allowed per red zone possession (4.21).
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Through 13 games, the Buccaneers have started 11 different combinations of players in the secondary. Some of that is attributable to whether or not the team opens in a nickel package, but most of it is the result of a near-weekly injury incident rate among defensive back this season. Get ready for a 12th new combination, because it appears there will be some more comings and goings in the backfield in Week 15. Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. is questionable to play due to a foot injury, but safety Jordan Whitehead may be returning from a two-game absence due to a calf injury. Whitehead was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report but did get in a full practice that morning. Also cornerback Jamel Dean will miss the game due to illness. The possible Whitehead-Adams combination in the back end of the defense will be a new one and with Richard Sherman unlikely to play the replacement for Dean could be Dee Delaney, Pierre Desir or Ross Cockrell.
· New Orleans will be without both of its two starting offensive tackles, as both Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk were ruled out on Friday due to knee injuries. Armstead and Ramczyk have already missed a combined nine starts, and eighth-year veteran James Hurst has picked up seven of those nine starts. When Armstead and Ramczyk were both sidelined in Week 11, the Saints started rookie sixth-rounder Landon Young at left tackle and Hurst at right tackle. Young subsequently landed on injured reserve, and when Armstead and Ramczyk were both out again in Week 13 the Saints put Hurst back at left tackle and used Jordan Mills at right tackle. If Hurst again plugs one of the tackle holes this week, that will also affect the lineup on the interior, as Hurst has been the replacement for left guard Andrus Peat (now on I.R.) whenever he hasn't had to play tackle. When Hurst has been at tackle, the Saints have bumped Calvin Throckmorton up into the lineup at left guard.
· The Bucs may have to change things up in their offensive backfield as well. Running back Leonard Fournette has been on a recent tear, with 355 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in his last three outings, but he only got in minimal practice time this week due to an ankle injury. Fournette did practice in a limited fashion on Friday but was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. Ronald Jones would take over as the lead back if Fournette is sidelined for the first time this season, with second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn in support.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
The Saints have an excellent defense which should benefit from the return of several players from injury absences. The Saints give up the fewest yards per rush in the NFL (3.66), have the seventh-highest interception rate (3.05%), are 10th in third-down defense (37.9%) and, as noted above, are incredibly stingy in the red zone. The Saints' offense, also as noted above, is incredibly dangerous on the ground with the backfield combination of quarterback Taysom hill and tailbacks Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and the offensive is 12th in sacks allowed per pass play (5.93%). Punter Blake Gillikin ranks sixth in gross punting average (48.6) and the Saints have the sixth-best punt return average (11.0), albeit currently without the services of return man Deonte Harris. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday night.
While Cameron Jordan remains the anchor of the Saints' aggressive defensive front, it was actually Trey Hendrickson who led the team in sacks last year with 13.5. That earned Hendrickson a lucrative deal with the Bengals in free agency, but the Saints hoped that 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport would step up to fill that void. They appear to be getting their wish. Davenport had just 1.5 sacks in 11 games last year and 12.0 over his first three seasons combined but he has been a very impactful pass rusher when healthy this season. Though a couple of injuries have caused him to miss time this season, Davenport has produced a team-leading 5.5 sacks in just seven games played. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Davenport has generated a very impressive 17.4% pressure rate since returning from his original pectoral injury in Week Seven, the fourth-highest figure in the NFL in that span. Overall, Davenport has 25 quarterback pressures and a 16.1% pressure rate that ranks seventh in the league among players with at least 100 pass-rush snaps. He has also been credited with 17 hurries and has a very quick average get-off at the snap of 0.92 seconds. Davenport has seen plenty of snaps on both ends of the Saints' line this season so both Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs should be challenged by him on Sunday night.
In their efforts to stop Alvin Kamara…wait, wrong word there. Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said it better on Thursday. "I don't know if you ever stop Kamara, you just try to slow him down some," said Bowles. "I think he is one of the top three or four backs in the league. He is a dual threat catching the ball and running the football. He is obviously a very smart, very skilled player and a very skilled athlete. He has given us problems every time we have played him so we're going to have to try and rally to the ball and keep him contained a little bit." So, as they rally to the ball and try to limit Kamara's damage, the Bucs' defense will need to be extra careful to protect the edges. Kamara runs between the tackles on fewer than 40% of his carries, the third-lowest rate among qualifying backs, and fares far better when he goes wide. Kamara has averaged 3.0 yards per carry on inside runs, way down from last year's average of 6.6. That is probably because he is seeing a lot of stacked boxes. He has faced such defensive fronts on 23% of his carries this year, resulting in an average of just 0.9 yards before he makes first contact with a defender. Since the Buccaneers' defense has typically been one of the hardest to run against up the middle over the last three seasons (although admittedly with some hiccups in recent weeks), the Saints may focus on getting Kamara around the edges.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On playing the Saints, who have lost five of their last six since beating the Buccaneers in Week Eight for their sixth straight win in the regular-season series with Tampa Bay:
"You've got two really good football teams the last few times we've played – it all comes down to turnovers. Whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game. They've won it the most times. I don't look at it as 1- because there were a lot of guys missing in some of those games and a bunch of them are back now. This is still one of the best defenses we see every single season. They look as good defensively as they ever have and Sean [Payton] finds a way to score points."