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John DeShazier's key ingredients to a Saints win presented by Papa John's

Converting third downs will be important

A two-game losing streak has the New Orleans Saints at 5-7, and in pretty desperate need of a victory. The good? Even though they're 5-7, they only are two games behind Tampa Bay and Atlanta (each 7-5) in the NFC South Division. And they have two games against Tampa Bay and one against Atlanta in the final four games. They have a chance to keep their own hopes alive with a win in Florida on Sunday.

  1. Only once this season have the Saints run fewer than the 57 offensive plays they ran Sunday against Detroit. And, as you may surmise, that game also was a loss. Simply, they have to convert more on third down early, to create some momentum offensively and hopefully keep the defense fresh. They were 6 of 13 on third down against the Lions, but just 2 of 6 in the first half, when they ran only 23 plays. Of course, saying they need to convert better on third down could be a lot easier than actually doing it against Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers allow a third-down conversion rate of 34.5 percent, third-lowest in the league. After a rare subpar game, Drew Brees and the offense will look to get in gear against a team that has won four straight, and has allowed 13.3 points per game during that time. The Saints lead the league by converting 49.7 percent on third down; Sunday will be a good day to be in that range or better.
  2. Due in part to playing from behind, the Saints only ran 12 times (for 50 yards) against the Lions. Tampa Bay allows 116.1 rushing yards per game, and 4.4 yards per carry, so there could be some traction to be gained there. Mark Ingram (143 carries for 758 yards and three touchdowns) is 12 yards short of topping last season's rushing total and, further in the distance, is 207 yards away from topping his single-season high of 964 yards (on 226 carries, in 2014). But is Ingram healthy? He was hobbled a bit against Detroit, and didn't practice early in the week. If he is slowed or can't play, Tim Hightower (105 carries for 422 yards and a touchdown) adequately will fill in. Last year against the Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium – on Dec. 13, which makes Sunday's game two days short of a year to the day – Hightower had a career-high 28 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown.
  3. According to Coach Sean Payton, Detroit went 3-for-6 against the Saints on plays of third-and-10 or more, including a 66-yard touchdown. This season, on plays of third-and-7 or more, Saints opponents are 29 for 81 (36 percent). On plays between third-and-7 and third-and-9, opponents are 16 for 38 (42 percent). Simply, the Saints are forcing opponents into favorable scenarios on third and long, but aren't getting off the field nearly as often as they'd like. And it won't be easy against Tampa Bay; the Buccaneers convert 44.2 percent on third down, tied for seventh best in the league. They have to get stops on those third-and-long plays.
  4. In the Saints' last three losses, they've committed a combined nine turnovers (six interceptions, three lost fumbles). In those games, they've forced three turnovers (two interceptions, on fumble recovery). This one is pretty simple: Protect the football.
  5. The Saints will have a defensive plan for the combination of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans, who have connected 76 times for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns, and an offensive plan to guard against defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (seven sacks, most in the league among defensive tackles), to go along with 11 quarterback pressures, five tackles for loss, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Those three can take over a game, and they can't be allowed to do so on Sunday.

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