NFL Preview - New Orleans (4-1) at Tampa Bay (3-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There's probably not a team in the NFL that would be opposed to flying under the radar and not have to deal with national attention on a weekly basis.
The consideration the New Orleans Saints are receiving right now is that they're in first place in the NFC South and one of the top teams in the conference. And that's mainly it. Unlike teams in the NFC East and those such as the New York Jets, the Saints don't have to fret about lack of media absorption or what was said about another loss.
Instead, the Saints continue to glide and will put the finishing touches on three straight weeks as a visiting team Sunday against the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Raymond James Stadium.
The Saints have rebounded nicely from their Week 1 loss at Green Bay with four wins in a row and came out on top against the Carolina Panthers this past weekend, squeezing out a 30-27 triumph on Drew Brees' late touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. New Orleans is on its longest winning streak since a six-game run from Oct. 31-Dec. 12 of last season, and head coach Sean Payton likes what he sees so far.
"Obviously it was a hard fought win," Payton said of the Carolina game. "I was proud of the way our guys fought. You get into a game like that in the division, [with] momentum swings in the second half, we were battling a lot. It was an important win for us and obviously an exciting win."
New Orleans made it exciting by rallying from a 27-23 deficit after blowing a 10-point lead and Brees was called on for the rescue. Playing behind an offensive line that is missing a starters at center and tackle, Brees completed eight of his nine attempts for 80 yards on the final drive, which was culminated by Thomas' six-yard touchdown grab with only 50 seconds remaining.
The Saints are still without right tackle Zach Strief and center Olin Kreutz, opening the door for backups Charles Brown and Brian de la Puente. The two contributed to the team's 101 yards rushing and a total of 444 yards on the day.
Blocking at times along the New Orleans line is tight end Jimmy Graham, who went against former teammate and mentor Jeremy Shockey last Sunday and left the Tar Heel State with 129 yards on eight receptions. Graham has taken over at his position and owns three straight games with 100-plus yards receiving, the first to accomplish that feat since former Kansas City Chief and current Atlanta Falcon Tony Gonzalez did it in four consecutive games in 2000.
Brees enjoys having that luxury at tight end, but also knows it's about the spreading the ball around.
"You can only have so many DB's on the field at a time," Brees said. "I feel like with our personnel and the way we use different formations and personnel groups, we really try to dictate to the defense the tempo of the game. We want to spread it around enough to where you can't just key on one guy."
Tampa Bay is in the same predicament of trying to get enough balls around to keep players happy. However, that wasn't the case in last Sunday's embarrassing 48-3 loss at San Francisco in which quarterback Josh Freeman finished with only 187 yards passing and threw two interceptions.
Pinning the blame solely on Freeman and the Bucs' offense would be ludicrous, however. The Bucs struggled to stop 49ers running back Frank Gore, who ran for 125 yards and a score on a balky leg, and San Francisco totaled 418 yards of offense and quarterback Alex Smith threw three touchdown passes,
That poor performance left Bucs head coach Raheem Morris using such words as "flat" and "punch drunk" when describing his team's play. Morris said the team didn't have the same intensity in the week prior to last Sunday's game and will need to get home on a normal schedule of preparation and film-watching to decipher what went wrong.
"We didn't play well [last week]," said Morris. "We'll go back and try to correct our mistakes. The Niners kicked out butts. We didn't play well at all."
The Buccaneers were coming off a short week following a Monday night win over Indianapolis in Week 4 and had a three-game winning streak come to an end. They now have a tough competitor in New Orleans coming to town, and Freeman knows he must perform better to get his team out of its rut.
Freeman's six interceptions through five games this season already match his total from 2010. His repertoire last season was protecting the football, but it's now beginning to catch up with him.
"Honestly, I feel better [this year] as a quarterback and passer, seeing things, throwing the ball. I'm throwing the ball better," Freeman told the Tampa Tribune. "Even today, I felt the ball was coming off great, putting it right where I wanted to, and it was just those two [interceptions]. I wish I could have them back."
Freeman and the Buccaneers will be home for the next two weeks, with Chicago visiting Raymond James Stadium the following Sunday, before getting a week off for the bye.
Sunday's game versus New Orleans will be Tampa Bay's second division matchup of the season, having defeated Atlanta at home in Week 3.
New Orleans has a 22-16 advantage in its all-time series with Tampa Bay, with the two divisional foes having split the home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons. The visitor has prevailed in each of the last four meetings, with the Saints following up a 38-7 rout at Raymond James Stadium in 2009 with a 31-6 victory during Week 6 of last season. Tampa Bay got a measure of revenge via a 23-13 verdict at the Superdome in the 2010 regular-season finale and also dealt the Saints a 20-17 overtime loss in the Big Easy in 2009.
Payton has gone 5-5 against Tampa Bay during his six-year tenure as the Saints' head coach, while Morris is 2-2 against both New Orleans and Payton
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
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.
Morris has a lot of enthusiasm when it comes to coaching, as well as an abundant amount of confidence in his players no matter how young the Buccaneers are. The maturity level will rise this week in what will be Tampa Bay's biggest achievement so far this season, a hard-fought win at home against the favored Saints. Freeman must protect the football and Tampa Bay's pass defense has to be a step ahead of New Orleans in order to come out ahead and pull even atop the NFC South standings. Shutting down Brees will be no easy task, but the Bucs will be up for the challenge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 23, Saints 17
10/13 17:45:14 ET