The New Orleans Saints, in sole possession of the NFC South lead at 5-3 at the season's midway point, will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3) today at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This game will wrap up the club's regular season series against the Buccaneers as the clubs met on October 16 at Raymond James Stadium and Tampa Bay prevailed 26-20.
New Orleans is 22-17 all-time against the Buccaneers, with the series between the clubs being very hotly contested since the inception of the NFC South in 2002. During that time, the Buccaneers own a 10-9 edge in the series, 6-5 since 2006. Of those 19 matchups, 13 have been decided by a touchdown or less, six since 2006. Since the start of the NFC South, the Saints (XLIV) and Buccaneers (XXXVII) are the two clubs in the division to have won a Super Bowl.
New Orleans is coming off a 31-21 loss at the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. New Orleans fell behind 17-0 in the first half of the contest, as the Rams took advantage of a blocked punt and interception in the second quarter to convert these two big plays into touchdowns.
"We didn't play well enough to win the game," said Head Coach Sean Payton. "That sequence of events at the end of the first half really hurt us."
However, New Orleans showed persistence in trying to rebound from a 24-0 third quarter deficit, when S Malcolm Jenkins sacked Rams QB A.J. Feeley and forced him to fumble, the ball picked up by LB Jonathan Vilma in the end zone for a touchdown. The New Orleans defense then quickly forced a three-and-out, got the ball back for the offense who engineered a 10-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown run by RB Pierre Thomas. The Saints remained in the contest until late in the fourth quarter when a pass by QB Drew Brees was picked off by Rams S Darian Stewart and returned 27 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
"We need to bounce back and have our best week of preparation for this Tampa Bay team," said Payton.
New Orleans' first half of 2011 has been highlighted by a team ranked second in the NFL in scoring (32.5 ppg.) and offense (444.1 ypg.) The offensive unit has been engineered by Brees, who's completed 242-of-343 passes for 2,746 yards with 19 touchdown passes, ten interceptions and a 100.6 passer rating. In addition to the mainstays of the signal-caller's arsenal such as WRs Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore and Thomas, TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles have been pleasant surprises for the New Orleans offense.
Graham has emerged in his second NFL season after spending most of his college career at the University of Miami (Fla.) on the hardwood to have one of the most prolific seasons for a New Orleans tight end. At the midway point, he's recorded 49 receptions for 713 yards with a team-leading five touchdown grabs lead NFL tight ends in most receiving categories, while ranking third in the league overall in both catches and yardage.
Sproles, who joined the Saints at the start of training camp in a shrewd free agency move by Executive Vice-President/General Manager Mickey Loomis and Head Coach Sean Payton, as well as with some recruiting from his former teammate in San Diego, Brees, has made a significant impact in several facets of offense and special teams. He's carried 45 times for 305 yards (6.8 avg.) with two touchdowns and ranks first in the NFC and second in the NFL in receiving with a team-best 51 grabs for 389 yards with two touchdowns, while sparking both the club's kickoff and punt return game. The former Kansas State standout ranks first in the NFL with 1,315 all-purpose yards and is the league's only player to score this season on a rush, reception and return.
The defense has been trying to pick up its opportunistic personality that it displayed in its Championship season of 2009. With Vilma's fumble recovery last week and CB Leigh Torrence's 42-yard interception return vs. Indianapolis on October 23, the Saints defense has recorded defensive touchdowns in consecutive weeks, for the first time since 2009.
The pass rush has come from several different angles. DE Will Smith, fresh after missing the first two games of the season is tied for the team lead with S Roman Harper with 4.5 sacks apiece. Vilma leads the team with three fumble recoveries.
With a win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, New Orleans would keep distance between themselves and the Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons who are both 4-3.
After improving from a 3-13 season in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010, the 4-3 Buccaneers piloted by third-year head coach Raheem Morris are in maturing and in the thick of the divisional and NFC playoff race as they seek to take that next step. Quarterbacked by third-year signal-caller Josh Freeman, the team's signal-caller has completed 166-of-270 passes for 1,723 yards with seven touchdowns and ten interceptions.