Bottom line is this:
At the quarter-point of their NFL season, the New Orleans Saints (3-1) are exactly where they'd hoped they would be entering the season: Atop the NFC South Division standings.
The fact that they're there despite starting quarterback Drew Brees having played less than five quarters this season – and, in back to back weeks, having beaten division leaders Seattle and Dallas – says a little something about their grit.
In order to make it three in a row, on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against Tampa Bay (2-2), the Saints can't rest on any laurels. The fact that the Buccaneers are a division rival should assure that. Here are a few ways in which the Saints can walk away victorious:
- Cornerback Marshon Lattimore brought his "A" game against Dallas. Not that he'd played poorly prior to that, but Lattimore put on a clinic against Dallas' Amari Cooper. He'll likely need to be even better when he's matched against Tampa Bay's Mike Evans. Evans has 18 catches for 368 yards and four touchdowns, and he hasn't been a thorn in New Orleans' side in the past so much as he's been a javelin. So Lattimore will have to be up to the task. But the Bucs also have Chris Godwin (26 catches, 386 yards, four touchdowns) to give a secondary trouble. New Orleans has applied pressure, but only has one sack to show for it in the last two games. Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston has been sacked 12 times, but he's warming to the task, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in his last two games. The Saints need to shake him up and see what falls. Having defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins back for his second game of the season should help, and fellow tackle David Onyemata is an underrated force on the interior.
- The Bucs average 29.8 rushing attempts per game. The only way to take that away is to stifle the running game and make them one-dimensional. The Saints were able to do that against Dallas, holding the Cowboys to 45 yards on 20 carries. Tampa Bay will be no less determined to impose its will.
- Those who have been wanting to see more production from the Saints passing game may get their wish Sunday. Teddy Bridgewater has thrown for 370 yards in the last two games; the Bucs allow 318.2 per game, second-most in the league. He wasn't protected especially well against Dallas, and Tampa Bay defensive end Shaq Barrett has a league-leading nine sacks. But Bridgewater and the offense are due for a bit of a breakout. The Bucs scored 55 in a victory over the Rams, but they also coughed up 40. Bridgewater and Michael Thomas looked smooth on a couple of connections against Dallas, and the chemistry could continue its ascent this game.
- Partly, the reason the Bucs have been so abysmal against the pass is because they've not been inclined to let opponents run. At all. Tampa Bay has the stingiest run defense in the league, allowing 59.2 yards per game. "It's the type of front they're in," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "They're going to populate the ball, they're going to give you some pressures, they're going to make it challenging at the line of scrimmage for your quarterback to just go up and call any run. You've got to have a plan in regards to weak side or strong side overload pressures." The Saints are going to test the front and linebackers with Alvin Kamara. New Orleans wants to stay balanced offensively.
- New Orleans – too much for its liking – has been its own worst enemy too often this season. The offensive holding penalties currently stand at 11; there aren't many first-and-20, second-and-16, third-and-14 plays on the call sheet. The Saints have to be cleaner. They've been able to win in spite of penalties, but a team only can flirt with that flame so many times before the flame wins.