Coach Dennis Allen told the New Orleans Saints to have thick skin even after the team won its season opener 27-26 in Atlanta by posting the largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history, because there was plenty of cleanup to be done.
The Saints hope to have done just that entering Sunday's home opener against Tampa Bay in the Caesars Superdome. Here are a few areas that'll be helpful in New Orleans opening the season with consecutive victories.
1. BE YOURSELF: The run defense played by the Saints against Atlanta bore no resemblance to the run defense played by the Saints for the better part of the last five seasons. The Falcons ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, a whopping 5.3 yards per carry. That can't happen against the Buccaneers, who ran for 152 yards on 33 carries in their season-opening victory over Dallas. New Orleans native Leonard Fournette ran for 127 of them, on 21 carries. The Saints have done a magnificent job of making opponents one-dimensional by taking away the run, and that will have to be the case Sunday. Expect the front seven to bounce back and resemble the run defense that the Saints are accustomed to having. Linebacker Demario Davis and Co. have too much pride for that kind of performance to repeat.
2. MORE OF THIS: Perhaps lost in the shuffle of quarterback Jameis Winston's fourth-quarter heroics against the Falcons were these numbers – Winston now is 6-2 as a Saints starter and has thrown 16 touchdowns, with three interceptions, in those eight games. New Orleans doesn't need to make a habit of attempting 16-point, fourth-quarter comebacks. What will help against Tampa Bay is better protection for Winston (he was sacked four times) and he admitted that he held the ball too long at times. The Bucs' defense has rivaled the Saints' in terms of stopping the run, so New Orleans may not get much traction on the ground. That means Winston will have to be efficient and make sure he doesn't turn over the ball. He hasn't taken many unnecessary risks as Saints quarterback, and he shouldn't do it against his former team on Sunday. But when he needs to throw it, it sure is nice to have receivers Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave to throw it to.
3. POUND THE ROCK: Just because the Bucs don't allow much traction on the ground doesn't mean New Orleans can abandon the run game. The Saints have to keep Tampa Bay honest defensively, and those 2- and 3-yard runs early in the game can morph into 5- and 6-yard runs as the game wears on. This offensive line wants that challenge and more often than not has flourished under those circumstances. Alvin Kamara's rib injury has him sidelined, so Mark Ingram II likely will have the bulk of the carries at running back. When Taysom Hill lines up at quarterback it forces the defense to adjust to 11-on-11 football, so that could help bolster the run game, too. Run attempts always are a good indicator of whether the Saints have controlled the clock, the tempo and the scoreboard.
4. CORNERED: While the Bucs won't have receiver Chris Godwin (hamstring) or retired tight end Rob Gronkowski, they won't lack for weapons at receiver. Mike Evans, Julio Jones and Russell Gage are plenty enough to deal with, and Fournette can help as a receiver out of the backfield. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been as effective in taking away Evans as any cornerback in the league, so that matchup is always one to watch, but Lattimore also has been a good counter to Jones, too. Bradley Roby will start at the other corner, with Paulson Adebo still out, so that may mean safety Justin Evans gets to play slot corner against his former team. The secondary will be tested if the Saints are able to take away the running game on defense.
5. PRESSURE: Nothing matters more defensively than pressuring Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, and no team has done that better the previous two seasons than the Saints. Tampa Bay is 0-4 the previous two regular seasons against the Saints with Brady at quarterback, and the GOAT has been limited to the following stat line: 99-for-162 passing (61 percent) for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns, with eight interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and 13 sacks. If New Orleans can approach that level of defensive harassment against Brady, it'll be where it wants to be at the finish. That means defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport will have to be at their disruptive best. Keep an eye on defensive tackle David Onyemata, who has had some of his best games against the Bucs.