A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
The 8-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-8 New Orleans Saints on Saturday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, just 13 days after the same two teams met in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium. This marks the first time since 1984 that the Buccaneers have faced the same division opponent twice in the last quarter of the season, and unlike that final month 32 years ago, there are serious playoff implications this time around.
There's also a serious chess match being played between the Bucs and Saints as to how much to adjust after that very recent conflict. Tampa Bay won that won, 16-11, in a game that featured far fewer points than most expected. Both offenses hope to perform better on Saturday, but they have to decide how much to rewrite their scripts from two weeks ago.
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"That's the tricky part, and there's no good answer for that because it's somewhat uncharted territory to play a team this close together," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Of course you always play your division teams twice in a season but I've never been involved when you played them this close. A lot of times when you play a team early and then you play them seven or eight weeks later, their might be a key injury to one team or another or they've kind of found their rhythm in another area, and that works for both sides.
"Playing them this close together, that's going to be – for the coaches on both sides, both teams, both offenses, both defenses – [a matter of] what adjustments are made, how much do you go with what worked and avoid what didn't? In every game plan as a play-caller, you have certain things that you didn't get to. You just didn't have enough plays in that situation to get to them. That's going to be the unique thing about this game."
Here are some additional notes regarding Saturday's Bucs-Saints rematch:
Alexander the Great?
Kwon Alexander, the Buccaneers' second-year middle linebacker, had 21 tackles last Sunday night in Dallas, more than any other player in the league has tallied in a single game this year. Unfortunately, the Cowboys still came out on top, 26-20, so it was hard for any Tampa Bay player to be fully satisfied with his effort on the evening. Alexander also forced a fumble by Cowboys tight end Jason Witten near midfield in the fourth quarter, but Koetter said the young defender has the potential to play even better.
"Kwon had a heck of a game, but there's still room for him to improve," said the coach. "As good as he played making tackles, he was matched up in coverage a lot with Jason Witten, and Jason Witten taught him a few lessons in running routes. He's one of the best. Kwon's the type of guy that he'll take that and learn from it and it will come up somewhere else down the road. It will continue to make him a better player."
The loss to Dallas snapped a five-game winning streak for the Buccaneers. During those previous five games, Bucs' defense held opponents to 12.8 points per game, an NFL low in that span. Most of the games were close at the end and were eventually closed out by a big play on defense. The Bucs have two more regular-season games they badly need to win, and Alexander might be one of the most likely defenders to come up with another game-sealing play, thanks to a whole year of hard work.
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"The main quality that stands out to me is, he wants to be great," said Koetter. "There are a lot of guys that like playing the game, they'll do what they're supposed to do. Kwon has put in so much extra time with the intent on becoming the leader of the defense. His goal going into the year was to be the equivalent of how Jameis [Winston] is to the offense. There are plenty of guys out there that that sounds good for a couple weeks, maybe a couple of days, but he has stuck with that plan throughout the whole season. If the people out there could fathom how much extra time he's spent meeting with Smitty, meeting with Coach Duffner, and it's really starting to pay off for him."
Additional Lineup Notes
With Demar Dotson and Gosder Cherilus sidelined by injuries, the Buccaneers have to go to Plan C at right tackle in Week 16. Starting running back Doug Martin is also inactive for Saturday's game, meaning the backfield carries will be split between Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber.
The Buccaneers also have an opening on the defensive line with Will Gholston out due to an elbow injury. Rookie end Noah Spence should see more action but the Bucs will use their entire D-Line rotation to make up for Gholston's absence. Rookie DaVonte Lambert, who filled in admirably earlier in the season when Robert Ayers was injured, will be active for the first time in five weeks.
The Saints' offense leads the league in gross passing yards and will have one more weapon at its disposal as compared to the game in Tampa two weeks ago. Rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints' leading pass-catcher, missed the Week 14 contest due to injury but is back in the lineup on Saturday. Thomas had seven catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' 48-41 win in Arizona last Sunday.
Keep An Eye On
The rushing attack could prove critical for both teams, even if the game looks like an aerial shootout on paper. The Buccaneers have tried to get their running game back on track; in fact, they run the ball more often on first-and-10 than every team in the league but Dallas, and that has remained true in recent weeks. That's more often than Drew Brees and company run, for obvious reasons, but that doesn't mean the Bucs can ignore running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower.
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"If you look back just at the course of my career, we've always made our living off running the football and play-actioning off those runs," said Koetter. "Most teams in the NFL are like that. I listened to Drew Brees's press conference after the Arizona game. They had almost 500 yards of offense where we had held them down to, like, 240 the week before, and they asked Drew Brees, 'What's the main difference?' He said, 'We ran the ball better and we got our play-action game going.' That's true for almost every team in the league."
The Bucs gained a season-low 52 rushing yards in last Sunday's loss at Dallas, which snapped a five-game winning streak. Koetter thinks the Bucs can do far better than that, but it will take a full-team effort.
"Everything about it needs to be better," he said. "The details – the details of our footwork; we call that 'tracks,' our running back and our quarterback, the mesh point. We need to block better at the point of attack. We need to get some movement, we need to handle D-Line movement, we need to block better at the second level and we need our wide receivers to finish better."
The Buccaneers head into the final two weeks of the regular season knowing that a pair of victories – on Saturday in New Orleans and on New Year's Day at home against the Panthers – will almost certainly put them in the playoffs. Winston said earlier in the week that the playoffs essentially start for Tampa Bay this week. That's a valid point, but the Buccaneers need to channel that motivation and make sure they don't underestimate either of their last two opponents.
"The NFL wanted it this way when they scheduled these division games at the end," said Koetter. "In our particular division, we all play each other these last two weeks and everybody's within [a few] games of each other. Based on how the math works out, even though Carolina and New Orleans are two games behind, this could all change. Everybody could still qualify for the playoffs mathematically in our division – not necessarily win the division but could still make it into the playoffs. That's I'm sure what the league wants. They don't want teams to be tanking it at the end of the year. They want all these games to be meaningful, and in our division they are."
The Buccaneers take on the Saints on Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The game will be broadcast nationally by Fox and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.