Despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 and just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the eventual-champion Green Bay Packers. With rising young stars like Josh Freeman and Gerald McCoy dotting the roster, the Bucs believe they are poised for a long run of postseason contention.
The road won't be easy in 2011, however. The always competitive NFC South and a handful of playoff teams like the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be looking to keep Tampa Bay from invading the playoff field. The Buccaneers' home schedule is particularly intriguing featuring foes with high-powered offenses (a la Houston) and upcoming stars of their own (a la Detroit).
With that in mind, Buccaneers.com is running a series of articles focusing on each of the team's 2011 home opponents. We'll look at how each of those teams has fared in recent years, where their top priorities in '11 may be, which of their players will be the Buccaneers' main concerns and more.
Considering the track record of recent NFC Champions, the Saints' 2010 defense of their Super Bowl XLIV title was relatively successful. In the previous 11 seasons, not only had seven of the defending NFC champs missed the playoffs, but all seven of those teams had posted losing records. Not one had advanced beyond the divisional round of the conference playoffs.
As it turned out, neither would the 2010 Saints, but they didn't go down easily. New Orleans finished the season with an 11-5 regular-season record that nearly matched their 13-win campaign from 2009. That gave them a Wild Card berth and sent them to Seattle, where they were considered heavy favorites over the 7-9 Seahawks, who had won the depressed NFC West but were the first team ever to make the playoffs with a losing record.
Unfortunately for the Saints, their regular season-capping loss to the Buccaneers was costly in that it led to fresh injuries to safety Malcolm Jenkins, running back Christopher Ivory and tight end Jimmy Graham, all of whom had emerged as key players. None were able to suit up for the playoff game in Seattle, which certainly played a part in the Seahawks' unexpected 41-36 victory.
The title defense began well for the Saints, who won a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game against Minnesota to open the season, then took a last-second victory at San Francisco to go 2-0. However, New Orleans would then lose three of its next five in what was probably the key stretch of the season, in retrospect. The first of those three was an understandable, if ultimately damaging, overtime loss at home against the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints would avenge that loss in Atlanta in Week 15 to keep the NFC South race tight, but in the end the Falcons would take the title by two games.
The other two losses in that stretch were at Arizona and at home against Cleveland. Given that those two teams each finished 5-11 and at times struggled mightily, these first-half decisions were probably the toughest for the Saints to swallow, in retrospect. Still, they rebounded from that tough stretch very impressively, reeling off a six-game winning streak that re-established them as one of the NFC favorites. That run included a win over the eventual AFC Champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as an easy 34-19 dismissal of the Seahawks.
At the end of that six-game streak, the Saints were suddenly 10-3 and just one game behind the Falcons, with a Week 16 showdown in the Georgia Dome looming. Unfortunately, the Saints had to go to Baltimore first for a tough game against the playoff-bound Ravens. The Saints tied that game, 24-24, early in the fourth quarter, but Baltimore's Ray Rice immediately ripped off a 50-yard run to lead to a go-ahead field goal, and the Saints' final possession was ended by a Brees interception. The Saints did then beat the Falcons, as mentioned, but lost what proved to be a meaningless game to the Buccaneers when Atlanta won its finale over fading Carolina.
Brees' interception near the end of the Ravens game was one of 22 he threw in 2010, exactly double what he had suffered the year before. He was still extremely effective during the season, completing 68.1% of his passes and throwing for 4,620 yards and 33 scores. The Saints struggled some with injuries on offense, particularly to backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, but the front line was still fantastic (just 25 sacks allowed, third fewest per pass play in the NFL) and four different players caught five or more touchdowns.
The Saints' defense ranked fourth in the NFL, actually two spots higher than its offense, and seventh in points allowed. They were particularly good against the pass, allowing just 193.9 yards per game and 13 total touchdowns, second fewest in the league. Second-year DB Malcolm Jenkins slid from cornerback back to safety and teamed with Roman Harper (three sacks) to be one of the most productive deep-backfield tandems in the league. Up front, third-year defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis began to emerge as the up-the-middle pass-rush threat the team had envisioned when they drafted him early in 2008, leading the team with six sacks. Hard-nosed middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma continued to lead the whole crew, racking up four sacks, an interception and over 100 tackles.
