The New Orleans Saints come to Tampa on Sunday looking to take back first place in the NFC South, something they've had at the end of each of the last three seasons. They'll bring with them a four-game winning streak plus a four-game run of victories in the head-to-head series with the Buccaneers.
New Orleans has rebounded from a two-game losing streak in September by winning four straight one-score contests, the last three all decided by exactly one field goal. That's how the defending division champs are just a half-game behind the Buccaneers despite a per-game scoring differential of just +1.3 points. New Orleans is scoring 29.4 points per outing but also giving up 28.3.
Drew Brees has kept the Saints' offense humming despite having ultra-productive wideout Michael Thomas for just one game so far and recently also being without number-two wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders due to COVID-19. The main adjustment has been to rely on super-back Alvin Kamara even more than ever, particularly in the passing game. Kamara had exactly 81 catches in each of his first three NFL seasons – an extremely-weird coincidence – but this year he's on pace for 125 receptions and 1,270 receiving yards, both of which would be single-season NFL records for a running back.
Without Thomas, Brees has spread the ball around to the likes of Kamara, Sanders (when healthy) and tight end Jared Cook. His receivers in the team's Week Eight win over Chicago were Juwan Johnson, Tommylee Lewis, Tre'Quan Smith, Austin Carr and return specialist Deonte Harris, none of whom had more than 43 yards in that game. Smith has been the most useful for the balance of the season, with 25 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, the Saints also have gadget quarterback Taysom Hill, who has been on the field for roughly 15 snaps a game so far this season. Hill ran five times for 35 yards in Chicago and also caught two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.
While Brees is the engine of the Saints' offense he is usually put in a good position to succeed by one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Led by 2019 all-pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, the Saints' O-Line has only allowed nine sacks on 265 passing plays and are third in the NFL with a sacks-allowed-per-pass-play rate of 3.52. New Orleans is also rushing for 119.3 yards per game, 14th-best in the NFL, with Latavius Murray (282 yards) a productive complement to Kamara.
The Saints' defense has an unusual combination of rankings in that, as noted, they have allowed 28.1 points per game, 10th-most in the league, but only 328.4 yards per game, which is eighth-lowest. All seven teams ahead of them in the yardage rankings have allowed between 18.9 and 23.6 points per game. Some of that has to do with very bad results in the red zone on defense, which we will explore further in the Strengths and Weaknesses sections below.
The Saints' defense has star power at all three levels. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has been to five Pro Bowls, including the last three, and while he only has 2.5 sacks so far this season he averaged 13.5 per year from 2017-19. Linebacker Demario Davis was one of the NFL's breakout stars in 2019; he had neither been to a Pro Bowl nor been named all-pro before 2019 but he was a first-team all-pro selection last year after racking up 111 tackles, 4.0 sacks, one interception and 12 passes defensed. Davis is tied for the Saints' lead in tackles with safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has turned into a pass-rushing threat in his first year back in New Orleans after a six-year stint in Philadelphia. And while cornerback Marshon Lattimore isn't having his best season so far in 2020 he is coming off a strong outing in Chicago and has typically fared well against the Buccaneers.
The Saints only converted two of their 13 third-down attempts in Chicago and Week Eight and yet still have an overall success rate of 49.5%, which is well above the league rate of 42.8%. The defense has been very good against the run and has a 7.92% sack rate but has yet to create a lot off takeaways, with just six through seven games. As usual, New Orleans has had a winning edge on special teams, with Wil Lutz making 15 of 16 field goal tries, Thomas Morstead producing a 39.0 net punting average and Deonte Harris remaining one of the most dangerous return men in the game.
Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they get their prime-time rematch with the Saints on Sunday night:
Though some may question his arm strength at age 41 and his ability to get the ball downfield (only six deep pass attempts through the first six games, according to NFL Next Gen Stats), one can't argue with the results that QB Drew Brees is producing in his 20th season. Brees has a passer rating of 106.5 and a TD-INT ratio of 13-3 and he's just as quick to get rid of the ball (though quicker when Michael Thomas is on the field with him). Brees is obviously the biggest difference-maker for the Saints, while DE Cameron Jordan (89.5 career sacks) remains the dean of the defense. In addition to those players, here are four other Saints who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday night:
- RB Alvin Kamara. Kamara essentially is the Saints' offense, at least in the absence of Michael Thomas, who has only played in one game this year. Coming off a New Orleans win in Chicago in which he recorded 163 yards from scrimmage, Kamara now leads the team in rushing yards (431), receptions (55), receiving yards (556) and touchdowns (seven). He is second among all NFL players only to Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins with his receptions total, and his receiving yards are the most for any running back so far this season. He mostly lines up in the backfield but he has seen 18% of his snaps on the line, more often lined out wide then in the slot. He is a very good route-runner, excellent at finding open spots in a zone and utterly dangerous in the open field. When Kamara runs a route, the Buccaneers should expect him to be the focal point of the play; according to Next Gen Stats, prior to Sunday's game Kamara had been targeted on 35.6% of his routes, the highest percentage in the NFL. That's just ahead of the target frequency of star wideouts Keenan Allen and Davante Adams. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 10.1 yards per reception, the latter a superb average for a running back.
