A snapshot from the season opener barely would resemble the photo that will be presented Sunday.
When the New Orleans Saints (10-2) and Tampa Bay (5-7) play at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., neither team will be like the one that opened the regular season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sept. 9, a 48-40 victory by the Buccaneers.
The Saints rocketed and became the hottest team in the league, winners of 10 straight before a loss to Dallas on Nov. 29, with major additions on offense (running back Mark Ingram’s return from suspension) and defense (the trade for cornerback Eli Apple). And defensively, after allowing that 48 in the opener, New Orleans has allowed a total of 51 points in the last four games.
The Bucs won their first two, against the defending NFC South Division champ (New Orleans) and the defending Super Bowl champ (Philadelphia), before posting three- and four-game losing streaks, firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith, and changing the starting quarterback three times – from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Jameis Winston, back to Fitzpatrick, and now back to Winston.
The three months between games seems more like three years.
“It feels like it’s been a long ago,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. “Obviously, a lot’s taken place since then. We’ll be seeing a different quarterback in this game. I think there are some similarities relative to what the teams do scheme-wise, and yet, through the course of the season there’s been injury, new players playing at different positions for both sides. And a big enough gap to where you’re watching a lot of other tape, not just the tape of your past game.”
The tape shows that under interim defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, Tampa Bay hasn’t significantly altered its identity. The Bucs allow 29.6 points and 395.4 yards per game, but in the last two games – both wins – they’ve given up just 26 total points.
“We were talking about it last night,” Payton said. “If you’re charting, there’s some coverage things that appear to be different, more at a percentage or rate, not necessarily a whole new type of scheme. So the scheme hasn’t changed; I think that’s always hard to do in the middle of the season.
“Now, relative to down and distance and tendencies, when they’re calling certain fronts or coverages, some of that’s moved in a certain direction one way or another. But overall, you’re still seeing what, structurally at least, is that defense.”
The Bucs are producing much the same offensively, too, despite the quarterback changes.
Tampa Bay leads the league in total offense (442.7 yards per game) and passing offense (344.5). Fitzpatrick produced one of the best games of his career in the season opener; 21 of 28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception, and he wasn’t sacked.
Winston has completed 49 of 68 passes (72 percent) for 561 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games, but he hasn’t thrown an interception or fumbled in either game.
“Both of them are guys that have played extremely well at times this year,” Payton said of the quarterbacks. “They’re throwing the ball as well as anyone in the league, they’re moving the ball as well as anyone. They’re first in third-down percentage (49.3 percent).
“I think they’ve got, legitimately, four receivers that you’ve got to defend. So they present a number of challenges. I think both of those quarterbacks are confident in getting the ball down the field. Jameis is buying some time with his feet. He’s a stronger player in the pocket, a little bit more difficult to sack. I think you begin to spend most of your time defending the offense first, and understanding the player second.”
STACKING SACKS: After not posting a sack in the season opener, the Saints are up to 37 for the season, including 13 the last two games. Last year, New Orleans totaled 42 sacks.
“It’s been impressive,” Payton said. “As a coach, you’re encouraged because we’re getting good end play, but we’re also getting great tackle play and I think inside, we’ve really been able to push the pocket.
"We’ve gotten in a rotation – (defensive line coach) Ryan (Nielsen), those guys over on defense, B.Y. (pass rush coach Brian Young) and them – I think it’s like the turnovers, those have really kicked up here. We’re doing those things that you need to win games. Hopefully we can continue on that path.”