Tampa Bay's first divisional matchup of the 2022 season will take place in Week Two as the Buccaneers visit the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, September 18, at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The Saints have had the Bucs' number in recent years but a new era dawns in New Orleans – one without Sean Payton and Drew Brees. In recent history, the Saints' prodigious years atop the NFC South were invariably linked to the head coach-quarterback duo.
New Orleans moved on from Brees in 2021 after his retirement and saw their four-season run as the crown jewel of the NFC South snapped by the Buccaneers. The Saints' offense finished 28th in total offense, the franchise's lowest ranking since the Mike Ditka era and the lowest of Payton's tenure as head coach in The Big Easy. The club brought back Jameis Winston on a two-year contract, but his 2021 campaign ended prematurely after he suffered a torn ACL in Week Seven.
New Orleans began the year with a 5-2 record but then lost five straight following Winston's season-ending knee injury. A 4-1 finish to the season – featuring the Saints' second victory over Tampa Bay – pulled New Orleans within a tiebreaker loss for the final NFC playoff spot. The Saints finished with a winning 9-8 record and time will tell if Winston is the future of the franchise. Last season, he cut down on interceptions, the element that hindered his progress during his career in Tampa Bay, to an impressive 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Taysom Hill experiment is over, as the Saints announced late in the offseason that Hill will play exclusively at tight end. Andy Dalton was brought in as insurance to command the backup role.
Receiver Michael Thomas missed the majority of the last two seasons, including all of 2021 due to an ankle injury, although the last time Thomas had a clean bill of health in 2019 he smashed the NFL single-season reception record with 149 catches. His return will help solidify the receiving corps, along with the acquisition of first-round rookie Chris Olave and seasoned veteran Jarvis Landry. Despite missing four games last year, running back Alvin Kamara remained a catalyst in the Saints' offense, imposing his will on opponents. Kamara averaged more than 100 yards from scrimmage per game and tallied nine touchdowns.
On defense last season, the Saints finished fourth in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. After a slow start to the year sparking regression rumors, defensive end Cameron Jordan disrupted down the stretch to the tune of 8.5 sacks in the club's last four games. In the rotation up front, Jordan is paired with the interchangeable cast of Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Carl Granderson to keep legs fresh. Complementing the Saints' pass rush is a top-four run defense over the previous four years, spearheaded by playmaker middle linebacker Demario Davis. He headlines the group with second-year linebacker Pete Werner stepping into the weakside role.
The Saints lost both of their starting safeties this offseason, with Marcus Williams signing a lucrative contract with the Baltimore Ravens and Malcolm Jenkins heading into retirement. New Orleans fortified the secondary by signing former Jets' safety Marcus Maye and All-Pro safety Tyrann 'Honey Badger' Mathieu. Head Coach Dennis Allen will continue to call the defensive plays in 2022 and Mathieu gives him a versatile, ball hawk defender who can fill a variety of roles. At cornerback, Marshon Lattimore is coming off a stellar campaign with 19 pass breakups in 2021.
The Saints enter Week Two 1-0, outlasting the Falcons in their season opener, 27-26. Atlanta dominated the first three quarters, with a successful game plan by Arthur Smith featuring an RPO-based attack with zone reads. Marcus Mariota excelled on designed quarterback rollouts and Cordarrelle Patterson gashed the Saints' defense, with the ability to instantaneously get north and south. The Falcons' lined up receivers in bunch formations, not allowing the Saints defensive backs to press at the line of scrimmage. Atlanta won the battle in the trenches, but things shifted in the fourth. The Saints went into an up-tempo, no-huddle attack in the final slate, not allowing Dean Pees to utilize disguises. Winston thrived in hurry-up mode, completing 13 of 16 attempts for 212 yards and two touchdowns during the final quarter, guiding the team to a victory.
