Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played a game in Los Angeles for the first time in 26 years. This week, the Buccaneers head to one of their most familiar destinations but the game will still feature something they haven't seen in 14 years: a New Orleans Saints offense not led by Drew Brees.
Brees signed with the Saints in 2006 and over the next 13 years missed just three starts, none of them against the Buccaneers. The no-doubt Hall-of-Famer is not only the NFL's all-time leading passer, he's also one of the most durable quarterbacks in league history. However, Brees suffered a thumb injury on an unwanted high-five with Aaron Donald in Week Two and subsequently had surgery. He could miss half the season, and he definitely won't suit up in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this weekend.
The Saints are 2-0 behind Teddy Bridgewater since Brees' injury and are in first place in the NFC South with a 3-1 record. The Buccaneers are a game behind at 2-2 but already have a division road win in their pockets; another one would give them a great head start on what could be a crowded run to the finish in the division title hunt. Tampa Bay also has an opportunity to start its unprecedented five straight games away from home with two wins after its rousing 55-40 takedown of the previously-undefeated Rams in L.A.
Bridgewater has provided the steady hand the Saints needed in Brees' absence, with a 67.8% completion percentage and just one interception through two-and-a-half games so far. Running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas remain the Saints' most productive – and far and away most involved – weapons on an offense that isn't quite as explosive as New Orleans is used to fielding. The Saints are currently tied for 19th in points scored (21.0 per game) and rank 26th in yards (321.3 per game), and they've actually been outscored by eight points despite losing just once. The Saints defense is coming off its best game yet, a road win over the Cowboys in which it kept the trio of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper very well contained.
Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will encounter when they take on the Saints Sunday:
With Brees out, the Saints would probably be pleased if their offense isn't markedly different with Teddy Bridgewater under center, though that's a tall task for any substitute. In addition to the aforementioned Kamara-Thomas duo, the New Orleans offense features a pair of outstanding tackles and an impressive rookie at center. The Saints' defense is strongest up front, particularly with the return of Sheldon Rankins last week and the quiet emergence of David Onyemata. Here are four Saints in particular who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. RB Alvin Kamara. A third-round draft pick in 2017, Kamara has been a full-blown NFL star since the day he first took the field. Perhaps the NFL's top dual-threat back, he has averaged nearly 104 yards from scrimmage per game in his still-young career while scoring almost exactly one touchdown per contest. Kamara can run inside but is a particularly tough challenge around the edge, and his career per-carry average of 5.1 shows his explosiveness. Kamara also averages 9.5 yards per reception, an excellent mark for a running back, and his 1,521 yards after the catch since 2017 is second among all NFL running backs in that span behind Christian McCaffrey. The Buccaneers have impressively contained three straight star running backs – McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley – but will face a tough test to make it four in a row.
2. DE Cameron Jordan. The unquestioned star of the Saints' defense, Jordan has been to three of the last four Pro Bowls, had 25.0 sacks over the previous two seasons combined and already has two more this year to push his career mark to 73.5. The ninth-year veteran and former first-round pick has developed impressive instincts for the rhythms of opposing quarterbacks, which only amplifies his impressive size/speed/power package. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, Jordan also has impressive stamina, which means he can play virtually the entire game and still be a handful for blockers at the end, when many games are decided by one or two big plays. Through the first three weeks of the season, Jordan had played 221 defensive snaps, the most of any defensive lineman in the NFL, and had been on the field for 93.2% of the Saints defensive plays.
3. T Ryan Ramczyk. The Saints have traditionally done an outstanding job of building strong offensive lines in front of Drew Brees, and the current crew is carrying that banner on. Rookie center Erik McCoy, the 48th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, has stepped right into a starting role and looks like he'll be there for a long time. And left tackle Terron Armstead has returned from injury to lock down the quarterbacks' blind side. The player who has taken his game to a new level in 2019 and thus made the Saints' line that much tougher is Ramczyk, who was taken out of noted OL factory Wisconsin with the last pick of the first round in the 2017 draft. Ramczyk is huge at 6-6 and 314 pounds but nimble and is an excellent pass-blocker. The Bucs' top defensive difference-maker so far has been nine-sack man Shaq Barrett, who went around right tackle for his game-sealing strip-sack a week ago. The Bucs hope for more big plays from Barrett but they will be tough to come by against Ramczyk.
4. LB Demario Davis. Davis is in his second year with the Saints after signing as an unrestricted free agent in the spring of 2018, and the move has rejuvenated his career after he alternated between the Jets and Browns the previous three season. Though Jordan, Rankins and cornerback Marshon Lattimore get the most attention, Davis was sneakily one of the Saints' best defenders last year with 110 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, and 11 quarterback hits. He plays the WILL linebacker position in New Orleans' 4-3 front and is a natural for the spot with great speed, range and toughness. Davis is a sure-handed tackler in space and he brings a very physical style of play to the field. Tampa Bay's rushing attack has been solid and consistent through four games; Davis will try to change that.
