No stretch of NFL games is easy, but this thicket of games for the New Orleans Saints (7-2) is especially thorny.
When the Saints play Tampa Bay (3-6) on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., it'll be the second of four consecutive NFC South Division games for New Orleans, which leads the division by two games. And the Saints didn't get off to a roaring start for the stretch – their 26-9 loss to Atlanta broke a six-game winning streak.
The best medicine for that is to get back to work, then to produce a successful outcome in the next game. Here are a few ways that might be accomplished:
- Tampa Bay doesn't run the ball all that much (26.3 attempts per game) or all that successfully (3.8 yards per carry). What the Buccaneers do, is throw it. Lots. Their 39.4 attempts per game (fourth most) and 284.2 yards (fifth) are numbers to be wary of, especially for a Saints secondary that will be without cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore was instrumental in helping shut out Tampa Bay Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans – no catches, no yards – in the first meeting. P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson will have to step in and step up, with rookie C.J. Gardner-Johnson capably fitting in as the nickel back. Likely, Tampa will look to get Evans (54-924-7 and six catches of 40-plus yards) involved early and often. But quarterback Jameis Winston likely will give the Saints some chances; he has 14 interceptions and has fumbled 10 times, and lost four of them. What New Orleans has to do is take advantage when Winston opens the door. The Saints sacked him six times in the previous game, a 31-24 win in New Orleans. They may not get another six-pack, but they have to crowd his comfort zone.
- The Bucs aren't going to give up much in the run game. The Saints totaled 112 yards on 31 carries in the first game, and the Bucs allow just 77.8 rushing yards per game, fewest in the league. Still, the Saints have to get their attempts and keep the balance. They can't be one-dimensional, on the road, and expect a ton of success. If running back Alvin Kamara is healthy, he's the X-factor because of his ability in the run game and the short passing game. He didn't get many touches (12) against Atlanta. I don't expect the number to be that low against Tampa.
- What the Bucs prevent against the run, they allow exponentially against the pass. Tampa Bay gives up 298.9 passing yards per game, most in the NFL, and opponents have 22 touchdowns (against six interceptions). Teddy Bridgewater (314 passing yards, four touchdowns, one interception, not sacked) shredded Tampa Bay's secondary in the first game; don't think Drew Brees hasn't dissected and digested that information, as well as the fact that the Bucs will have a young secondary on the field to oppose him. Michael Thomas (86 catches, 1,027 yards, four touchdowns) is on pace to set the NFL single-season record for receptions, and he should be able to keep up the pace against an inexperienced secondary.
- With left guard Andrus Peat out (forearm), Nick Easton or Will Clapp gets the snaps. So the Saints will have their impressive rookie center (Erik McCoy) and Easton, who has been inactive five games, or Clapp, a second-year player, on the interior to deal with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. That's heavy lifting, but that's the job and they'll have to do it well. If Suh and Vea are spending too many plays re-establishing the line of scrimmage, that won't bode well for New Orleans. There's a reason the Saints went after Easton in free agency, and a reason they kept Clapp. One, or both, need to carry his share of the load against the Bucs.