It wasn't the ideal start to the season that the Buccaneers wanted, but Tampa Bay knew going into New Orleans to face the defending NFC South champs wasn't going to be easy. Tight end O.J. Howard said as much following the game, giving the Saints credit and calling them a really good football team. "We weren't expecting to come in here and blow them out," he said.
Despite how complete of a team New Orleans is, how little roster turnover they had from a season ago and all of the self-inflicted wounds the Bucs imposed on themselves in Sunday's game, Tampa Bay still managed to play their division rivals pretty tough. Looking at the stats, New Orleans' had their own struggles – especially offensively. The league's best run defense picked right back up where it left off thanks, in part, to continuity of their own. After all, the Bucs' defensive starters are almost identical to the back half of last season, save for rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. And if Week One taught us anything, experience and continuity are paying dividends after an unconventional offseason that allowed for limited preparation across the NFL.
In contrast, the offensive side of the ball for the Bucs looks drastically different from last year starting first and foremost with the quarterback under center, Tom Brady. That's likely to have played a major role in why the game went the way it did. More on that below.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 1 matchup against New Orleans.
Here are three major takeaways from Sunday's season opener.
1. The defense got their fast start.
That was the goal heading into 2020. A year ago, the defense had a new coach, an entirely new system and fielded up to six rookies at a time. A fast start was the furthest thing from realistic. Yet, they still managed to finish the year extraordinarily strong. After the halfway point of 2019, the Bucs defense managed the most sacks of any team, the most passes defensed and significantly lowered their total yards allowed while maintaining the stifling run defense they had become known for. Now, with a year under their belt, they needed to pick right back up where they ended last year – unconventional offseason and limitations and all.
And in New Orleans, against a very good Saints offense that has had the constant of Drew Brees under center for nearly two decades, they did.
They held the league's all-time passing leader to just 160 yards with 18 completions on 30 attempts. That's a 60% completion rate, far from Brees' league-leading 74.3% from 2019. And despite his two touchdown throws, one of which was a screen to running back Alvin Kamara, Brees wasn't happy with his own performance.
"Well, if you ask me how I felt like I played, I'd probably say I played awful as well," Brees said following Saints Head Coach Sean Payton expressing his dissatisfaction with his playcalling. "So, I guess we get to be our harshest critics coming off of this game. I know that certainly we are used to playing at a much higher level, offensively, and I think especially the passing game."
Defensively, the Bucs held the Saints to just five third-down conversions on 15 attempts. In six trips inside the red zone, New Orleans only converted three into scores. They were two of four in goal-to-go situations, including missing a last effort by Kamara at the end of the game to scamper into the end zone. The play was originally called a touchdown on the field but was reversed upon a review that showed inside linebacker Lavonte David headed Kamara off and forced him out of bounds before he could actually cross the plane.
In fact, David registered 11 combined tackles, making it his 35th game with double-digit tackles. That's the third-most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2012. David also led a defense that recorded nine tackles for loss on Sunday, having two of his own. He now has 118 in his career, which returns him to number two ranking since 2012 behind only Houston's J.J. Watt.
His defensive co-captain, Devin White, tied for the team lead in tackles with David, also registering 11. It was White's third game with 10-or-more tackles in just 14 career appearances.
Those two were a large part of why one of the game's best running backs in Kamara was rendered ineffective on the ground, and it wasn't for lack of trying. Kamara had just 16 yards on 13 carries for a paltry 1.3-yard average, the lowest of his career. Kamara managed 51 yards through the air with most of those coming on a 38-yard pass from backup quarterback and utility player Taysom Hill on a gadget play.
The league's leading receiver was also completely shut down. Michael Thomas had just 17 yards, matching a career low with three receptions. The last time that happened was in 2017.
"I feel like we were ok, but we all have to be better as far as – it's really our first game getting out there," David said about the defensive effort. "Tackling was a little off and just a couple of plays that we kind of messed up on with communication, but all-in-all communication and everything was on point. Some of the big plays that were given up were communication errors on our part. They got us with a couple of gadget plays, a couple of screens, stuff like that – misdirection stuff – but all-in-all we played solid. Like I said, we always could be better. We lost the game, so that means we didn't do enough to get our team a victory. We didn't get any turnovers – we could play a lot better than we did."