- *Work through a long free agency list. *When NFL business resumes, the Saints will have up to 27 pending free agents to deal with, by far the highest total in the league. Among the potential free agents are linebacker Scott Shanle, running back Pierre Thomas, center Jonathan Goodwin, safety Roman Harper, wide receiver Lance Moore, tight end David Thomas, tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Carl Nicks. It's difficult to predict how the NFL offseason will play out at this point, but that's still a long laundry list of decisions that must be made. The offensive line in particular seems like an issue that must be resolved; that unit has clearly been one of the Saints' main strengths the last two years and Goodwin, Bushrod and Nicks are all starters. If New Orleans is unable to hang on to all of its prospective free agents, they will have to prioritize the ones that are most crucial to keeping their current run of success alive.
- *Ramp up the running game. *New Orleans had the league's top-ranked offense in 2009, the season that ended in its first ever Super Bowl championship, but dropped to sixth last year. While that is obviously still quite good – New Orleans still averaged 372.5 yards per game – the team lost its offensive balance in 2010. After ranking sixth in rushing and fourth in passing in 2009, the Saints dropped to 28th on the ground in 2010 while maintaining a third-place rank through the air. The difference was reflected in the Saints' scoring – they led the league in 2009 with a whopping 510 points but fell to 381 points last year, a significant drop of more than a touchdown per game. After the season, Head Coach Sean Payton said that one of the team's main objectives in 2011 was to build a more consistently effective rushing attack. It remains to be seen whether that attack is built around 2010 rookie find Christopher Ivory, 2009 leader Pierre Thomas or a newcomer.
- *Rediscover the turnover touch. *The 2008 New Orleans Saints finished 8-8 and in last place in the NFC South despite having the NFL's top-ranked offense. That was largely because the defense finished 23rd in the league and gave up 393 points to almost counteract the 463 scored by the offense. On paper, the Saints' defense didn't look significantly different heading into 2009, the main imports being cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Darren Sharper. In reality, New Orleans' defense played a huge part in bringing home the Lombardi Trophy, largely because they were extremely adept at taking the ball away. Sharper, in his 13th NFL season and thought to be near the end of his career, led the charge with nine interceptions, which he returned for an amazing 376 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints were second in the league in takeaways, with 39, and their playoff run was punctuated by two game-clinching interceptions by Tracy Porter in the conference championship game and the Super Bowl. Last year, however, the Saints produced 14 fewer takeaways and were dead last in the NFL in interceptions per pass play on defense.
- Resolve the long-term futures of Brees and Bush. *The current contracts for both quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush expire at the end of the 2012 season. These are two very different situations, however. It's hard to imagine any scenario in which the Saints would *not want to keep the incredibly prolific Brees around well beyond '12, particularly given that he is also a solid citizen and a fan favorite. Still, working out a new contract for an MVP-level quarterback is never simple. With Bush, the Saints have a more complicated situation, as the second overall pick of the 2006 draft has not necessarily reached the superstar level that was expected of him. Bush definitely adds a dynamic dimension to the Saints' offense, and Payton recently said the team wants him around in 2012, but there is speculation that his very high base salary in 2011 will lead to an effort to renegotiate. Bush's significant injury history must also be considered.
