The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New Orleans Saints in Week Eight on Sunday afternoon, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff in the Caesars Superdome. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Last Sunday, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul played 59% of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps, which is practically a day off for the indestructible veteran. Of course, he did so after not taking a single snap of practice all week due to shoulder and hand injuries. This week, Pierre-Paul once again sat out every workout as Bruce Arians continues prioritizing having him available for game days. Against the Bears, Tryon-Shoyinka, the rookie who is the third man in the Bucs' edge-rush rotation, played just two fewer snaps than Pierre-Paul and it seems likely he'll get a large share of work again in the Superdome. All of the Bucs' pass-rushers will be key figures in Sunday's game, as how the defense fares will likely rest on how much pressure is put on Jameis Winston. Winston has a strong 102.4 passer rating in his first year as the Saints' starter and only three interceptions thrown over six games. However, he holds onto the ball for an average of 3.07 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the third-highest figure in the league, and he's been less effective when pressured. According to NGS, Winston's passer rating when he has thrown under pressure this year is 59.3 and all three of his picks were released under pressure.
Chris Godwin. The Buccaneers will be without Antonio Brown for a second straight week. In addition, the Saints may choose to shadow Mike Evans with Marshon Lattimore, a matchup that has led to some depressed numbers for the Bucs star in some games. Tight end Rob Gronkowski also remains a question mark heading into game day. All of which makes Godwin potentially the focal point of Tom Brady's distribution of the ball. The good news in that regard is that Godwin is the most versatile of the Bucs' receivers so they can line him up all over the formation and get him matchups with different defenders or scheme ways to get him open in space. Godwin is, in fact, the Buccaneers' leading receiver, with 42 catches for 520 yards after his 111-yard outing against a good Chicago defense in Week Seven. He had a good outing in the Superdome in Tom Brady's first game as a Buccaneer, the 2020 season opener, catching six passes for 79 yards. He was even better in New Orleans in 2019, snaring seven passes for 125 yards and two scores.
Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead could factor in significantly to the Buccaneers' most important task on Sunday: containing Alvin Kamara. Whitehead is an extremely good tackler and a hard-nosed safety who does a lot of his best work around the line of scrimmage. Of his 20 tackles so far this season, 16 have come at, behind or within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. He has in particular made a lot of stops in the flats, and that's a prime area for Winston to get the ball into the hands of Kamara on quick passes. Since the do-it-all back accounts for such a big percentage of the Saints' offense, the Buccaneers may choose to play a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 in order to get one of their safeties down into the box, and that could mean a lot more work in run stoppage and short-area coverage for Whitehead. The Buccaneers want to have as many defenders as possible in position to get quickly to where Kamara is at the point he takes a handoff or hauls in a pass. Last year Whitehead had a total of 14 tackles and three tackles for loss in the two regular-season games against the Saints, in which Kamara was held to an average of 58.0 yards from scrimmage per outing (albeit with three touchdowns).
Tristan Wirfs. Having helped stymie Khalil Mack and the Bears' pass rush last Sunday – and in the process avenging the only real struggles he had against any defense as a rookie – Wirfs has still not been credited with a sack allowed in 2021, his second season. He is a major reason that Tampa Bay ranks second in fewest sacks allowed per pass play (2.91%), which in turn is helping Tom Brady put up league-leading passing numbers. Last year, Wirfs fared quite well in his two games against Saints star Cameron Jordan, who most often rushes from his side. That will be a critical matchup again this Sunday. As Bruce Arians has noted several times this week, and as was borne out by last year's three Bucs-Saints results, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and commits the fewest turnovers is probably going to emerge victorious. Those kinds of mistakes often begin with pressure on the quarterback, so it will be paramount to keep the pocket clean and safe for Brady. Brady has helped that cause by getting rid of the ball in an average of 2.51 seconds from the snap, but given the tight coverage that New Orleans' secondary usually achieves, there may be times he has to hold it a bit longer. Wirfs will have to help give him that extra bit of time.
Vita Vea. The Saints' left tackle, Terron Armstead, has been to the last three Pro Bowls. Their right tackle, Ryan Ramczyk, was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2019. The Bucs' edge rushers will have quite a challenge to get at Winston if Armstead and Ramczyk are at the top of their games on Sunday. If so, Tampa Bay's defense may need to get pressure up the middle, and that might be a more winnable challenge with Pro Bowl left guard Andrus Peat sidelined by a pectoral injury. Vea may be the best bet to provide that push up the middle, as he is third on the team in quarterback pressures behind Shaq Barrett and Devin White, and first among the down linemen. Vea's presence is also a very important part of the Bucs' top-ranked rush defense, which will be trying to slow down Kamara between the tackles, where the star back has found a lot of success this year. Since the start of the 2020 season, Tampa Bay's defense is averaging 2.8 yards allowed per carry when Vea is on the field. When he's not on the field, that number jumps to 4.1 yards per carry.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 17.6%/27.1%. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Tom Brady has been pressured on just 17.6% of his dropbacks this season, which is the second-lowest average in the league to the Rams Matthew Stafford (15.7%). It's also the lowest pressure rate Brady has faced since NGS began tracking the stat in 2016, and it's due in part to the fact that his average of 2.51 seconds from the snap to the throw is also his lowest in that same span, and second-lowest in the NFL. The Bucs might be able to find some quick-passing success against the Saints, whose defense has a pressure rate of 27.1%. The Saints have generally pressured quarterbacks well in recent seasons, led by Cameron Jordan, but this is the lowest rate their defense has had since 2016.