- DE Trey Hendrickson. The Saints traded up in the first round of the 2018 draft to get Marcus Davenport, who they hoped would be the edge-rushing complement to the perennially-outstanding Cameron Jordan. Davenport has been a good contributor (12.0 sacks in his first 29 games) but 2017 third-round pick Trey Hendrickson who has emerged as Jordan's primary running mate in 2020. In fact, it's Hendrickson and not Jordan who leads the team with 5.5 sacks through seven games, including one last Sunday in the win over Chicago. He also leads the team with 11 quarterback hits and has added six tackles for loss. Heading into the Bears game, Hendrickson also was pacing the Saints' defense with a pressure rate of 11.9%, as compared to 7.0% for Jordan. Hendrickson, who had a sack of Tom Brady in the season opener, is certainly benefitting from the attention paid to Jordan, but he's taking advantage. His coach, Sean Payton, praises him for his intelligence and for the all-out effort with which he plays. His 5.5 sacks so far are already a single-season career high, and his emergence in 2020 is making the Saints' incredible 2017 draft class (Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams) somehow look even better.
- TE Jared Cook. Cook's receiving yards per game are down a bit from his sneaky-good 2019 season, his first in New Orleans, but Buccaneer defenders watching tape of his Week One game against them or his most recent outing wouldn't know it. The athletic and fast tight end caught five passes for 80 yards the Saints' Week One win over Tampa Bay and hauled in five passes for 51 yards and a touchdown last Sunday in the victory in Chicago. Cook leads the team with four touchdown catches, catching one in each of the last three games he's played. Other than a double-pass trick play involving Taysom Hill, Cook had the only big play against the Bucs' defense in Week One, getting open down the left sideline for a 46-yard grab. That remains the second-longest play Tampa Bay has given up all season. The Saints line Cook up in the slot (42% of his plays) than they do in-line as a blocker (32%) and have also split him out wide on just over a quarter of his plays. The Saints don't run a lot of two-TE personnel and have only lined up in the traditional "12" grouping on 6.3% of their plays. Since they've had Cook on the roster they've used him on a little less than 50% of their offensive plays but he has been extremely productive for Drew Brees.
- S Malcolm Jenkins. In his second stint with the Saints, the 12th-year veteran has seen his role change to some extent. Jenkins has lined up on the line of scrimmage 29% of the time, heading into Week Eight, the highest percentage by any DB in the NFL with at least 100 snaps played. The Saints have frequently used him to blitz from that spot, as he has invaded the backfield on 17% of his snaps, fourth among NFL DBs. That has produced two sacks, three quarterback hits and a 13.5% pressure rate. Of course, Jenkins is also a heady and accomplished safety and he's broken up a team-high six passes while also leading the team with 42 tackles (tied with LB Demario Davis). He has been excellent in coverage in 2020 and he almost never comes off the field, having played 100% of his team's defensive snaps in six of the last seven seasons. In his career, Jenkins has 17 interceptions, 101 passes defensed and 12.0 sacks.
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Drew Brees and the Saints rack up a ton of passing yards (266.6 per game, seventh in the NFL) without turning the ball over much (1.17% interception rate, fourth-best) or taking many sacks (3.52%, third in the league). They fell from first to fifth in third-down success rate in Week Eight but are still converting almost half of their tries. The Saints' defense has allowed only 90.6 rushing yards per game and 3.56 yards per carry, both the third best in the in the NFL. Here are some more specific areas in which the Saints have excelled through the first eight weeks of the 2020 season:
- The Buccaneers' defense must not let its guard down on Sunday night when time is winding down in either half and the Saints have the ball. New Orleans has started 10 drives this season with two minutes or less left in either half and has scored four touchdowns and one field goal on those possessions. Those 31 points on two-minute drills are the most by any team in the NFL.
- In addition to being a perennial 10-sack player, Saints DE Cameron Jordan is also good against the run. In fact, the Saints' edge defenders have made it difficult for opposing rushers to get much yardage when not running up the gut. New Orleans opponents are averaging 2.06 yards per carry running over left tackle (second lowest in the NFL) and 3.61 yards per carry behind right tackle (11th).
- The New Orleans offense is good on third downs overall but nearly unstoppable when trying to convert on third downs needing just one or two yards. Overall, the Saints have succeeded on 18 of 20 such attempts, or 90.0%. And while the run game has usually worked in those situations (13 of 15 converted), the Saints are a perfect five-for-five when throwing on third-and-one or two.
