NFL Preview - New Orleans (3-2) at Tampa Bay (3-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can complete the dual objectives of winning over skeptics and boosting their standing in the NFC South on Sunday, when they welcome the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints to Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs stand at a surprising 3-1 as Week 6 commences, with last week's 24-21 win at the Cincinnati Bengals representing another major step forward for a team that is one year removed from a 3-13 disaster.
Emerging quarterback Josh Freeman threw for a season-best 280 yards against the Bengals, with a young receiving corps led by rookie Mike Williams and the also-green Sammie Stroughter and Micheal Spurlock helping to fuel the victory.
Williams and Spurlock had the day's two biggest catches against Cincinnati, with Williams hauling in the TD pass that helped tie the score at 21-21 late in the fourth quarter and, following a Carson Palmer interception, Spurlock making the sideline grab that set kicker Connor Barth up for a game-winning 31-yard field goal.
The victory kept the Bucs right on the trail of the first-place Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, and Tampa Bay would be alone in second-place by the end of the day thanks to the failure of this week's opponent, the Saints, who were 30-20 losers at the Arizona Cardinals.
It looked like the mismatch of the century when Max Hall, the rookie from BYU, was scheduled by the Cardinals to make his first career NFL start against the reigning Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees and the defending champion Saints. But while most expected Gregg Williams' New Orleans defense to take it to Hall (17-of-27, 168 yards, 1 INT), it was actually Brees who made the major mistakes in the Saints' defeat. Brees (23-of-39, 279 yards, 2 TD) threw three interceptions, the final one going the other way for a Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie touchdown that snuffed out New Orleans' final chance.
The Saints have committed nine turnovers in their past three games, and the once-electric offense has fallen to a disappointing 10th in the league in yards and 18th in points, with injuries to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas effectively sapping the strength of a rushing attack that was Top-10 in the league a year ago.
Defensively, a team that made a living off of turnovers last year has forced multiple miscues just once in five games.
The special teams struggled on Sunday as well, giving up two long kickoff returns to LaRod Stephens-Howling that helped erase New Orleans' momentum, and also suffering another bad kicking miss, this one from veteran John Carney.
Carney was released earlier this week, with the job handed back to Garrett Hartley. Hartley had been benched after his short field goal miss led to a New Orleans loss to Atlanta in Week 3.
New Orleans has a 21-15 lead in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Saints were 38-7 road winners when the teams met in Week 11 of last year, and the Buccaneers returned the favor by shocking the eventual Super Bowl champs, 20-17 in overtime, at the Superdome in Week 16. The NFC South rivals embarked on a conventional split of the 2008 home-and-home, with the Bucs earning a 23-20 triumph at Raymond James Stadium.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 4-4 against the Buccaneers in his career, while Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris is 1-1 against both Payton and the Saints as a head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
A Saints offense best known for its exploits through the air is beginning to achieve some notoriety for the struggles of its run game, which have undoubtedly held back the attack as a whole. New Orleans has scored a league- low-tying one rushing touchdown, and is one of three teams that has yet to log a rush of 20 yards or longer (Broncos, Colts), with injuries to Reggie Bush (leg) and Pierre Thomas (ankle) helping to slow the unit down. Bush is out for Sunday and Thomas remains a question mark, so the team signed ex- Cowboys and Seahawks running back Julius Jones (30 rushing yards with the Seahawks) earlier in the week. Jones will compete for carries with Ladell Betts (91 rushing yards, 9 receptions) and Chris Ivory (119 rushing yards). The passing game remains a team strength, as the Saints are completing a league-best 71.4 percent of their passes, but Brees (1410 passing yards, 9 TD, 5 INT) must cut down on the turnovers. Wideouts Marques Colston (25 receptions) and Robert Meachem (10 receptions) come off their best days of the 2010 season, with Colston hauling in seven passes for 97 yards and Meachem logging four catches for 57 yards and his first touchdown of the season. Lance Moore (15 receptions, 3 TD) continues to lead the team in touchdown catches, and wideout Devery Henderson (17 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (23 receptions, 2 TD) have also been a major part of the offense,
