The New Orleans Saints know the assignment for Sunday's prime time, nationally televised game against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
The Saints (6-7), four games behind the Buccaneers (10-3) in the NFC South Division standings, are angling for a spot in the playoffs. Tampa Bay has visions of the No. 1 playoff seed. The Saints have played the Bucs better than any team the last two seasons, with victories in all three regular-season games by an average of 18 points, but picked up another hurdle:
New Orleans will be without Coach Sean Payton, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday and immediately was isolated.
If New Orleans is to win four straight against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady in the regular season, and do it without its head coach, here are a few reasons it would happen:
1. PASSING FANCY: The Saints pass for just 197.9 yards per game, fourth fewest in the NFL. And yet, quarterback Taysom Hill and the receiving corps – probably prominently including running back Alvin Kamara – will have to be effective in the passing game. The Buccaneers simply don't give much on the ground (opponents average 91.2 rushing yards per game, third fewest in the league), so the air attack offers the path of least resistance. That worked well in the first meeting, a 36-27 Saints victory in which New Orleans totaled 39 pass attempts – 29 in the final three quarters, when backup quarterback Trevor Siemian replaced injured starter Jameis Winston. It will be pivotal again in this one.
2. KEEP EM HONEST: Just because New Orleans will need to throw it, doesn't mean it can ignore the run. The Saints know that the 2-, 3- and 4-yard gains will be critical on early downs in order to stay out of bad down-and-distance situations. Kamara is a marked man every game, but continuing to give him chances enhances the chances that he'll pop one. Hill will be critical, too; running quarterbacks can be hard to handle – Bills quarterback Josh Allen ran for 109 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against Tampa Bay in the Bucs' last game, and Hill has gained 174 and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the Saints' last two games. Running the ball doesn't allow Tampa Bay only to concentrate on the passing game, so New Orleans has to be disciplined.
3. BATTER BRADY: In the Saints' three regular-season victories over Tampa Bay the last two seasons, New Orleans has sacked Bucs quarterback Tom Brady nine times, intercepted him seven times (two returned for touchdowns) and allowed six touchdown passes. Brady isn't much of a scrambler, so the defense knows where he'll be. This could be a big game for defensive tackle David Onyemata, but keep an eye on defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport has been disruptive, destructive and sometimes unblockable. If he's on his game, and he gets a little help from the returning Cameron Jordan, it'll make life easier in the secondary.
4. THE LATTIMORE FACTOR: Cornerback Marshon Lattimore defends Bucs receiver Mike Evans as well as anyone in the NFL. That's a fact. He'll need to do it again, but also, Tampa Bay receiver Chris Godwin and tight end Rob Gronkowski will have to be managed. New Orleans believes it has the personnel to do so, with a mixture of safety Malcolm Jenkins, defensive backs C.J. Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams and cornerbacks Paulson Adebo and Bradley Roby. The line won't always generate pressure and when it doesn't, the back end has to hold up.
5. ELIMINATE LENNY: Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (778 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, plus 421 receiving yards and two touchdowns) has found his footing in the Tampa Bay offense. New Orleans has to make him a non-factor in the running game. If Fournette is squared to the line of scrimmage and taking on linebackers and defensive backs, that's exactly what the Saints don't want. Limiting his effectiveness goes a long way toward making Tampa Bay one-dimensional.
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