On Sunday, the 0-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 0-1 New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. It will be the 47th meeting between the Bucs and the Saints, and the first intra-division game of the year for both squads. The Bucs would like to snap New Orleans' seven-game run in the head-to-head series, record their first win of the season and make an important gain in the NFC South race.
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To accomplish all of those goals, the Buccaneers, will have to once again limit the damage caused by always-productive QB Drew Brees and his refashioned cast of targets. The Saints' top weapon on defense is likely pass-rusher Cameron Jordan, but New Orleans has a banged-up secondary that might be ripe for the exploit. Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they head to the Superdome for their first road game of 2015.
The New Orleans Saints have experienced their longest run of prolonged success – and recorded their single most important on-field accomplishment – during Sean Payton's nine years at the helm. That stretch actually covers 10 seasons, as Payton served a one-year suspension in 2012, and that time too offers evidence of Payton's impact. The Saints were 13-3 in 2011, 7-9 without him in 2012 and then 11-5 and right back in the playoffs in 2013.
In all, the Saints made the playoffs five times and won the division three times in Payton's first eight seasons as the head coach, and never finished worse than 7-9. That was New Orleans' record last year, and while it was a four-win decline from the previous year, the Saints still only lost the division title on a tiebreaker with the 7-9 Carolina Panthers. Counting the team's 31-19 loss in Arizona in Week One of the 2015 season, the Saints are 80-49 in the regular season under Payton's guidance, and 6-4 in the postseason. Those playoff totals include three wins in 2009 when Payton led the Saints to their first championship, culminating in a 31-17 win over Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV. Payton was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year for his efforts.
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 nine in the NFL's points-scored rankings every year from 2006-14. Even during last year's dip to 7-9, the Saints ranked ninth in points and first in yards at the end of the season.
The Saints' 2015 offense is a mixture of the familiar and the new. Obviously, there is both continuity and the promise of an explosive attack with Brees returning for his 10th year in New Orleans and his 15th season overall. Brees' lowest single-season marks as a Saint are 4,388 yards (2009), 26 touchdowns (2006) and an 89.2 passer rating. He is certainly "clutch," as the author of 25 fourth-quarter comebacks and 36 game-winning drives in his career, according to Pro Football Reference. Amazingly, his career passer rating is actually better on third and 4-6 yards (99.9) and third and 7-9 yards (96.9) than it is on first-and-10 (93.8).
Brees has integrated new weapons into the Saints' passing attack through the years (91 of them in all). While wide receiver Marques Colston has been a constant throughout the decade, Brees has in various seasons completed 88 passes to Reggie Bush, 54 to David Patten, 79 to Lance Moore, 50 to Jeremy Shockey, 45 to Robert Meachem, 51 to Devery Henderson, 86 to Darren Sproles, 77 to Pierre Thomas, 53 to Brandin Cooks, 63 to Kenny Stills, and so on. However, beyond Colston and his 1,034 targets, 667 receptions and 68 touchdowns, tight end Jimmy Graham is a clear second on the list with 590, 383 and 51. Jimmy Graham is now a Seattle Seahawk.
The trade that sent Graham to Seattle for a first-round pick and center Max Unger during the offseason is just one move that shook up the offensive cast in New Orleans. Also departed from last year's teams are Stills, Thomas, Travaris Cadet and Nick Toon; those four plus Graham accounted for 248 receptions last year. The team had moved on from Sproles and Moore the year before.
There are newcomers to take their places, of course, most notably former Buffalo RB C.J. Spiller (inactive for the first game) and the Saints will be looking to get even more from Cooks, RB Mark Ingram and WR Brandon Coleman. A first-round pick in 2014, Cooks is small, fast and very quick and he had 53 catches in just 10 games last year. Cooks caught four balls for 49 yards in the season-opener in Arizona, but Brees' distribution in that game may be a sign of things to come. Of his 30 completions in the game, exactly half went to running backs, for a total of 153 yards. Ingram had a breakout season as a runner last year with 964 yards; this year he may do the same as a pass-catcher after an 8-for-89 opening-week performance.
The Graham trade, which brought back a very good center in Unger, seemed to be an indication among others that the Saints, reliant for so long on Brees's right arm, might be edging toward a more traditional rushing attack, especially after Ingram's strong 2014. One game does not a scouting report make, but that didn't really come to pass in the opener. The Saints managed just 54 yards on 27 carries, an average of 2.0 yards per tote. New Orleans did trail the entire game, but were within one score for almost the entire second half.
