The 7-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-7 New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in the first of two games in three-week span between these division foes. The Buccaneers hope to extend a four-game winning streak and improve their playoff position; they enter Week 14 tied with Atlanta atop the NFC South and in possession of the second Wild Card position. The Saints could still get back into the playoff race but almost certainly need to win on Sunday to do so.
Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter has made it clear that his team is only focused on Sunday's game, even though the Bucs and Saints will meet again in New Orleans on Dec. 24. There has been a natural increase of playoff chatter around the Buccaneers during their winning streak, but this week's opponent provides plenty to think about without engaging the bigger picture.
"There are, of course, distractions all around," said Koetter. "You've got your normal injury situations that you're working on, but we tried to just focus on the Saints and the issues that the Saints bring to the table, which are a lot. We have to think about how we're going to attack but at the same time we have to be cognizant of what their strengths are, also."
Here are some additional notes regarding Sunday's Bucs-Seahawks matchup:
Red Zone Weapon
For about a week last September, Cam Brate nearly got away.
The Buccaneers signed Brate as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard in 2014 and he appeared in five games that year after a late-season promotion from the practice squad. He started the 2015 season back on the practice squad but was released after one week during a series of roster moves and picked up by the Saints for their own practice squad. Earlier this week, Koetter repeated something that he has said several times in the last 15 months: He and some other members of the staff were aghast at the thought of losing Brate last September.
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Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they were able to bring the young tight end back almost immediately, signing him from the Saints' practice squad to their own active roster, coincidentally after playing in New Orleans in Week Two. Now the Bucs and Saints are about to do battle again on Sunday, and Koetter's squad is certainly happy Brate is on their side.
"He's doing everything well," said Koetter of Brate, who is tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns among tight ends. "And the thing about Cam is, he's always striving to be better, and that's what you want of all your players, that they continue to develop, they're not satisfied with where they're at."
Brate caught his sixth touchdown pass a week ago in San Diego, and it proved to be the game-winning score in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jameis Winston has clearly developed a chemistry with Brate and isn't shy about looking his way around the goal line.
"As far as the red zone goes, a tight end is usually the quarterback's best friend – a tight end and big wide receivers in the red zone," said Koetter. "That's no secret to anybody. Cam, even going back to last year, he and Jameis developed a little chemistry on certain routes – how Jameis is going to throw it, where he's going to throw it. Some guys can't contort their body; if the ball's not in the perfect spot, they can't catch it. Cam has that unique ability to contort his body and get in position to catch balls at different angles."
Additional Lineup and Inactive Notes
The Buccaneers have been running with four active tight ends on game day for much of the season but will be down to three on Sunday as Luke Stocker is inactive with an ankle injury. The tight ends' loss is the running backs' gain, as Tampa Bay will keep four backs active against the Saints following the return of Charles Sims from injured reserve.
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Sims will join Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber in the offensive backfield. Tampa Bay will also have its usual complement of five active wideouts after promoting Josh Huff and Donteea Dye during the week. Adam Humphries, who has developed into a significant weapon in the slot, will be inactive on Sunday due to a concussion.
Right tackle Demar Dotson is also dealing with a concussion and will miss his first game of the season, allowing veteran Gosder Cherilus to step up into the starting lineup. Cherilus started 13 games at that spot last season after Dotson went down with a knee injury in the preseason.
In addition to Stocker, Dotson and Humphries, the Buccaneers have also deactivated quarterback Ryan Griffin, safety Chris Conte, defensive tackle DaVonte Lambert and guard Caleb Benenoch. Conte will miss a second straight game with a chest injury and Keith Tandy will once again take his spot in the lineup.
The Saints will be without their leading tackler, middle linebacker Craig Robertson, and their leading receiver, rookie wideout Michael Thomas. Second-year man Stephone Anthony, who had a strong rookie season in 2015 but has played sparingly this year, will step in for Robertson. Brandon Coleman gets the start in Thomas's place.
In addition, starting center Max Unger is unable to go on Sunday, pushing Tim Lelito into the starting lineup. Kenny Vaccaro, one of three safeties who plays on a majority of the team's defensive snaps (along with Jairus Byrd and rookie Vonn Bell) is out due to a suspension and will be replaced by 11th-year veteran Roman Harper.
Keep An Eye On
WR Mike Evans comes into Sunday's game with 76 receptions for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns, ranking third, third and tied for second in the NFL in those three categories, respectively. Last Sunday in San Diego, he had three catches for 38 yards, marking the first time all season that he failed to hit the 50-yard mark in any game.
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Evans has not been kept quiet for long this season. After Oakland limited him to 50 yards on five catches in Week Eight he came back to rack up 150 yards on a season-high 11 grabs against Atlanta. He's crossed the 100-yard mark in three of his last five games. In Week 14, Evans faces a Saints defense that is giving up 290.3 gross passing yards per game, third-worst in the NFL.
Saints QB Drew Brees is coming off what has to be considered his worst performance of the season in a 28-13 loss to Detroit in Week 13. Brees was intercepted a season-high three times and, for the first time all season and just the third time in the last 77 games, did not throw a touchdown pass.
Pictures of the Top 10 Saints in Week 13, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
The Bucs would love to force Brees into similar results on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but it won't be easy. Brees threw at least three touchdown passes in seven of the Saints' first 11 games, including a trio of four-TD outings. He had a season-low 63.3 passer rating against the Lions, but in 21 career games against Tampa Bay his rating is 96.1 and he has a 44-23 TD-INT ratio. The Bucs' defense has forced at least two turnovers in four straight games; doing so against Brees and the Saints will be difficult but may be necessary to take home the win.
The Buccaneers take on the Saints on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be broadcast regionally by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.