2. Turnovers and penalties were the self-inflicted wounds the Bucs couldn't overcome.
"That was far from our best," said Tom Brady, echoing David's last sentiment, except this time talking about the offensive side of the ball. Brady, in a brand-new system with brand new players for the first time in 20 years still had extremely high expectations for himself. Expectations he didn't quite live up to, which he was the first to admit.
"Well, I certainly think poor execution and that's what it comes down to," Brady said. "It's a game of execution. Obviously, they made more plays than we did, and I just made some bad, terrible turnovers and it's hard to win turning the ball over like that. I obviously have to do a lot better job."
That poor execution was an uncharacteristic two interceptions for Brady, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Brady did also manage two touchdowns through the air, one to Howard and one to wide receiver Mike Evans. Brady even ran the Bucs' first touchdown of the season in himself on a quarterback sneak after a drive that showcased the array of talent the Bucs have on offense to start the game.
"It doesn't matter how much talent you have if you throw interceptions returned for touchdowns," Brady lamented. "So, I've got to correct that."
Still, the Bucs offense had chances, pulling to within one score heading into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay was three-for-three inside the red zone and the offense still managed over 300 yards behind good performances from guys like wide receivers Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller. In fact, it was a 23-yard grab by Godwin Brady threw off his back foot that set up a field goal which pulled the Bucs within a score late in the third quarter.
"I mean I think any time you turn the ball over like we did – we had opportunities to make plays and just came up short, so there's no excuses and we're the only ones that can do something about it," Brady said. "The Saints kind of play how they always play. They did a good job on offense. We hung our defense out to dry on some short fields; not moving the ball, not doing very well on third down at certain times. The turnovers really hurt us and we have to clean that up for next week – got to do a lot better job."
The most disappointing part for Head Coach Bruce Arians was perhaps the nine penalties the Bucs committed, resulting in 103 penalty yards gifted to New Orleans. By the same token, while the Saints had three less penalties, they actually handed over 119 penalty yards behind four defensive pass interference penalties, one of which was a 45-yard penalty drawn by Evans.
The Bucs ran into penalty trouble in the trenches. The defensive line had back-to-back neutral zone infractions while the offensive line committed multiple false starts.
"Very disappointing," said Arians of the effort. "I would never have thought with the we practiced for the last two weeks – would have never thought I'd see us have that many penalties, turnovers and just basic mental errors that really cost this one when we got back in the game with the coverage. It's round one – we've lost round one and we'll get ready for round two."
3. We saw this team's capability in the first few series.
After electing to defer, the Buccaneers defense took the field first on Sunday. New Orleans got one first down and then their series was over. Cornerback Sean Murphy Bunting dropped Kamara for a loss of two on second down forcing the Saints into a third and eight situation, where White wrapped up tight end Jared Cook before he could get more than five yards. The punt was a good one and the Bucs' offense took the field for the first time with Brady at the helm from their own 15. From there, Brady, and perhaps play caller Byron Leftwich, threw a mixed bag of calls out onto the field. Helped by a couple pass interference calls, the Bucs punched it in on a Brady rushing touchdown of all things. It was a creative drive, a well-balanced drive and it ended exactly how the Bucs wanted – up 7-0.
The defense then held up their end of the deal again, getting another stop after not allowing the Saints to even get into Buccaneer territory. This time, it was simply good reads, good tackling and some hard hits.
And while the total package didn't hold up throughout the game, we saw in those few series exactly what this Buccaneer team can do. And with all of the changes to the offense and how little time they had to get acquainted with one another, maybe immediate success just wasn't the most realistic expectation.
"Yes and no," said Arians. "I thought we came out, went right down the field, made some good plays and scored. Then we hit some lows when we weren't on the same page. Don't know why, but we'll work on it. We try not to listen to the hype and just go to work every day. We'll go back to work Tuesday and get better before Carolina."