WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Drew Brees (1769 passing yards, 12 TD, 5 INT) had four touchdown passes to a pair of interceptions against the Buccaneers a season ago, and for his career he has thrown for 2,687 yards with 22 scoring strikes and nine interceptions in 11 games against Tampa Bay. Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 32 straight games, the third longest streak in league history behind only Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas (47) and Brett Favre (36), and has also posted at least 20 completions in 25 games in a row, tops in NFL history. Brees also owns 41 games of 300 or more passing yards as a Saint thanks to a 359-yard performance in Carolina. He has five interceptions over his last three games, however, after not throwing one in each of the first two games of this season. Brees, who had a career-high 22 picks in 2010, is also tied with Boomer Esiason for 15th on the all-time touchdown list with 247 in his career. Graham (32 receptions, 496 yards, 3 TD) is the first Saints tight end with three straight games of 100- plus yards receiving and the first New Orleans player to do so since Marques Colston back in 2007. Colston (12 receptions) had five catches for 69 yards last week in his second game back from a broken collar bone. Running back Darren Sproles continues to be a multi-purpose threat both running and receiving. He is second on the team with 31 catches.
There’s plenty of areas to criticize Tampa Bay’s defense after the 49ers shredded the unit for more than 400 yards of offense. The Bucs made Smith look like the second coming of Joe Montana by allowing three touchdown passes and 205 yards through the air. Tampa Bay had won nine of its last 11 road games before their implosion in California and suffered its worst defeat since a 45-0 shellacking at the hands of the Oakland Raiders back in 1999. They still managed to reach the NFC title game that season, so there’s still hope to turn things around after one awful week. If Smith can toss three touchdown passes against this defense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Brees and company air it out early and often on Sunday. Defensive backs Ronde Barber (19 tackles, 1 INT) and Aqib Talib (13 tackles, 1 INT) have the team’s only interceptions and should be tested this weekend. Safety Sean Jones (32 tackles) led the Bucs with eight tackles in San Francisco and linebacker Dekoda Watson (10 tackles, 1 sack) posted seven stops filling in for the injured Quincy Black. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (11 tackles, 1 sack) sustained an ankle injury in last week’s loss and may miss a few games. He is termed week-to-week. Safety Tanard Jackson, reinstated by the NFL this week after serving an over year-long suspension, was back at practice and could see action in Sunday’s contest.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Morris wasn’t too thrilled after the loss in San Francisco and even hinted that his team “didn’t even get off the plane.” The players’ bodies were on the field, but minds may have been elsewhere last week. Freeman (1156 passing yards, 3 TD, 6 INT) isn’t totally responsible for the Bucs’ struggles, but certainly could have played better. He’s already equaled his interception total from a year ago and has just three touchdown passes in five games. Freeman is still one of the promising young quarterbacks in this league, and should make the proper adjustments to put his teammates in better position to win. He went 1-1 against the Saints last year and recorded three touchdown passes to no interceptions. A big, strong target in the pocket, Freeman has been sacked twice in every game this season save for a win versus Atlanta in Week 3. The Bucs could be without running back LeGarrette Blount (328 rushing yards, 3 TD) due to a knee injury suffered in last Sunday’s loss, when he was hit low on a reception. Morris said it’s still up in the air with Blount’s status and mentioned Earnest Graham, Kregg Lumpkin and Allen Bradford as candidates to carry the load. Preston Parker (17 receptions, 1 TD) has been the most productive receiver for the Bucs.
The Saints may have a chance to face a Tampa offense that’s without Blount on Sunday, and that could help after the Panthers seemed to have no trouble running the football to the tune of 162 yards last week. Carolina back DeAngelo Williams broke out for 115 yards and a score on just nine carries against the Saints, who are 15th against the rush, allowing 107.6 yards per game. Whether the Panthers controlled the line of scrimmage or not, New Orleans will need to play better up front if it wants to post its fifth consecutive victory. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (24 tackles) and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (23 tackles) each had six stops last week and cornerback Patrick Robinson (13 tackles) added to his team-leading interception count of two with a pick against Cam Newton. Freeman is similar in stature to Newton, but according to Payton is more polished than the Panthers’ rookie quarterback. Look for defensive end Will Smith (10 tackles, 2 sacks) and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (9 tackles, 1 sack) to work their way into the Tampa Bay backfield. Rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan (10 tackles) has seen action in all five games for New Orleans, but is still searching for his first NFL sack.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Buccaneers need to shore up their pass defense before Brees and the Saints start unloading deep balls at Raymond James Stadium. With Colston seemingly back at full strength, it may only get worse with all the weapons New Orleans has. The Bucs were beaten by a less-established quarterback in San Francisco and now must face one of the top gunslingers in the NFL. Since this is an NFC South matchup that’s important for both teams, it’s critical for Tampa Bay to give a better effort than last week.
Gore was able to lacerate the Tampa Bay defense for 125 yards. Can Saints rookie and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram do the same? He hasn’t rushed for more than 55 yards in a game this season, but this could be his breakout game. Ingram carried the ball nine times in last Sunday’s win. Sproles, however, could be the top ball-carrier for the Saints again because of how dangerous he’s been so far with his new team. Sproles had 51 yards on 11 touches against Carolina.
Freeman must limit turnovers Sunday afternoon, as his performance will orchestrate how well the Buccaneers play. If the Bucs fail to establish their ground game, it will be up to Freeman to carry the offensive load.
Prediction – Can the Bucs bounce back after losing by 45 a week ago? It will be tough, as the Saints are playing well, and Drew Brees is hitting his WR’s and TE’s when it counts, the fourth quarter. The Bucs have to play better than at San Fran, where they lost 48-3, but the Saints are playing better ball, and will get to 5-1 and drop the Bucs to .500 at 3-3. New Orleans 27 Tampa Bay 24