The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue their 2020 postseason run when they take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday evening, and we're counting down the hours to the 6:40 p.m. ET kickoff at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
CB Carlton Davis. When the Buccaneers and Saints met in Week One of the regular season, Davis drew primary coverage duties on Michael Thomas, who had set an NFL record the season before with 149 receptions, leading the league with 1,725 yards. The Saints won the game, 34-23, but Davis had one of his best games of the season, helping hold Thomas to just 17 yards on three catches. That is just one of two times in Thomas' five-year career that he has been held under 20 yards in a game. The Saints' top receiver played most of the game before suffering an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter, and that ailment plagued him for much of the season. Thomas only played in seven regular-season games and finished with a career-low 40 receptions and no touchdowns. Both Thomas and Davis were sidelined at the end of the regular season by injuries, but both returned to help their teams advance in the Wild Card round. Thomas immediately re-emerged as one of Drew Brees' most favored targets, with the ball thrown his way seven times to produce five catches for 73 yards and a score. Davis, who tied for second in the NFL with 18 passes defensed despite missing the last two games, knocked away two more passes in the Buccaneers win in Washington. Will the Buccaneers once again choose to shadow Thomas with their top cornerback, one who can match the Saints' receiver in terms of size, physical style of play and sharp routes? That certainly seems possible, but even if the Bucs keep their corners on their usual sides Davis will still be critical to the defense slowing down the likes of Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and the extremely speedy Deonte Harris.
G Aaron Stinnie. There will be a lot of eyes on Stinnie, the third-year player who gets his very first NFL starting opportunity in a pressure-packed situation. Stinnie will be stepping in at right guard for Alex Cappa, who landed on injured reserve after fracturing an ankle in Washington. Stinnie is an athletic lineman who the Bucs believe can duplicate the rugged style of Cappa, who quietly had a strong season in his second year in the lineup. Edge rushers Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport draw much of the attention when it comes to the Saints' dangerous pass rush, but the front line has also gotten a lot of penetration this season from interior rushers David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown. In the Wild Card win over Chicago last weekend, Rankins recorded the Saints' lone sack and two of their three quarterback hits on Mitchell Trubisky. Stinnie will have to join center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet in forming a solid wall in the middle of the line in order to give Tom Brady time to throw and continue his late-season hot streak. A former undrafted free agent out of James Madison with the Tennessee Titans in 2018, Stinnie came to the Buccaneers as a waiver claim last November and has had more than a season to absorb the playbook. Jensen, who didn't start his first NFL game until well into his third season, knows what Stinnie is about to experience and thinks the young lineman is prepared for it after a lot of time learning from Cappa and Marpet. Said Jensen: "Stinnie has been doing that. He wants to get better every day and he has gotten better. I have the utmost confidence in Aaron stepping in."
ILB Devin White. The Bucs may have lost a valuable part of their offensive front but they are getting back the heart of their defensive front seven. White missed the regular-season finale and the Wild Card game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, with Kevin Minter filling in ably, but he came off that list Monday and is eager to lead the defense into battle with Drew Brees and company. White specifically noted that he won't be overly eager on Sunday night and try to do too much in his return, but there's no doubt he's one of the main sources of big, momentum-changing plays on Tampa Bay's defense. White led the team with 140 tackles and was the only player in the NFL who combined at least 100 tackles with nine or more sacks. In the Bucs' efforts to get past a very good New Orleans offensive line and get some are pressure on Drew Brees, White's lightning-quick up-the-middle strikes into the backfield could be critical. When the Bucs' defense needed a big play late in their Wild Card win at Washington, it was fellow inside linebacker Lavonte David who got home on a blitz for a huge sack of Taylor Heinicke. Now the Bucs will have two dynamic pass-rushers they can bring up the middle. Perhaps more important to Tampa Bay's efforts to slow down the Saints, however, is how well White and David can track star running back Alvin Kamara in the open field. Kamara was the Saints' leading rusher and receiver during the regular season and he sometimes seems to glide effortlessly through seams in the opposing defenses. White will be instrumental in keeping Kamara from gaining too much extra yardage after the catch or his first burst through the line of scrimmage.
WR Antonio Brown. Brown joined the Buccaneers on November 3rd and saw his first NFL action in a season and a half five days later against the Saints. He had five passes thrown his way in his Tampa Bay debut and caught three of them for 31 yards in a lopsided New Orleans win. Since then, Brown has become much more integrated in the Buccaneers' offense and has become a very productive third weapon alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. He has scored five touchdowns in the Bucs' last four games, three of them on plays of 30 or more yards as the offense has started to unlock some of the downfield big-play potential in his game. Brown has also proved to be a weapon on quick passes down the line that ask him to pick up most of the yards after the catch, gradually regaining the elusiveness he has shown throughout his prolific career. The Bucs have even used him in the running game, as when he gained 22 yards on an end-around in Washington last weekend. Brown is worth watching on Sunday night because he represents the biggest difference in the Buccaneers' offense from Week Nine, when Tampa Bay and New Orleans last played, and now. Brown also gives the Buccaneers some very valuable insurance if either Evans or Godwin are unavailable for any length of time, something that proved valuable in Week 17 when he stepped into Evans' "X" role and caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Both Evans and Godwin were limited by injuries during practice this week. Said Head Coach Bruce Arians of Brown's growing role in the offense: "He's back up to his normal playing speed and making plays. He's a different threat for us."
