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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Scouting Report: New Orleans Saints

Though Sean Payton's Saints are uncharacteristically out of the playoff hunt, they still bring one of the league's most effective offenses to Tampa, along with some notable pass-rushers on defense


  • The Saints' win-loss record took a hit in 2014 but QB Drew Brees has been as good as ever, especially in recent road games
  • New Orleans' sack totals are down from last year, as well, but Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan remain dangerous pass-rushers
  • WR Jalen Saunders took over the kickoff return job with a bang last Sunday

    On Sunday, the 2-13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-9 New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It will be the 46th meeting between the Bucs and the Saints, and the third time in the last five seasons that the two teams finished the regular season against each other (more on the Bucs-Saints series history here). The Bucs would like to snap New Orleans' six-game run in the head-to-head series, get a season split, record their first home victory of 2014 and finish the current season on a high note.

To accomplish all of those goals, the Buccaneers, as usual, will have to limit the inevitable damage caused by QB Drew Brees and the league's top-ranked offense (in terms of yards). Tampa Bay's defense will face a 3-4 defensive front for the second week in a row and will probably find LB Junior Galette and DE Cameron Jordan to be their two most pressing concerns. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when the Saints visit Raymond James Stadium for the 2014 season finale.

HEAD COACH: Few coaches in today's NFL are given as much credit for impacting the fortunes of their teams as is the Saints' Sean Payton. Payton supporters would point to the fact that New Orleans dipped from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 in 2012 when the coach was serving a one-year suspension, and then jumped right back to an 11-5 mark and a playoff spot last year. The Saints made it to the playoffs in five of Payton's first seven years on the sideline (not including that 2012 campaign) and their record overall in those seven seasons was a sparkling 73-39 (Payton now stands at 79-48 with one game to go in 2014). In 2009, Payton led the Saints to their first championship with a 31-17 win over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV and was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year for his efforts.


The Saints missed the playoffs this season for just the third time in Head Coach Sean Payton's eight seasons on the sideline

A quarterback in college and briefly in the pros, Payton spent his career leading up to his first head coaching gig on the offensive side of the ball. After roughly a decade at the college level, Payton jumped to the NFL in 1997, taking over as quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia under Eagles Offensive Coordinator Jon Gruden. He went from there to the New York Giants and after just one year in charge of the QBs was promoted to offensive coordinator; with the Giants, he gained a reputation as a tireless worker who would often sleep at team headquarters. In 2003, Bill Parcells hired Payton away to help him Dallas, as the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, and later as the passing game coordinator. The Saints came calling in 2006 in the wake of a 3-13 season and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. With Payton and free agent QB Drew Brees in town, the Saints immediately established one of the NFL's most explosive offenses and went straight to the playoffs in Year One. Payton, Brees and company have never slowed down since, landing in the top six in the NFL's points-scored rankings every year from 2006-13. The Saints' fortunes have dipped somewhat in 2014 but the team is still tied for ninth in the league in scoring while ranking first overall in yards per game.

OFFENSE: When the Buccaneers played in New Orleans in Week Five, we noted that the Saints were deemed to have had a "slow start," based mostly on their 1-3 record. At the time, New Orleans was still ranked third in the league in yards per game and 15th in points scored…so technically the team was off to a slow start, at least compared to what has happened since. With one week to play, the Saints have moved back up to a familiar spot at the top of the yardage rankings while also improving to ninth in points scored. Saints opponents have won nine of 15 times but they haven't been able to stop Brees and his pals from dropping 416.3 yards and 25.2 points per game.

Not surprisingly, this is a testament to quarterback Drew Brees, who has been just as prolific as ever in his ninth season leading the Saints attack. Earlier this year, Payton scoffed at the notion that his team was looking for an exit strategy from Brees, and the quarterback's end-of-the-year numbers explain why. Brees is still completing just under 70% of his passes, still putting up 311.4 yards per game and, with a 4.2% sack rate, is still one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to get to the ground thanks to his quick release and even quicker decision-making. Brees' yards per attempt (7.5) and interception rate (2.3) are both up a bit from last season but are still equal to or better than his career averages.

