-There has been a lot made of the fact that the Buccaneers will be headed to New Orleans to face a very familiar face in Jameis Winston. The former Buccaneers quarterback and first overall pick has settled in as the Saints' starter and it will be the first time he will face his former team as such.
And while that is a big storyline to watch – it's not as if Winston is the only player the Bucs will have to contend with on the field.
"The biggest thing for us is we're not just playing Jameis," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "He has 10 other guys that play damn good football over there that we have to prepare for. If you just prepare for one guy, you're going to lose right off the top. They have a great offensive line. Their receivers are very good. We just talked about the running back and they have very good tight ends. Sean [Payton] is a heck of a play caller. We have to get ready for the Saints. Jameis is a sidebar for the people that've been here and everything else. He's a great guy. I love him off the field, but we have to get ready for the Saints, not just Jameis."
It's a different offense entirely with Winston at the helm, even from what the Bucs saw in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. And besides, as Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich points out, this coaching staff wasn't really with Winston all that long.
"I was really only with Jameis – it was only really about eight or nine months," Leftwich said. "When you really think about it we were really only together for about eight or nine months, but I think he's a good quarterback in this league. I think he is a really good quarterback in this league. I think he can really make plays that other guys can't make. He makes plays that very few guys in this league can make, so I always thought he was a special, unique guy. I feel the same way about him now. I think he's a good quarterback in this league that can really play."
More than Winston, Leftwich is concerned with the Saints' defense that ranks eighth overall – one spot ahead of the Bucs. They're allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game, which ranks third in the league and will be a big test for this potent Bucs' offense.
"They are very difficult in terms of making big plays," said quarterback Tom Brady. "They do a good job of kind of protecting the deep part of the field. I think they make it very difficult on you to continue to move the ball effectively and efficiently. They have a lot of continuity in their secondary. Their linebackers are very athletic; they draft very athletic linebackers, they sign very athletic linebackers. They have a very big defensive line. And they have, obviously, really good coaches, a really good coordinator, so everything is a challenge. They have a lot of veteran players. Sometimes you feel like when you play less-experienced guys there are things you can get away with, but not these guys. You really have to be on everything. They have some very challenging packages on third downs, especially. So, we just study everything and try to be prepared for everything and understand there will probably be a few new things. We've got to just go play a really sound football game. B.A. (Bruce Arians) said earlier in the week, obviously we turned the ball over a lot the first couple games we played them and we didn't score touchdowns in the red area. In the playoff game, we did a better job in the red area. We got turnovers. But it's going to be a tough game. This is a good football team. They've been playing well for a long time; they're having a great season this year. They had a great season last year and a good season the year before. They're one of the best football teams in the NFL, so we're going to have to go out there and play really great, top to bottom."
Brady will have the help of his five protectors in the Bucs' offensive line, which is playing at an elite level this season. Combined with Brady's average release time of 2.56 seconds, the line is helping to keep the pressure off Brady. He's been pressured on only 17.6% of dropbacks this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That's the second-lowest in the league. Brady's offensive tackles play a big part in that – both Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs rank in the top 10 for tackles league-wide in PFF's pass blocking grades. Smith is fifth with an 83.6 grade, while Wirfs is 10th with a 79.5 grade. The entire line will need to continue their high level of play against a formidable New Orleans defense.
"Obviously, [they have a] talented front, but also they do a nice job with their pressure," said left guard Ali Marpet. "Trying to figure out ways to get guys on the back and get offensive lineman 2-on-1 where you have someone on the back. They do a really nice job of scheming things up and it becomes that much more important for us as an offensive line to be able to communicate and have six or seven guys with Tom [Brady] to get everybody on the same page. We know where we're at with the run game, so the running back can play much faster."
It's a good thing they've been able to communicate well so far this season. It's almost as if *spooky voice* they're reading each other's minds.
"Yeah, I don't know if I want to read [Ryan] Jensen's mind," laughed Marpet. "I think there is a healthy level of communication which goes a long way. The running backs have done a phenomenal job. The tight ends have done a phenomenal job. I love the play calling. Everything has been great, and obviously when you have weapons on the outside, it just helps everything go. So, there are so many weapons that make it much easier for the run game to go."