- Second-year wideout Deonte Harris continues to give the Saints one of the scariest kick return games in the NFL. Harris made the Pro Bowl as an undrafted rookie in 2019 (shades of Clifton Smith) after averaging 9.4 return yards on punts and 26.8 yards on kickoffs. This year, Harris has his punt return average up to 16.1 yards per carry, and that's without any one single return longer than 42 yards. Marquez Callaway has also contributed on both types of returns and overall the Saints rank third in punt return average and 10th in kickoff return average.
The Saints' defense is giving up 6.94 yards per pass play, ranking 20th in that category, and opposing offenses have converted on 47.9% of their third downs (22nd). The New Orleans offense has been as good as ever but is just middle of the NFL pack in terms of yards per carry (4.20) and red zone touchdown rate (62.1%). In addition:
- Though it may just be a half-season fluke, the Saints' defense has really struggled inside it's red zone. The Bears only converted one of their two red zone drives into touchdowns in Week Eight but that still only dropped the Saints' percentage of TDs allowed to 83.3%. That is the worst defensive red zone touchdown rate in the NFL so far. Opponents have cracked the New Orleans 20-yard line 24 times and have come away with 20 touchdowns and three field goal.
- New Orleans is also the NFL's most penalized team, at least in terms of yards. The Saints' 44 penalties is just the NFL's 18th-highest total, but their 553 yards on those flags is the most in the NFL. In particular, the Saints have been flagged 12 times for defensive pass interference, costing them 257 yards, the most on that type of infraction in the league.
- Whether or not it's an actual weakness – the Saints' overall offensive and passing numbers would suggest they're doing just fine – Drew Brees is in fact not airing the ball out much. Heading into the Week Eight game in Chicago, Brees's passes were averaging 6.0 yards in the air, the lowest mark by any qualifying quarterback in the NFL. That's down from 6.7 air yards in 2019, which ranked 30th in the league that year.
- Saints defenders are not getting their hands on the football very often in the passing game. The Saints are 20th in the NFL with a 2.16% interception rate on defense, with four picks spread out among four different defenders. In addition, they have 19 passes defensed through seven games, which is tied with Houston for the third-lowest total in the NFL. All but eight teams already have 25 passes defensed and 15 of them have 30 or more. Last year, the Saints had 78 passes defensed; this year they're on pace for 43.
NEW FACES IN 2020
Thanks to a couple of trades made this year and last year, the Saints only made four picks in the 2020 draft, including just one after the first round. They still found a new starter for their offensive line for the second year in a row on draft weekend. Their biggest addition on defense was actually a player returning to his original NFL home, though that side of the ball just got a new asset this week.
- G Cesar Ruiz. The first player the Saints drafted in 2019 (in the second round), center Erik McCoy, stepped right into a starting job on the O-Line and acquitted himself quite nicely. This year, the Saints spent their first-round pick on a player billed as a center, too, though Michigan's Cesar Ruiz is actually starting at right guard. The Saints' skill at identifying top line prospects in the draft makes it likely that Ruiz will add to an already strong offensive front.
- S Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins returns to the team that drafted him 14th overall in 2009 after a very strong six-year run with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints needed a new starter in their secondary after losing Vonn Bell to Cincinnati in free agency and they got one they can maneuver all around the field like a chess piece.
- LB Kwon Alexander. This is a very new face in New Orleans. Alexander just arrived on Monday via a swap with the San Francisco 49ers, one day before the Tuesday trade deadline. Alexander played four seasons in Tampa, making the Pro Bowl in 2017, before signing a lucrative deal with the 49ers in free agency, but his season-and-a-half in San Francisco has been marred by injuries. Alexander missed eight games in 2019 and was out the last three weeks with the 49ers with a high ankle sprain.
- WRs Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. It's possible that by the end of Week Nine Thomas will have two games played in 2020, both against the Buccaneers. However, he's missed the last six due to the ankle injury he sustained in Week One, a team suspension and, currently, a hamstring injury. Sanders has missed the last two games while on the reserve/COVID-19 list but is most likely to be back in action in Week Nine.
- RB Ty Montgomery. The Saints signed the versatile former Packer after he was not re-signed by the Jets this offseason, but Montgomery saw action in just two games before sustaining a hamstring injury. He went on injured reserve but was able to return to practice on October 19. Montgomery could be activated in time to play against the Buccaneers.
- LB Kiko Alonso. Alonso started four games for the Saints last year after coming over in a trade from Miami but finished the season on injured reserve thanks to a torn ACL. Not fully recovered by the start of the 2020 campaign, he started the year on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, and Alex Anzalone has started all seven games at middle linebacker. Alonso returned to practice on October 19, too, and might have been activated for Sunday's game, but it's a moot point as he went to the 49ers as part of the Alexander trade.