DL Ndamukong Suh. Not only is it hard to sack Drew Brees because of his field vision and quick release, but it can also be dangerous to come at Brees off the edges too aggressively because of how good the Saints' screen game is with Kamara. The shortest path to any quarterback is directly up the middle, and that may be the Bucs' best bet to pressure Brees on Sunday night. Suh quietly had one of his best pass-rushing seasons in years, with 6.0 sacks and 19 quarterback hits, the latter of which ranked second only to fellow interior lineman Will Gholston (20) on the Bucs' defense. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Suh has 79 QB pressures since he joined the Buccaneers in 2019, fifth among all NFL interior defensive linemen in that span. In addition, while Kamara is a big threat on the edges he can break tackles and be a force up the middle, as well. Suh has been one of the main ingredients in a Buccaneers run defense that has led the league in fewest yards allowed in each of the past two seasons. He'll face a strong interior line for the Saints led by 2020 Pro Bowl selection Andrus Peat, the left guard.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- -4/-31, +12/+56. In two games against the Saints during the regular season, the Buccaneers lost the turnover battle by four and gave up 31 points off giveaways while scoring none on their two takeaways. In all other games in 2020, the Bucs had a +12 turnover ration while scoring 56 more points off turnovers than their opponents. Everyone in the NFL knows that turnover ratio is one of the most predictive stats when it comes to wins and losses, and this year the Buccaneers are 9-0 in games in which they won that battle.
- 25, 21, 18.6%. If you're looking for the best off-ball linebackers at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, make sure to tune in to the Bucs-Saints game on Sunday night. That first number, 25, is how many QB pressures Saints middle linebacker Demario Davis racked up in 2020, the most by any off-ball linebacker in the league, according to Next Gen Stats. Second on that list: the Bucs' Devin White, with 21. White was also second in the league among players at all position with a pressure rate of 18.6% on his pass rushes (minimum 100 rushes). Both defenses know the importance of pressuring the Hall of Fame quarterback on the other side of the ball on Sunday, and their great blitzing inside linebackers might be part of the plan.
- 13, 3. If Sunday's game comes down to the wire, both teams will be confident in their Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks to produce the game-winning points if needed. Tom Brady's 13 game-winning drives in the postseason are the most by any player in NFL history by a wide margin; the next quarterback on the list, John Elway, had six. Drew Brees has three game-winning drives in the playoffs, which is impressive in itself and tied for the ninth most ever. Brady, of course, has played in 25 more postseason games than Brees has, so he has more opportunities in this regard (some of which he created by keeping his team alive with a game-winning drive).
- 731. That's the number of receiving yards Saints running back Alvin Kamara had after the catch in 2020, which is more than any other Saints player had, period. Kamara's smooth make-you-miss ability in the open field is the single biggest challenge for Tampa Bay's defense on Sunday night.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- Running back Ronald Jones is still dealing with a quad injury that kept him out of the Wild Card game last weekend and made him limited in practice this week. As to his availability on Sunday in New Orleans, Arians said it would be a game day decision, but that regardless Leonard Fournette would get the start in the Bucs' backfield.
- The Saints averaged 141.6 rushing yards per game and were obviously led by Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara, but reserve running back Latavius Murray and jack-of-all trades quarterback Taysom Hill combined to contribute more than 1,100 yards to the team's rushing total. Both were listed as questionable for the game on Friday's injury report, Hill due to a knee ailment and Murray due to a quad injury. If either or both can't play the Saints will have a little less variety in their rushing attack Sunday.
- The Buccaneers get inside linebacker Devin White back from the COVID list for Sunday's game but will be without starting right guard Alex Cappa, who is on injured reserve after suffering a fractured ankle in Washington. Third-year man Aaron Stinnie will step in for Cappa and make the first start of his NFL career.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SAINTS
New Orleans was the only team to finish in the top six in the league in both points scored and points allowed during the regular season, leading to a differential of +9.1 that ranked second only to Baltimore's (+10.3). The Saints were one of the league's best rushing teams, with 141.6 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry, plus an incredible 30 touchdowns on the ground. The Saints' defense was good against both the run (fourth in the NFL) and the pass (fifth), and it tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions while ranking eighth with 45 sacks. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Saturday night.
New Orleans can bring edge-rushers at opposing defenses in waves. Tenth-year veteran Cameron Jordan continues to lead the charge, making the Pro Bowl again and playing more than 80% of his team's defensive snaps for the fourth year in a row. However, this year he was surpassed as the team's sack leader by breakout star Trey Hendrickson, who tied for second in the NFL in that category with 13.5. Hendrickson pressured the quarterback on 16.3% of his pass rushes in 2020, the third-highest rate in the league among qualifying players. He was particularly good on third downs, getting pressure on 25.5% of his pass rushes, the best mark in the NFL. Reserve defensive end Carl Granderson had 5.0 sacks of his own and while 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport finished with just 1.5 sacks this season the Saints' defense has a better pressure rate (31.7%) with him on the field than without him (28.0%).
As if it isn't a tall enough task to slow down Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, the Buccaneers also have to prepare for the various and unpredictable ways the Saints will employ quarterback-slash-offensive weapon Taysom Hill. Including the playoffs, Hill has taken at least 23 snaps at every eligible position in the Saints' offense: QB (317, including 59 in his non-starts), running back (23), tight end (53), wideout (24) and slot receiver (54). During the regular season, he ran for 457 yards and eight touchdowns, caught eight passes for 46 yards and another score and threw for 928 yards and four touchdowns. Hill is big and very fast, and he's a powerful runner around the goal line. Because of Hill's presence, the Saints used 32 different personnel alignments in 2020, 13 more than the next closest team. Not only is Hill a talented player, but the uncertainty that his presence brings to the field helps the Saints get the most out of those talents.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On if he likes the timing of getting a third shot at the Saints in the playoffs:
"I love it because we're still playing. You live for big games. Whether it's the Saints, the Rams – whoever is left – Green Bay, you're just happy to be playing and relish it. Get ready for a heck of a ballgame."