Brees was picked off twice last week by the Atlanta Falcons, but the only opponent that has snared three of his passes in a single game this year is the Buccaneers in Week Five. Perhaps more relevant than last week's game in the Superdome is Brees' performance in his last two road games, both Saints wins: 48 of 63 (76.2%) for 632 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

At an even six feet tall, Brees is shorter than most starting NFL quarterbacks, but that has never been much of a problem for him, given his intelligence, his release and his field vision. Still, opponents go into each game hoping to dial up the pressure in the middle of the line, in part to obscure Brees' vision and in part to keep him from stepping up in the pocket and delivering the ball, something at which he is particularly adept. He has been fortunate to operate behind a list of strong offensive guards during his time in New Orleans, including the current duo of Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, both of whom made the Pro Bowl last season. Evans just got his sixth straight Pro Bowl invite, but there's evidence that those two have been far less effective in 2014 than they were a year ago. Pro Football Focus ranked Grubbs and Evans as their 11th and 17th-best guards in the NFL, respectively, in 2013; this year they come in at 37th and 47th. In addition, starting left tackle Terron Armstead missed last Sunday's game due to injury and replacement Bryce Harris was credited with allowing seven quarterback hurries.


QB Drew Brees and the Saints have gotten plenty of good returns when handing the ball off to RB Mark Ingram

Since the last meeting with Tampa Bay, Brees has lost the services of rookie WR Brandin Cooks, who had caught 53 passes and run for 73 yards and a touchdown through the first 10 games. At various times this season, the Saints have also been without running backs Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram, but all three have been back in action the last couple weeks. The biggest change since Week Five is that Ingram has finally emerged as the unchallenged starter and primary ballcarrier. He leads the team with 907 yards and eight touchdown on 212 carries (4.3 ypc), has had four 100-yard games and has scored in each of the last two outings.

Brees has always involved his running backs in the passing game, and Ingram also has 27 catches for 141 yards. The most prominent back in the passing game, however, has been do-everything veteran Pierre Thomas, who has 45 grabs for 378 yards and a score. Otherwise, with Cooks out, the passing attack has gone primarily through standout TE Jimmy Graham and the WR duo of Kenny Stills and Marques Colston. Graham has been slowed at times this season by injuries but he remains a matchup nightmare and he has 11 catches for 140 yards and a score in the last two games. Graham also has two 10-catch games this season and is far and away the team's leader with 10 touchdown receptions. Stills is a good speed complement to the 6-4, 225-pound Colston and the two have nearly identical stat lines (58-849-3 for the former to 57-851-4 for the latter).

The Saints' running game is often overlooked and usually quite a bit more productive than its reputation as an afterthought to Brees' passing. It's true that New Orleans has had Brees drop back to throw on almost 63% of its snaps, but the Saints still have the league's 12th-best rushing attack, thanks largely to Ingram. More to the point, the runs have been effective, picking up 4.6 yards per carry to rank fourth in the league in that category.

If anything has hurt the Saints' offense – helping to explain the gap between yardage and scoring rankings – it has been turnovers. The Saints have given the ball away 27 – only four teams have more – and they are tied for 30th in turnover differential at -11. New Orleans has allowed 29 more points off of turnovers than it has scored. And while the Saints have a well-deserved reputation for being able to score from anywhere on the field, they actually rank right in the middle of the league in passing plays of 20 or more yards this year, six spots behind the Buccaneers. One thing that has definitely not changed since the last time the Buccaneers faced the Saints is how good Brees and company are at sustaining drives. New Orleans has converted on 48.1% of their third-down tries this season, which is tied for the best mark in the league.

The Saints also have the league's ninth-best red zone offense, converting 59.7% of their drives inside the 20 into touchdowns and 83.9% into a score of some kind. However, that has been a trouble spot of late for New Orleans, as the team has fumbled away red zone opportunities three times in the last two games.

DEFENSE: The massive turnaround made by the Saints' defense under Rob Ryan was one of the team's best stories in 2013. Unfortunately, the 2014 version has looked more like the 2012 squad that was the first in NFL history to allow more than 7,000 yards. The Saints won't hit that mark again, but they almost certainly will give up 6,000 yards and they rank 31st in that category and 29th in points allowed. Many of the impressive gains made by the offense have been negated, at least statistically, by very similar numbers allowed by the New Orleans defense. It's obviously a good start to have an offense that gains 416.3 yards per game, scores 25.2 per outing, converts third downs at close to 50% and picks up 6.1 yards per play, but it's not always enough when the other team gets 390.9 yards, 26.9 points, 45.5% third-down conversions and 6.1 yards per play.