Much like New Orleans' defense a year ago, the Bucs have had their problems defensively, in that they rank last in the league in sacks (4) and have given up plenty of yards, but have mitigated those deficiencies by averaging three forced turnovers per game, the top figure in the league. Last week, the Bucs had three huge interceptions off of Palmer, with rookie safety Cody Grimm (16 tackles, 1 INT) notching a pick that went the other way for an 11-yard touchdown, and cornerback Aqib Talib (10 tackles, 3 INT) and the safety Piscitelli (7 tackles, 1 INT) making game-changing interceptions in the fourth quarter. The back end needs more help, however from a pass rush led by ends Stylez G. White (13 tackles, 1 sack) and Tim Crowder (6 tackles, 2 sacks). The run defense last week was suspect, giving up 144 yards on 23 ground carries to the Bengals' Cedric Benson. Linebackers Barrett Ruud (31 tackles) and Geno Hayes (24 tackles) have been the Bucs' most active run-stoppers this year, and rookie tackle Gerald McCoy (5 tackles) has been a strong addition on the interior.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Freeman (824 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) is the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week after his big effort in Cincinnati last week, and top wideout Mike Williams is beginning to garner plenty of attention as well. Williams is putting up the kind of numbers (19 receptions, 238 yards, 3 TD) that could make him a prime Rookie of the Year candidate if they hold up, and has helped free things up for fellow targets like Kellen Winslow (17 receptions) and Sammie Stroughter (9 receptions). Williams finished with seven catches for 99 yards against the Bengals, while Winslow chipped in with six grabs totaling 75 yards on the day. The Tampa Bay running game has moved in fits and starts this season, but comes off a season-best 125-yard ground effort in Cincinnati. Despite intimations that he would cede some of the workload to LeGarrette Blount (30 rushing yards, 1 TD) and/or Kareem Huggins, Cadillac Williams (172 rushing yards) remained the lead back for the Bucs with 11 carries totaling 33 yards. Fullback Earnest Graham (89 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 2 TD) had the day's rushing highlight, however, with a 61-yard run to go along with a third- quarter touchdown. The Tampa o-line has surrendered 10 sacks through four games and needs to both protect and block better.
The New Orleans defense could get a shot in the arm this week, as defensive end Will Smith (14 tackles, 1 sack) has a chance to return to the lineup after missing last week's loss to the Cardinals with a groin problem. The Saints actually did a decent job of pressuring the quarterback in Smith's absence last week, dragging Hall down for four sacks, including the first in the New Orleans career of end Alex Brown (10 tackles). Cornerback Jabari Greer (26 tackles, 1 INT) had an interception to lead the secondary, and first-round rookie CB Patrick Robinson (14 tackles) added value with eight tackles in the contest. Corner Tracy Porter (knee) is expected to remain out for Sunday. A shaky Saints run defense actually did a good job against Arizona a week ago, limiting the Cardinals to just 41 yards on the ground. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and strong safety Roman Harper (25 tackles, 1 INT) have been a major part of the run-stopping effort this year, while tackle Sedrick Ellis (14 tackles, 3 sacks) has been active in the trenches. New Orleans also inked a deal with ex-Colts and Packers safety Matt Giordano this week, but Giordano will probably see most of his work on special teams.
The Saints continue to be a vexing team to figure out for fantasy owners, as other than Brees, no one that touches the football displays much in the way of every-week consistency. To wit, last week Colston and Meachem awoke from their collective slumber to put up nice numbers, while players like Moore and Shockey touched the ball less than usual. Shockey did score a touchdown, and has probably been the most consistent point-producer among the targets. The running game is something of a mystery thanks to injuries, and it's hard to tell what factor Jones' presence will have to n the distribution of carries. The Saints defense and their kickers have been disappointing.
On the Tampa Bay side, Winslow is a credible fantasy tight end, and the rookie wideout Williams is evolving into a quality play as well. Otherwise, there's not much to recommend the Bucs from a fantasy perspective.
The Buccaneers might have been able to sneak up on the Saints before last week, but Tampa Bay's eye-opening win over a good Cincinnati team, coupled with New Orleans' frustrating loss in Arizona, should guarantee that Payton and Co. come ready to play this time around. The Saints have not played the quality of football in 2010 that we saw last season, but this is still a talented enough team to compete for a division title, and the players and staff know another loss in the division would dig New Orleans into a mighty deep hole. Look for the Saints to cut down on the mistakes this week, and to force some major ones from a Tampa Bay team that is still very wet behind the ears.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 28, Buccaneers 17
10/14 11:22:06 ET