View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 4 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Saints' top-level statistics aren't particularly eye-opening, as they rank 26th on both offense and defense in the NFL's yardage rankings and are tied for 21st in point differential. New Orleans has averaged 4.51 yards per carry, which is 13th-best in the league and have converted 40.8% of their third downs on offense. New Orleans' 7.48% sacks-per-pass-attempt rate on defense is good for 16th in the league. Here are some more specific areas in which the Saints have done well through the first quarter of the 2019 season:
· The discrepancy between the Saints' negative point differential and 3-1 record can be explained by the team's outstanding marks in the knowing-how-to-win category that every head coach wants his team to develop. All three of the Saints' victories have come by a single score, and two have come by exactly two points. New Orleans' kicker, Wil Lutz, won the team's Week One game against Houston with a 58-yard field goal at the buzzer, and he provided the winning points in a 12-10 victory against Dallas with a fourth-quarter 26-yarder, the last of his four makes in four tries on the day. The Saints are the only team in the league that already has three one-score wins.
· Thanks to the dependable play of Kamara and Thomas, the Saints are very tough to stop on first down. New Orleans is averaging 5.6 yards per first down play and have gained four or more yards 58.8% of the time, which is the highest average in the NFL. The league average is 48.3%.
· Thomas Morstead, the Saints' 12th-year punter, has been good for a long time, but he might be having his best season yet in 2019. Morstead ranks third in the league in average yards per punt, both gross (44.8) and net (44.8), and he has dropped 11 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line (tied for second-most in the league) without hitting a single ball into the end zone for a touchback yet. Morstead is part of the reason that Saints opponents are starting drives at an average of their own 23.6-yard line, when the league average is the 27.8.
· The Saints' run defense has allowed 112.0 yards per game so far, which is only good for 20th-best in the NFL. However, it looks like they're pretty solid when they line up on first down expecting the run. Opponents have only gained four or more yards on first-down runs against the Saints 38.4% of the time, which is the fifth-best defensive mark in the league.
New Orleans is allowing 6.26 yards per play so far this season, which is fifth-worst in the NFL, and 7.92 yards per pass play, which is seventh-worst. On offense, the Saints have really struggled in the red zone, getting touchdowns on only 36.4% of their drives into that territory. Only three teams have been worse. In addition:
· Whether it is a gradual change in Brees' incredible skill-set or a conservative approach with Bridgewater, the Saints have not been able to air it out on offense this year. The New Orleans quarterbacks have a passer rating of just 30.2 on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air downfield. They've only tried four such passes in four games and only completed one of them, which is the same number they've had intercepted.
· The Saints' defense, as noted above, is coming off a very good game against Dallas in which it shut down the Cowboys' biggest threats. Overall, though, New Orleans has given up more big plays this year than it surely wants to. Through four games, the Saints have allowed 21 plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the fifth-most in the NFL.
· The Saints have been at a disadvantage so far in terms of how well they've scored on drives that cross the opposing 30-yard line, and how well they've prevented scores in the opposite situations. New Orleans has found the end zone on just 40% of such drives, which is 27th best in the NFL. Meanwhile, opponents have scored touchdowns on 70.6% of such drives, which is tied for third-worst.
· It's strange to think of the Saints' offense as one that doesn't or can't strike quickly, and it may be a small-sample-size aberration so for, but that has been the case in 2019. New Orleans is one of seven teams that has yet to score on a drive that lasts fewer than four plays. In contrast, Pittsburgh has done it five times and the Chiefs four times. The Buccaneers have three such quick-strike drives, including the one that ended in Mike Evans' 67-yard touchdown catch against the Rams.
NEW FACES IN 2019
The Saints didn't have a first-round pick in this year's draft thanks to the trade up for Marcus Davenport the year before, but they still found an instant O-Line starter in the second round. After a 13-3 regular season that was very nearly followed by a trip to the Super Bowl, the Saints didn't need to make wholesale roster changes and were more of bargain shoppers in free agency. However, they did find two new contributors to the offense.
1. C Erik McCoy. As noted above, McCoy was an instant starter to open his rookie campaign, which has looked very promising so far. McCoy replaces veteran Max Unger, who retired back in March, and the Saints' line hasn't missed a beat.
2. RB Latavius Murray. New Orleans had a one-two running back punch in 2017 and 2018 with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, but Ingram departed after last season in free agency to join the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints responded by signing former Raider and Viking Latavius Murray who had 1,320 rushing yards over two seasons in Minnesota. Murray isn't getting the same kind of backfield split that Ingram did, as Kamara is now the true focal point of the attack, but he is the team's second-leading rusher.
3. TE Jared Cook. Cook replaces Ben Watson, as the Saints have run through a number of options at tight end after trading Jimmy Graham away. So far, Cook's production has been minimal, with eight catches for 90 yards through four games, but he's an athletic tight end who had 896 yards and six scores just last year in Oakland.
1. QB Drew Brees. Obviously, we've already covered this above, but Brees is currently one of the most notable absences for any team in the league, along with Carolina's Cam Newton and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. The bigger question is whether Brees will be back for the Week 11 Bucs-Saints rematch in Tampa.
2. LB Alex Anzalone. Anzalone started seven games last year and had 59 tackles and 2.0 sacks, and he had one more sack through the first two games of 2019 before sustaining a shoulder injury that forced him to injured reserve. That has led to a bigger role for Kiko Alonso, who was acquired from Miami in a trade.
3. WR Tre'Quan Smith. A third-round pick out of UCF a year ago, Smith had a fine rookie season, starting seven games and catching 28 passes for 427 yards and five touchdowns. He looked to be headed for a similar amount of production in 2019 when he caught five passes for 75 yards and a score in the first two games, but a leg injury has kept him out of the last two games.