Two weeks into the 2017 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 1-0 and the New Orleans Saints were 0-2. Things have changed dramatically in the five weeks since, and the Buccaneers are seeking to change them back. They hope to start that process in New Orleans.
"Division games on the road, they're huge if you can get a win," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Right now we just need a win in general to get off this streak that we're on. If you can get a division win on the road [it would help]. We won in New Orleans two years ago. We beat them there before, we've just got to go out and play good football for four quarters and we'll be there at the end."
That streak the Buccaneers are on is a four-game run of losses, and they've won only one more game since their hurricane-delayed opener. Meanwhile, the Saints have won five in a row to take over first place in the NFC South. The Bucs know they can't fall much further behind and continue to nurture playoff dreams.
Of course, the standings aren't the only thing that looks different heading into this Bucs-Saints matchup. The Saints themselves have are evolving on offense and defense, and doing so effectively. Drew Brees still leads the New Orleans offense masterfully, but he's doing so by funneling it through the tailback duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
"On the offensive side of the ball, their use of the two running backs, Ingram and Kamara are both playing well for them and they're using them effectively," said Koetter. "They use Kamara very similar to how Carolina uses [Christian] McCaffrey. It's like 50-50 between giving it to him out of the backfield and throwing it to him. They use him in the screen game. He's a really good route-runner, so they move him around a lot and he's an explosive player."
Meanwhile, the New Orleans defense has improved from recent years. While it's still giving up enough yards to be down at #20 in the rankings, it's slowing down the scoring with a high number of turnovers and sacks, as well as good results in the red zone. The Saints have held four of their last five opponents to 17 or less. Rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams have helped a lot but the Bucs' primary concern is defensive end Cameron Jordan and his team-leading 5.5 sacks.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
"On the defensive side of the ball, even though they don't have a lot of household names on that defense they're playing fast, they're playing hard and they're playing with a lot of confidence," said Koetter. "Jordan, 94, is as good of a game-wrecker as we've played against, and their first and second-round rookies are playing well in the secondary. But all their role players are playing their roles very well."
If that improved Saints defense has an Achilles heel, it's getting off the field on third down. New Orleans has allowed a conversion rate of 46.8%, which ranks 29th in the league. The Buccaneers' defense shares that woe, ranking 31st at 49.0%. Tampa Bay's defense had a better performance last Sunday against Carolina but still isn't performing as expected on third down, a category in which it led the league in 2016.
"What we liked [about last week's defense] is that we tackled much better and we fit the run much better, and we're going to have to do that again because New Orleans has evolved into a much more balanced offense that definitely will try to run it down your throat," said Koetter. "It was better but … last year we were the best team in the league at getting off on third down. So we've still got a ways to go. Third down has not been good to us on either side of the ball, and that's one of the things this week that we're trying to hard emphasize and do better both offensively and defensively."
Tampa Bay's defense will be without cornerback Brent Grimes for another game due to his shoulder injury, but cornerback Robert McClain returns from a concussion to help with the depth at that spot. Quarterback Jameis Winston will run his career-opening streak to 40 straight starts as he continues to recover from a Week Six shoulder injury. He will also be able to throw the ball to wide receiver Adam Humphries, who was cleared to play despite sustaining a rib injury last Sunday.
Grimes is one of the Buccaneers' seven inactive players for Sunday's game, along with tight end Antony Auclair, center Joe Hawley, cornerback Deji Olatoye, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, defensive end Darryl Tapp and tackle Leonard Wester.
The Saints will be without starting right guard Larry Warford for the second straight week but otherwise have no other players out due to injury. Senio Kelemete will start in his place. Warford is inactive for the game, as are quarterback Taysom Hill, safety Rafael Bush, center Cameron Tom, wide receiver Austin Carr, defensive tackle John Hughes and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad.
The Buccaneers and Panthers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.