The Bucs and Saints have split their last two season series, but New Orleans has prevailed in both of its trips to Raymond James Stadium. If the Bucs are to re-establish home field advantage against their division foes in 2011, they will likely have to limit the damage caused these five players:
QB Drew Brees. The opposing quarterbacks is often too obvious a pick for this list, but when it comes to beating the Saints there is little doubt that slowing down Brees is the top priority. Last year, Brees completed 65.6% of his passes, threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns and averaged 8.22 yards per toss when New Orleans beat the Buccaneers in Tampa, 38-7. In the rematch in the Superdome, the Buccaneers held Brees to a 57.9% completion rate, 196 yards passing, one touchdown and 5.16 yards per attempt. Brees has been with the Saints for five years and it's hard to say which of those seasons has been his best. He has averaged 4,584 passing yards and 31 touchdown passes over that span, never falling below 4,000 yards in any season. Brees is considered undersized for the position at 6-0 and 209 pounds, but neither sight lines nor arm strength have ever been a problem for him. In fact, his greatest strengths include his field vision, and his incredibly quick decision-making and release allow him to exploit all areas of the field. The Saints' collection of talented skill-position players often frustrate fantasy football owners, as it seems impossible to predict which one will be the big scorer on any given Sunday, and that's a testament to how well Brees goes through his reads and avoids forcing the football.
DE Will Smith. Smith was the 18th overall pick in the 2004 draft, and while his sack totals have tended to go up and down (e.g. 3.0 in 2008, 13.0 in 2009, 5.5 in 2010) he is unquestionably an elite pass rusher off the edge. That's a coveted commodity in any NFL outpost, and even at 31 years of age as of this year's opening day, he is still at the top of his game. Over the years, Smith has developed into a very good all-around player, using his strength to hold his ground and stand up against the run. That strength also allows Smith to overpower some opposing offensive linemen, though he's just as likely to shoot around the edge to get into the backfield. The Bucs allowed Smith to drop Josh Freeman for a sack just once in two meetings last year, but in 14 career games against Tampa Bay the former Ohio State star has eight sacks and three forced fumbles. This matchup represents strength on strength, as Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn will be working to keep Smith out of the Bucs' backfield.
WR Marques Colston. Even if the Saints' egalitarian ways sometimes frustrate fantasy owners, there still is a clear number-one target in their passing attack. Last year, Colston led the team with 84 catches for 1,023 yards, though Lance Moore beat him in touchdowns, eight to seven. In five seasons in the league, Colston has topped 70 receptions and 1,000 yards four times, and the only time he missed was an injury-plagued 208 campaign in which he was out for five games. Throughout his career, he has averaged 71 receiving yards per game and eight touchdowns per season. An incredible seventh-round find out of Hofstra in 2006, Colston timed his arrival perfectly with that of Brees and the two have been a prolific combo ever since. One of the best things the 6-4, 225-pound receiver does is use his big frame to wall off defenders in traffic, but he also can build up deceptive speed with his long strides. Good hands and a quick burst after the catch make him a threat to turn short passes into big gains.
CB Jabari Greer. The former Bill was a solid performer in five seasons in Buffalo but he has blossomed in New Orleans, emerging as the Saints' top cornerback. Though his interception totals have never been eye-opening (two in each season as a Saint, eight overall in his career), Greer has made it difficult for opposing teams to exploit his side of the field with his tight coverage. He isn't considered one of the fastest cornerbacks in the league, but he's intelligent, instinctive and a very good technician. The Saints surprised some people by putting together the league's fourth-ranked pass defense in 2010, considering their 2009 Super Bowl team only ranked 26th in the category, and Greer was the linchpin.
RB Pierre Thomas. The 2009 season was a rough one for Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury early and struggled all year to get back on the field. In the end, he appeared in just six games with three starts, seeing his yards fall from 793 in 2009 to 269 in 2010 and his yards-per-carry average drop from 5.4 to 3.2. Fortunately for the Saints, undrafted rookie Christopher Ivory picked up the slack quite well, though New Orleans' rushing total overall fell almost 600 yards from the season before. Still, the Saints' offense has more balance when Pierre is in there, as he's a threat to run between the tackles or take a screen pass for big yards. His work in the passing game might be even more important if Reggie Bush does not return to the team in 2011.
Payton and Brees are presiding over what is easily the finest era in the Saints' 44-year franchise history, with the most sustained success and the highest peak.