The Saints have a myriad of household names on both sides of the football. Several could have landed on the difference-makers compilation list, but these few stand out. Keep your eyes on these five who could help swing the game in favor of the Saints on Sunday afternoon at Caesars Superdome:
MLB Demario Davis
Demario Davis is the quarterback in the middle of the Dennis Allen defense. The game-wrecker is the only defender in the NFL with 100-plus tackles, 10-plus tackles for loss, and three or more sacks in each of the last four seasons. As two-linebacker sets have become more prominent in the league to offset 11 personnel with nickel packages, Davis has emerged as a versatile asset who can rush the passer, is able to drop back into coverage and is a disruptive force against the run. He is quick off the snap with burst in short areas to move toward the football, optimizing the Saints' linebacker corps. Whether a wide zone run, or one though the tackles, the Bucs will need to be aware of Demario Davis.
DE Cameron Jordan
Cameron Jordan sets the tone on the Saints' defense. The seven-time Pro Bowler has compiled 573 combined tackles, 107.0 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, 13 forced fumbles, 206 quarterback hits and 137 tackles for loss in 143 game starts. In 2021 at the age of 32, Jordan finished the season strong with 59 combined tackles, 22 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for loss, and 12.5 sacks (8.5 in last four games). With violent, active hands and a relentless motor, Jordan dominates at the point of attack. With an arsenal of moves at his disposal, he quickly sheds blockers. Whether it is an inside swim move or a club arm over, Jordan gains an advantage through film and emphasizes that move to counteract an opponent. Jordan energizes the defense in New Orleans and is a player who is circled during the week of preparation by offenses around the league. Bucs' All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs has battled Jordan several times, optimizing his growth. "You do not see a lot of defensive ends that are 290 pounds running at you from a wide-9," Wirfs stated. "So, I think that's the biggest thing going against him for a tackle is just being ready for that and then him bating you - power, power, power and then he can use a finesse move off that. So, just knowing what you are going to get and knowing that he is a really big, strong guy."
KR/PR Deonte Harty
Deonte Harty, formerly known as Deonte Harris, is a feared threat as a return specialist with rare acceleration and elusiveness. He has the potential to break the game open at any time and must be accounted for by the Bucs' special teams unit. The dynamite return man will don a new name in 2022, after changing his last name to honor his stepfather, Marlon Harty. The name on the jersey may be different, but his elite speed remains the same. He is lethal in the open field, dodging tackles effortlessly. In 2019, Harty (then Harris) was selected to the Pro Bowl and was named a First-Team All-Pro for his contributions on the field. On 36 punt returns, he amassed 338 yards, with a 9.4 average per return, including one touchdown in 2019. On 24 kick returns, Harty posted 644 yards, for a 26.8 yards-per-return average. He will look for a resurgence in 2022, putting the Saints in favorable field position.
RB Alvin Kamara
The Saints struggled to establish the run in Week One, besides a 57-yard Taysom Hill run off a power sweep. Alvin Kamara exited Sunday's game with a rib injury, but the issue is not expected to be of serious nature. Everything the Saints have vocalized suggests Kamara will be ready for his typical workload in Week Two versus Tampa Bay. Since entering the league in 2017, Kamara has established himself as one of the most explosive backs in the NFL. He earned his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection in 2021, despite missing four games. Last season, Kamara led the team in both rushing and receiving for the second straight year, as he rushed for 898 yards on a career-high 284 carries with four touchdowns. Additionally, he caught a team-best 47 receptions for 439 yards. With an explosive first step and excellent vision, Kamara is a constant nightmare for defensive coordinators. The big-play threat also has reliable hands as a receiver, running angle routes to perfection and elevating the Saints' screen game with his YAC-ability. As per usual, No. 41 will need to be on the Bucs radar.
CM Marshon Lattimore
Safeties lined up deep do not have to worry about Marshon Lattimore's side of the field regarding 'help.' He stays locked on the NFL's top receivers with physicality. Lattimore is proficient in press-man coverage, off-man coverage and zone coverage. He possesses the size to match up with big wideouts, and has the speed element to defend vertical threats. Lattimore can jam receivers at the line before turning and running the route downfield. He is a cornerstone in the Saints' secondary, setting the standard of excellence. The former Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year had another stellar campaign in 2021, posting 68 stops, three interceptions, 19 pass breakups, and one fumble recovery in 16 games played, garnering a Pro Bowl selection for the fourth time in his five-year career in New Orleans. He has established himself as one of the top-tier cornerbacks in the NFL and will be a player the Bucs game plan for.