Last year, thanks largely to Brees' accuracy and quick release, the Saints led the NFL in third-down conversion rate, succeeding on an amazing 48.3% of their tries. That may yet be a strength for the Saints again in 2015, but in the opener they were good on "just" seven of 18 attempts, or 38.9%. They were also extremely proficient in and around the red zone (tied for fourth with a 58.3% TD rate on drives inside the 30) and when nearing the goal line (second in goal-to-go TD efficiency at 84.8%). In the opener, Brees's crew was just one of four on scoring TDs in red zone opportunities.
The Saints do not have the same strong results from 2014 to build on when it comes to the defensive side of the ball, and their 2015 season has been marked early with a string of injuries. New Orleans ranked 31st in yards allowed last season, at 384.0 per game, and 28th in points allowed, at 26.5 per game. The '15 opener fell right into that trend, as Arizona rang up 427 yards in its 31-19 win.
The Saints' secondary has experienced poor luck in 2015. Safety Jairus Byrd, a major free agency acquisition a year ago, has yet to return after missing a good portion of last season with a knee injury. Safety Rafael Bush tore a pectoral muscle in the opener and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, the big free agency addition to the secondary in 2013, recently had hip surgery and is expected to miss four to six weeks. The Saints invested a third-round pick on cornerback P.J. Williams in the 2015 draft, but he's already out for the season with a torn hamstring. Arizona's Carson Palmer took advantage by throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions.
Coverage and pass rush go hand in hand, and Palmer was not sacked. The Saints ranked 25th in the league last year with 34 sacks of opposing quarterbacks, and that was with the 10 contributed by linebacker Junior Galette, who is now with the Washington Redskins. However, the team does still have one of the league's better pass-rushers in DE Cameron Jordan, who had 28 QB takedowns from 2012-2014, including 12.5 in his 2013 Pro Bowl campaign. The Saints didn't sack Palmer, but Jordan was a bright spot for their defense, according to Pro Football Focus, earning an excellent 3.0 pass-rush grade. Nobody else on the defense was better than 0.4, and the overall defense got a grade of -0.2.
Just a bit before the start of training camp, the Saints signed long-time Viking DT Kevin Williams and installed him as a starter. They are also starting DT John Jenkins which means, officially, they are switching back to a 4-3 base defense after two years as a 3-4 team under Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. Of course, the Saints still show both looks at times, but the 4-3 look does make Jordan more of a pure edge rusher. Payton referred to him as a "jack linebacker" during the preseason.
New Orleans used the pick it got from the Graham trade to draft Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony, then used its second-round selection on Washington LB Hau'oli Kikaha, another outside pass-rusher. Both players started in the opener, Anthony at MIKE and Kikaha at SAM, and both played nearly every snap. It was veteran David Hawthorne, the WILL linebacker, who came off the field in nickel packages. Kikaha contributed five tackles and a forced fumble while Anthony pitched in with four tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. Both players received poor pass-rush grades from Pro Football Focus but were solid otherwise, and they figure to be key figures as the Saints try to rebuild their defense.
As good as the Saints were at converting third downs last year on offense, their defense had just as much trouble stopping them. New Orleans ranked 31st in overall third-down defense, allowing a 46.0% success (the league average was 39.9%) and were significantly worse than the league average on long third-down tries, allowing a 35.7% rate on tries of more than six yards. In its opener, New Orleans allowed Arizona to convert on three of four third downs of more than six yards.
New Orleans has had a bit of a revolving door at placekicker in recent years, but they have an absolute stalwart at punter.
Last year, veteran Shayne Graham held down the kicking job and did just fine, making 19 of 22 field goal tries and 46 of 47 PATs. This year, however, the Saints held a preseason competition between young kickers Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins, and Hocker won the job, although the team then gave tryouts to vets Caleb Sturgis and Nick Novak. Hopkins held onto his position and was perfect in his debut, making four field goals against Arizona, each of which brought the Saints to within five points or less of the Cardinals.
Pictures from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, September 16th at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Hocker didn't have to worry about kickoffs because the Saints use their punter to do that, and he's very good at it. Thomas Morstead demonstrated that by blasting all six of his kickoffs into the end zone on Sunday and collecting five touchbacks. Morstead has also been very steady since the Saints drafted him in 2009; since then, through Sunday, he ranks fifth in the NFL in gross punting average (46.9) and third in net punting average (41.0). Last year, he was second only to Baltimore's Sam Koch in net average at 42.9, and his mark of 43.2 in 2012 was the sixth-highest in NFL history.
Spiller is likely to take over the return duties when he returns from his knee injury; he was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday. The Saints have him listed first at both punt and kickoff return; he was used off and on in those roles in Buffalo, with a career average of 12.1 yards on punt returns and 24.4 on kickoff returns. In his absence, rookie running back Marcus Murphy, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri, fielded punts in Arizona while Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro rendered kickoff runbacks a moot point.