Why the Saints won’t take the upstart Bucs lightly

WR Mike Williams is making waves as a rookie in Tampa

“I’ve got a memory like an elephant.”

—Saints coach Sean Payton, when told Bucs coach Raheem Morris hoped Payton had forgotten about the loss to Tampa Bay in New Orleans last December.

Typically, division games are tougher than others. Because division rivals face each other twice a year, they become very familiar with each other’s offensive and defensive schemes and are therefore well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of those division opponents.  This reminds me of a conversation Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams had with a reporter during the week of Superbowl XLIV.  Williams was asked who he thought was going to win the Superbowl, the favored Colts or the underdog Saints.  Basically his response was that in his opinion, the Saints weren’t underdogs at all, adding that he (the Panthers) faces them twice a year and that they are a lot tougher than they often get credit for.  He was one of the precious few who predicted (on camera that is) that the Saints would win the Superbowl–all based on his familiarity with them as a division rival.  It is for this very reason that the Saints won’t count the Buccaneers out come Sunday.

In Wednesday’s meeting with the media, Coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees both fielded questions about the upcoming matchup with Tampa Bay (among other things).  This is what Payton had to say when asked why the Bucs are a good team:

At the end of the day, they’re 3-1 because they’ve earned that. They’ve played some very tough games and battled back last week against Cincinnati.

To answer your question, number one is that their quarterback is playing well. He’s a guy that’s tough to sack; he’s a guy that can scramble – we’ve seen him make plays with his feet. He’s also a guy that’s a threat to scramble to prolong a play and he’s really dangerous that way. He has real good arm strength; he’s playing with a lot of poise and confidence. They’re taking the ball away on defense. They’re second in the NFL with interceptions. They have very good team speed on defense and you can see that. It’s a young team that is playing with a lot of confidence and you can see that on tape. Raheem (Morris) and his staff have done a very good job with a lot of young players getting them ready for this season and it’s evident. They are playing well. It’s not a result of anything other than that. I think it’s something that they’ve earned and they’ve done a good job to start the year the way they have.”

And let’s not forget that Brees  worked briefly with the Buccaneers’ young quarterback, Josh Freeman, sharing with him his knowledge of the position and of the game as a whole.  When asked what he thinks of Freeman after having worked with him, he said:

He’s a big, talented guy. You don’t find many guys that mobile and athletic for that size. You see him avoid a ton of sacks. He can extend plays with his legs, not only scrambling and throwing, but taking off and running. A young, talented player that has all kind of potential and is playing well at this point.”

All the same, this is a young Buccaneer team that is steadily improving.  Currently 2nd in the NFC South with a 3-1 record, Tampa Bay is definitely a legitimate threat to Saints on any given Sunday.  Their offense is currently ranked 21st in the league, having put up 74 points (18.5 points per game) in their four games played.  More impressively, however, is their 15th ranked defense, which has currently allowed 80 points (20 points per game).  Comparatively, they have the edge over the struggling Saints, be it ever so slight.

As it stands, the Saints are a dismal 3rd in the division and playing far below-average.  The offense is currently ranked a disappointing 18th in the league, having scored 99 points (19.8 points per game) in five games; and the defense sits at 17th, having allowed 102 points (20.4 points per game).  While there is marked improvement defensively, the offense is going in the wrong direction.

Turnover and penalty prone as of late, there’s no question that the Saints offense is in a slump right now (whether Coach Payton admits it or not), and Gregg Williams hasn’t been dialing up many magical turnover-causing/scoring plays so far this year on defense to help it out.  Then just when you think special teams play has finally gotten respectable, it slips up and gets gashed on punt and kickoff returns.  So what’s left is a team that is just average–nothing more, nothing less.  I think how they respond Sunday will be critical to the rest of the season.  If they come out and play to their full potential,  they will.  If they come out going through the motions like they have been for most of this season, they’re less likely to win.  Whatever the case may be, it’s a must-win game this time, even at this early juncture.  Not only is the division title on the line, but so are any hopes of getting into the postseason.  Needless to say, Payton and Williams had better do something to rally their troops and get them back to playing smash-mouth, catch-me-if-you-can football or the Saints will find themselves just another typical, statistical team that won the Superbowl but failed to make the playoffs the following year.  It’s roughly do or die time already.

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