Here are some specific ways in which the Saints excelled in 2021:
· The Saints concluded the 2021 season tied for third in the NFL with 40 broken tackles by rushers. Alvin Kamara's elusiveness to dodge flat footed safeties or bigger linebackers largely contributed to that statistical measure. Forced missed tackles are Kamara's bread-and-butter, resulting in opponents getting gashed on the ground.
· The New Orleans' defense allowed 28.3 yards per drive last year, the third lowest in the NFL. With Jordan, Lattimore and Davis dominating at all three levels, the Saints defense imposed their will and provided additional opportunities for the offense to generate points.
· The defense came in second at limiting yards-after-catch. Opposing teams combined for 4,131 gross yards against the Saints last season, and the defense gave up 1,999 YAC yards (second), with the opposition averaging 5.5 YAC/reception. As more and more offenses are utilizing a short-to-intermediate passing attack to mitigate pressure – targeting the middle of the field – the Saints' ability to limit YAC is essential.
· Falling just behind Dallas, the Saints' defense graded out at No. 2 in blitz passing situations – tracking the club's success in blitzing situations (defender not on the line of scrimmage and rushes the quarterback or four or more rush the QB). On 129 blitz attempts, the Saints' defense got home on 14 sacks for a loss of 104 yards (9.79 percent). The unit allowed a passer rating of 67.78 when collapsing the pocket.
Many factors contributed to the demise of New Orleans last season, ending the team's comeback bid. Most notable:
· The Saints converted just 35.5 percent of its third-down attempts, third lowest in the NFL. Third down conversions are the difference between punting and keeping drives alive. It is the measurement of the team's ability to move the ball downfield and last year, the Saints struggled to find rhythm.
· New Orleans ranked last in the league in points scored on the first possession. The NFL average was 36 points and the Saints recorded just 16. Slow starts often forced the Saints to play catch-up and become one-dimensional in 2021. This year, favorable down and distance is key to come out firing on all cylinders.
· The Saints fell in the bottom three of the league in dropped passes, only the Chargers and Panthers fared worse. On 504 passing attempts last year, the Saints offense completed 293, including 21 drops (6.7 drops/catchable percentage).
· The New Orleans defense ranked 30th in the league in plays of 10-plus yards given up, with the Giants (31) and Texans (32) coming in behind. The Saints' defense gave up a total of 180 big plays, 45 runs (15.4 average distance) and 135 passes (19.3 average distance). The defensive output is predicated on the penetration of the front four.
New Faces in 2022
WRs Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave
The Saints' wide receiver corps got an infusion of talent, increasingly so if Michael Thomas stays healthy down the stretch. In the first-round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Saints selected Chris Olave, an Ohio State product who will be relied upon heavily to contribute immediately. Late in the offseason, New Orleans added former Browns' pass-catcher Jarvis Landry to the mix. Olave is a nuanced route runner and can quickly get vertical on defenders with snap anticipation. Landry, the proven veteran, gained synergy with Winston against the Falcons, catching seven of nine targets for 114 yards. Two of those catches went for over 30 yards, moving the chains for New Orleans. Both have helped fortify Winston's cast.
Safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye
With Malcom Jenkins retirement and Marcus Williams leaving for the Ravens, the Saints bolstered their safety corps by signing former Jet Marcus Maye and former Chief Tyrann Mathieu. Maye profiles as a replacement for Jenkins at strong safety and Mathieu at free safety. Given Mathieu's versatility, the Saints will not limit the Honey Badger to solely working as the deep-middle safety. Mathieu is explosive, with the agility to mirror talented receivers. He has a knack for forced turnovers with superb closing speed and instincts. His intensity rallies teammates and lights a fuse on defense, bolstering New Orleans on the back end.