Can you believe it?
One more day, and the New Orleans Saints will kick off their 2020 season against Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The three-time reigning NFC South Division champions are one of the favorites to advance to the NFC Championship Game and to advance to the Super Bowl, but that doesn't really matter right now. What stands out is that the Saints, at long last, have a game to play. Here are a few ways in which they can win it:
- The Saints have to be able to establish something resembling a running game. Probably easier said than done, since the Buccaneers allowed a league-low 73.8 rushing yards per game last season, and 3.3 yards per carry. But a balanced offense always is the best offense, and New Orleans simply will have to grind against a defense that allowed just four runs of 20-plus yards last season. New Orleans may throw it early to loosen up the Bucs (and because that's where the weakness is), but it'll help to shake loose Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray and Ty Montgomery for some productive runs.
- And speaking of throwing against the Bucs, who wouldn't notice that Tampa Bay allowed 270 passing yards per game last year, and 30 touchdowns, with just 12 interceptions? We're not suggesting here that Saints quarterback Drew Brees (2,979 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions in just 11 games) is salivating. But he touched up the Bucs last season (28 of 35 for 228 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, in his lone appearance against them) and he has help this season for Michael Thomas (league single-season record 149 catches, for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns last year). Receiver Emmanuel Sanders (66 catches, 869 yards, five scores in 2019) joins Thomas, tight end Jared Cook and Kamara as viable receivers.
- You may have heard that Tampa Bay has a new quarterback, some guy named Tom Brady. Rumor is that he's pretty good, won a Super Bowl or six, hasn't encountered much that he hasn't already seen and conquered. He's going to test the Saints' pass defense, to put it mildly. And this will be a great test for a secondary that looks to be improved and seems to have all the ingredients to play as aggressively as it wants to play. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore vows to be more locked in, and cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins – frankly – is damned good at what he does in coverage. Sprinkle in the high-caliber depth provided by defensive backs P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson, and the continued emergence of C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and the Saints have the makings of a secondary that could do great things. If Bucs receiver Mike Evans can't play or is slowed, the Saints will have to be even more wary of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk played nine seasons with Brady in New England, so their chemistry probably is head-and-shoulders above what Brady's chemistry is with anyone else on the roster.
- Of course, the secondary can't cover forever, so All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan and his crew will have to get it done up front. Brady will want to get rid of the ball quickly, and middle pressure will be critical. Defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata will be big there.
- We're not sure where running back Leonard Fournette will fit as a receiver for Tampa Bay, but we know what the New Orleans native can do as a runner. He averaged a career-high 4.3 yards per carry last year, and totaled 1,152 rushing yards for Jacksonville when he faced stacked defenses. The Saints stop the run very well (91.3 yards per game allowed, 4.2 yards per carry) and Fournette will be a challenge. All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis leads the charge; the Saints don't want or need to see Fournette reaching the second level too often.
- It's hard to know how the Saints will handle the absence of a crowd or the energy a Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd can generate. The team believes it can handle the lack of a buzz, and it should have the maturity to do so.
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