Takeaways have been relatively elusive for the Saints' defense, though it has picked up the pace since getting only two in its first five games. New Orleans didn't steal the ball away from Atlanta last Sunday in the Superdome but five of their season total of 16 takeaways have come in its last two road games, at Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The Saints have shaken up their secondary in recent weeks, promoting CB Terrence Frederick over Corey White and Patrick Robinson and changing the role of 2013 first-rounder S Kenny Vaccaro to focus more on slot coverage in nickel situations. Rookie S Pierre Warren, an undrafted free agent, has started the last five games and is already tied for the team lead with two interceptions, the same totals as those for Vaccaro, Robinson and White. The New Orleans' pass defense has allowed 25 touchdown passes and is 29th in the league in yards allowed per game.


LB Curtis Lofton is among the league's tackle leaders as he patrols the middle of the Saints' 3-4 defensive front

The middle level of the Saints' defense features its leading tackler in LB Curtis Lofton, who has 173 stops by the team's own calculation, or 135 if you prefer the number compiled by Stats, LLC. Either way, that puts Lofton among the league leaders in that category, and the active linebacker has also broken up eight passes and forced a fumble. Lofton is joined in the middle of the field by former Seahawk David Hawthorne, who is the team's third-leading tackler and also has three sacks and one interception. The Saints run Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense, so the outside linebackers are pass-rushers like Junior Galette and Kasim Edebali.

Galette, in fact, leads the team with nine sacks but he has just three in the last seven games, and only six QB hits in that same span. The Saints rank just 25th in the league in sacks per pass play, and that might be the biggest difference in the team's defense from 2013 to the present. Last year, the Saints racked up 49 QB takedowns and ranked fourth in the league in sacks per pass play. It was probably no coincidence that they also ranked fourth in yards and fourth in points allowed in 2013. DE Cameron Jordan made his first Pro Bowl last season after racking up 12.5 sacks, but he's come up with just 6.0 so far this season and no other down lineman has more than two for the team.

The rush defense has arguably been a more significant problem. The Saints rank 29th in yards allowed per game (129.5) and second-to-last in yards allowed per carry (4.8). Specifically, New Orleans' opponents have done a good job of getting good chunks of yardage on first down, as the team ranks 29th in the league with 4.85 yards allowed on first-down carries. That also helps explain how New Orleans' foes have managed that aforementioned 45.5% success rate on third downs, which ranks 30th in the NFL.

New Orleans is also 27th in the league in red zone defense, having allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 62.5% of the drives that reach that part of the field. Only three times all season has an opposing red zone drive failed to produce any points at all against the Saints.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Saints took both Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke to camp this summer, cut them both at the end of August and then brought Graham back almost immediately. Graham has held onto the job – though the Saints did try out one of their other former kickers, Garrett Hartley, two weeks ago – by making 19 of 22 field goal tries. Two of his three misses have come in the last three games, but an overall success rate of 86.4% still has the saints tied for 11th in that category.

It's punter Thomas Morstead who handles the Saints' kickoffs, and he's actually quite good at it. He blasted 68 touchbacks in 2011, which was an NFL single-season record at the time, and was fourth in the NFL in that category last year with 52. This year, the Saints have 39 touchbacks in 73 kickoffs, a 53.4% rate that is only slightly above league average, but the team still ranks 10th with an average opponent kickoff drive start of the 21.1-yard line.


WR Jalen Saunders' first kickoff return for the Saints went 99 yards last week and set up a one-yard touchdown drive against Atlanta

Morstead has also been a very good punter for the Saints since they took him in the fifth round of the draft in 2009. In 2012, he made the Pro Bowl after recording an excellent net average of 43.2 yards per punt, the fifth-best mark in league annals. This year he's been even better, with a gross of 46.1 and a net of 43.1. That's the biggest bright spot for the Saints on special teams, as they rank seventh in gross punting, third in net punting and first in opponent punt return average. It has been a futile exercise this year to try to return a punt against the Saints, who are giving up just 3.1 yards per try and no single runback longer than 13 yards.

The Saints have gotten 24.3 yards per kickoff return this year from RB Travaris Cadet, but Cadet was inactive last week and that actually worked in the team's favor. Jalen Saunders stepped in and on his very first kickoff return for the team opened the game against Atlanta with a 99-yarder. Unfortunately for Saunders he was tackled at the one-yard line, but that did set up an Ingram touchdown run on the next play. Saunders had already bene helping out on punts with Cooks on injured reserve, and he has a 12.0-yard average on eight tries in that category for the Saints.

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