- 138.0/93.7. The Buccaneers come into Sunday's game with the far more prolific passer this season, with Brady leading the league in both passing yards (2,275) and touchdown passes 21. The Saints' Jameis Winston, meanwhile, is averaging just 186 passing yards per game and his team ranks 31st in passing offense. However, beyond the counting stats this matchup may not actually be that lopsided, in part because the game is going to be played in the Superdome. Winston's passer rating in home games this season is a sparkling 138.0, as compared to 85.4 on the road, and he has yet to throw an interception on his home turf. Brady, meanwhile, has a 93.7 passer rating in road games this season, which is fine but not nearly as good as his 120.6 mark on the road.
- 14.8/279.8/24.3/10/13. The Buccaneers got off to a 2-1 start in 2021 thanks mostly to a prolific offense, as the defense was stung early by several prolific offenses. After three weeks, the Bucs were giving up 29.3 points and 402.0 yards per game while allowing opponents to convert on 53.2% of their third downs. Since then, the Bucs have won four straight and the defense has been a driving force in the streak. The Bucs' 14.8 points and 279.8 yards allowed per game, their 24.3% defensive third down rate, their 10 takeaways and their 13 sacks all rank second in the NFL in that span.
- 539/500/87.6/89.6. The Saints' Alvin Kamara and the Bucs' Leonard Fournette have been two of the most productive running backs in the league over the last five weeks. In that span, Kamara has 539 yards from scrimmage to rank third in the NFL (despite that including the Saints' bye week), while Fournette has 500 to rank fifth. However, they both may need to do their damage in the passing game on Sunday because New Orleans and Tampa Bay have very stingy defenses Since 2018, the Saints (87.6) and the Bucs (89.6) are the only two teams in the NFL to allow fewer than 90 rushing yards per game.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- Wide receiver Antonio Brown was the only Buccaneer ruled out of the New Orleans game before Sunday, so the team will probably turn to second-year man Tyler Johnson as their primary third receiver again. With Brown sidelined for the Week Seven contest against Chicago, Johnson played 49 offensive snaps, or almost exactly two thirds of the overall total for the game.
- Andrus Peat, the Saints' three-time Pro Bowl guard, will miss a game for the first time this season after suffering a pectoral injury last Monday night in Seattle. When right guard Cesar Ruiz slid over to center to replace the injured Erik McCoy for four games, it was Calvin Throckmorton who stepped in on the right side. Throckmorton, the only reserve entire lineman listed on the Saints' depth chart, will likely now get the start on the left side in Peat's place.
- Inside linebacker Lavonte David, tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Richard Sherman were all listed as questionable on Friday's injury report after being limited in practice all week. All three have missed at least one game already, with Gronkowski out for the last four. Should any or all of those three be limited or completely sidelined, Kevin Minter would once again step in for David, O.J Howard and Cam Brate would continue to see increased action and the cornerback snaps would go to some combination of Pierre Desir, Rashard Robinson and – if he is cleared to play – Dee Delaney.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
The Saints offense runs through Kamara and Buccaneer players and coaches have noted the need to get 11 men to the ball in order to keep him from turning short passes into long gains. And though the New Orleans passing attack has yet to put up a large number of explosive plays it does have some speedy potential deep threats in Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway. The Saints' defense is strong from front to back but is particularly good at creating very tight coverage on opposing route-runners. There are also several dangerous blitzers in the back seven, including do-everything linebacker Demario Davis. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's defenders likely had some extra homework this week studying tape to recognize all the different personnel schemes the Saints use and what they like to do out of each one. New Orleans might be a little less "multiple" on offense with gadget quarterback Taysom Hill still out due to a concussion, but it still provides opponents with a lot of different looks. NFL Next Gen Stats has identified 29 different personnel groupings the Saints' offense has used this year, including such exotic combinations as six offensive linemen, three running backs and one receiver and two quarterbacks, two running backs and two tight ends. Without Hill, the Saints probably won't add to the 90 plays they've run with two quarterbacks on the field at the same time, but they also don't have one grouping that they use far more than the others, like most other teams do. The "11" package – one running back, one tight end and three receivers – is the most common one they use, like most teams, but that's still only 28% of the time. The Saints actually have a much higher success rate (60%) on plays run out of "12" personnel, with two tight ends, than they do out of 11 (47%). The Saints also use "jumbo" packages, with extra offensive linemen, more often than any team in the league and are largely successful on those plays.
As noted above, the Saints may choose to shadow Mike Evans with Marshon Lattimore, given that this strategy has largely worked in recent years. Even so, Lattimore likely won't be on Evans for every single snap, so whoever draws that Saints defender should be prepared for a lot of press coverage and a lot of contested targets. Actually, all of the Saints' cover men are in press coverage frequently; as a whole, New Orleans has utilized the press on 29% of their coverage assignments in the slot or out wide since last year, the fourth-highest average in the league. The Saints have already used Lattimore to shadow a specific receiver in four games this year: Green Bay's Davante Adams, the Patriots' Nelson Agholor, Washington's Terry McLaurin and Seattle's D.K. Metcalf. Prior to last week's game against Seattle, Lattimore was leading the NFL in lowest completion percentage allowed (40.6%) as the nearest defender to a targeted pass-catcher.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On cleaning up the team's penalty issue in the last home game against Chicago but still needing to prove they can do the same thing on the road in a hostile stadium environment:
"Yeah, that's the thing. We didn't do it very well on the road so far, and it's going to be loud. It's time to clean it up. The post-snap penalties, they happen, but the pre-snap [penalties] have got to be eliminated. You can't go into a game against these guys and beat yourself."