Before 2009-10, the Saints had made it to the playoffs in consecutive seasons just once in team history, a three-year run from 1990-92. From their inaugural season of 1967 through 2005, New Orleans made the playoffs five times in a span of 39 years. In the last five years, they've qualified for the postseason three times and in 2009 they made it to the top with a win over the favored Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
More importantly, these Saints have been able to do something when they've made it to the playoffs. The franchise had won only one playoff game up to 2006, when the Saints captured the NFC South title for the first time and then advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game against Chicago. They would have to wait just three more years to get back in the postseason field and go all the way.
The Saints came into the league as an expansion team in 1967, giving the NFL 16 teams and allowing it to realign into a quartet of four-team divisions. Paired with Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington in the Capitol Division, the Saints struggled for four years to gain ground and then became part of the NFC West when the NFL and AFL merged.
The Saints didn't fare much better in that geographically diverse division, not producing even a .500 record until 1979. In fact, New Orleans wouldn't post its first winning season until its 21st year, when they broke out with a 12-3 campaign behind QB Bobby Hebert, RB Reuben Mayes and a swarming defense that included one of the best linebacker foursomes of all time: Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling. The Saints won 10 games again in 1988 but missed the playoffs, then went back in 1991 as NFC West champs and again in 1992 as a wild card team. Led by Head Coach Jim Mora, those teams of the early '90s continued to be driven by its aggressive and stingy defense. In 1992, for instance, Swilling finished third on the team with 10.5 sacks, as Jackson added 13.5 and defensive end Wayne Martin led the way with 15.5.
The Mora era faded over the next few years, leading to a three-year run at the helm for former Chicago Bears icon Mike Ditka in the late '90s. Ditka's teams never won more than six games in a season, struggled to find a presence at quarterback and was probably best known for trading an entire draft to get running back Ricky Williams in 1999.
Jim Haslett replaced Ditka in 2000 and the Saints promptly won 10 games and the NFC West title, then beat the defending-champion St. Louis Rams in the Wild Card playoff round. The Saints would hover right around .500 for the next four seasons, trying to win behind enigmatic QB Aaron Brooks, then suffer through one of the most difficult seasons in NFL history in 2005. Just before the start of the NFL's regular season, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and battered the Superdome to the point that it was unfit to host games. The Saints thus began a nomadic season in which they conducted their "home" games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and even New Jersey (the home opener against the Giants was switched to the Meadowlands).
After a 3-13 season, the Saints, like their home city, looked to have a long road back. Instead, Payton and Brees immediately revitalized the team and the current era of competitiveness began forthwith.
Head to Head
The Buccaneers and Saints have obviously played twice a year since they became NFC South division mates in 2002, but the two teams had a fairly busy history against each other even before that. In fact, Tampa Bay played New Orleans 20 times from 1976 through 2001, making the Saints its most frequent opponent outside of the NFC Central division.
New Orleans won 13 of those first 20 games and still holds a 22-16 edge in the overall series. From 1977 through 1992, the Bucs played the Saints every season except 1980. The '80s were a little lopsided in the Saints' favor, as New Orleans won six straight meetings from 1983-88.
However, the Buccaneers at one time led the series 1-0, and that "1" was hugely significant. On December 11, 1977, Tampa Bay defeated the Saints 33-14 in New Orleans, thus ending a 26-game losing streak and recording its first-ever regular-season win. The Buccaneers set a team record that still stands in that victory, returning three interceptions for touchdowns. The Bucs also beat the Saints in 1981 and 1982, both times in New Orleans and both times preceding a Tampa Bay trip to the playoffs.
The Bucs won the last two meetings between the teams before they both joined the NFC South, winning handily in both 1999 (31-16) and 2001 (48-21). Those were also playoff seasons for the Buccaneers. However, when the South was formed in 2002, the Saints took what proved to be a surprising series sweep, given that Tampa Bay lost only four games that entire season and went on to win the Super Bowl. New Orleans captured the season opener that September, 26-20 in overtime, in what was not only the Bucs' first game in their new division but also the first game under new Head Coach Jon Gruden.
Overall, the Bucs and Saints have been perfectly even in NFC South play, each winning nine times. The Bucs got sweeps in 2005 and 2007 on the way to the postseason both times. The last three seasons have all featured splits, with the road team winning each of the last four meetings.