Two games ago, the New orleans Saints failed to score a touchdown in a 16-11 road loss to Tampa Bay. A week later, they scored six against Arizona. As New Orleans closes out its home schedule for 2016, looking to win its second straight game and raise its record to 7-8, it likely won't need to score 48 points Saturday against the Buccaneers (8-6). But a much, much better offensive performance will be required. Here are a few ways to accomplish that, and more:
- As usual, the Saints offense begins and ends with how effectively Drew Brees is protected. The NFL's leader in touchdowns (34) and passing yards (4,559) consistently was harassed by the Bucs in Tampa, Fla.; he only was sacked once, but the proof positive of the pressure was that Brees completed 25 of 41 passes for 248 yards and three interceptions, with no touchdowns. Of course, it didn't help that he had two touchdown passes dropped (each of those players, running back Travaris Cadet and receiver Brandin Cooks, atoned by combining for three touchdown catches against Arizona). So the Saints will have to have a plan to keep Brees clean, especially from Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (his seven sacks are tied for second among defensive tackles).
- In the last six games, Tampa Bay is second in the league with 15 takeaways (10 interceptions, five fumble recoveries) and second in points allowed (15). For the season, Tampa Bay has the third-most takeaways (26) and has scored 74 points off turnovers. New Orleans doesn't need to give Tampa Bay any extra possessions via turnovers; it was minus-3 in takeaways in the road loss, and that played a large role in the five-point loss.
- In the last eight games, the Saints are 4-2 when they commit six penalties or less, 0-2 when they've committed 10 penalties or more. One of those 10-penalty games was against Tampa Bay. Penalties put the offense behind the sticks (second-and-5 can become second-and-10 or second-and-15) and penalties can extend the defense being on the field (defensive penalties either shorten the down-and-distance, or give an automatic first down). The Bucs had 21 first downs in the first meeting, and five were courtesy of defensive infractions. Clearly, the Saints will give themselves a better chance to beat Tampa Bay if they don't aid the Bucs by beating themselves.
- The Saints didn't run the ball effectively in the first meeting (16 carries for 46 yards) and that partly was due to the lack of plays run (58) because they didn't convert well on third down (4 of 13). They're the best third-down team in the NFL (49.5 percent), playing against the second-best third-down defense (34.5 percent). The running game will help put the Saints in advantageous third-down position, so getting Mark Ingram II (167 carries, 850 yards, three touchdowns) and Tim Hightower (122 carries, 490 yards, three touchdowns) some room to run will help keep the offense on the field.
- For an eight-game stretch, the Saints solidified defensively – 21 points per game allowed on 15 touchdowns (compared to 31 points allowed and 18 touchdowns in the first five games), and three of four opponents held to 270 yards or less in the final four games. The Arizona game (five touchdowns, 34 points and 425 yards allowed), they're hoping, is an outlier. The prior week, New Orleans held the Bucs to 270 yards and 16 points; something similar will be fine. First, though, the Saints again will have to do the job containing Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans (84 catches 1,159 yards and 10 touchdowns) and quarterback Jameis Winston (302 of 497 for 3,611 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions). Winston has been sacked 30 times, and the Saints got to him twice in Tampa. So opportunities will be there. They have to take advantage of them.