The New Orleans Saints return from their 2012 bye week to take on NFC South rivals Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in a Week 7 battle of teams just looking to stay alive in the playoff race.
New Orleans comes into the game 1-4, having won just their final game before the bye week at home against the Chargers. Tampa Bay won last week against Kansas City and has played well at home in 2012.
The team features a new offensive style under first-year coordinator Mike Sullivan. And the defense is similar in many respects from the previous regimes, as head coach Greg Schiano has merely tried to inspire his troops on that side of the ball.
The result in Tampa is a team that is scarier than its 2-3 record. Though not as talented as the New Orleans Saints, the Bucs are a tough football team that plays relatively smart football.
The addition of former-Saint Carl Nicks on the offensive line and Vincent Jackson at receiver have made Tampa a much more dynamic and explosive offense than in past seasons.
With that said, for the New Orleans Saints to win on Sunday, there are at least 10 keys for success. Those 10 keys are listed here in order from priorities when the Saints have the ball (slides No. 1-4) to when the Bucs have the ball (slides No. 5-9) to an overall team concept (slide No. 10).
When watching the All-22 film of the Tampa Bay defense, few things are more obvious than the need for motion on offense. The primary reason is quite simple: the defense shifts its alignment based on the strength of the offensive formation.
By providing motion on offense, you are essentially forcing the hand of the defense and causing it to identify some of the specific assignments it has on any given play. And in knowing the strength of the defense, it makes pass protection simpler for the offensive line, as it can better communicate which player to block.
And in much the same way, it makes run blocking easier, as the assignments are more readily visible to the entirety of the blocking unit.
In short, it makes Drew Brees' job easier to identify potential audibles and for post-snap adjustments on who to hit "hot" or with which player may be coming on a blitz. Of course, the Saints like to use motion regardless of the opponent, but expect to see more of it on Sunday than in previous games against Tampa's college-style defense.
Last Thursday on "The NOLA Rundown," I predicted Mark Ingram would post 100-plus rushing yards in the game against Tampa Bay. That was prior to viewing even one game of the All-22 film from the Bucs' last five weeks (vs. New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs).
What all those films displayed was that Tampa is a good run defense, but they're one that presents holes for opposing offenses to attack against them. One such hole is the off-tackle run that Mark Ingram so brilliantly attacks with burst and speed. It is crucial that Pete Carmichael calls plays from passing personnel and formations to allow Ingram the space he needs to just run.
Also, some delayed runs and draw plays with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles will take advantage of a front seven that loves to attack up the field with almost zero regard for run discipline.
The Saints need to get back to playing complimentary football well. Simply a commitment to the run will go a long way to re-instilling that mode of operation for the Who Dats.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play a lot of press coverage on the outside. On deeper routes, they'll often play trail technique, which allows their corners to bait the opposing quarterback into a deep throw, which they then catch up to make a play on the ball.
And they employ zone coverage on the back half on nearly every passing attempt. The net sum of that coverage attack is a multitude of opportunities for eye-of-the-needle-type passing attempts from opposing quarterbacks.
And that means if those passes are not perfectly fit through, interception opportunities abound.
All this means that Drew Brees must be aggressive but wise in his selections of which opportunities he wants to take a chance on and which ones to simply check down or throw the football away and live to fight another day.
Interceptions against Tampa are even more deadly than against most opponents since Tampa defenders have a knack for making plays with the football in their hands. Therefore, it is imperative that Brees and the offense avoid turnovers at all costs in this matchup.
As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers defense is relatively similar on the back end to what it looked like under previous regimes, as the unit plays a ton of two-deep defenders. One of the differences, though, is that they accompany that with a ton of press coverage and a myriad of different man-to-man looks.
Even the man-to-man looks often leave the middle of the field wide open. Though tight end Jimmy Graham is unlikely to be healthy enough to play in this game, the Saints still possess one of the finest seam receivers in the league in the person of Marques Colston.
Look for Colston to line up in the slot more often than he has in 2012 (though in previous seasons with Sean Payton calling plays, that alignment was more than common).
And look for Devery Henderson and Lance Moore to find openings in the intermediate zones, which promise to be many. If and when they can, the Saints will have almost no problem moving the ball on the Tampa Bay defense.
Vincent Jackson is tearing up opposing secondaries. In the past two games, very few receivers have been as fantastic, strong and dominant as Jackson.
In the team's dramatic loss against the Washington Redskins, Jackson tore apart one of the league's finest corners in Deangelo Hall. In fact, he made Hall look like a rag doll as he bobbed and weaved his way around Hall and caught the ball at will against him.
The Bucs love to throw the ball deep on the sideline to Jackson and over the middle in the intermediate zones.
To slow down Jackson, the Saints must mix up their coverages. Even Jabari Greer cannot cover Jackson successfully at all times. Playing different guys on him while rolling zones to his side will help.
And to hold down the vertical-minded Jackson, the Saints would be wise to play off him in soft-man looks. This will force Jackson to catch the ball short and make something happen on the run after catch, which is not his strength.
Josh Freeman is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at avoiding the sack and the interception. In short, he is one of the best at avoiding the big mistake.
Obviously, that is a testament to him and something positive to say for both he and the team. But in some small ways, it also a detriment, as the team would often benefit from him taking a couple of chances down the field to notch more explosive pass plays.
But when he is pressured, he immediately looks to check the ball down to a running back in the 'ole "take what the defense gives you" manner of offensive approach. It may make the coach happy when the quarterback is one who often makes mistakes. But throughout his time in Tampa, Freeman has been one of the most cautious and careful quarterbacks in the league.
The point is that the Saints don't necessarily need to sack Josh Freeman. They likely will not be able to do that successfully. But they can get pressure and hands in the passing lanes.
To do that, they will have to use the speed and burst brought to you by Martez Wilson and Junior Galette coming around the edge. The Bucs simply do not give away inside pressure.
And allow me the opportunity to play Captain Obvious. The Saints would be better off not blitzing and getting to Freeman with four-man rushes.
It's easy to forget about Mike Williams with Vincent Jackson now in the Buccaneers canvas. But while Williams, the prized fourth-round find from Syracuse, had a marvelous rookie season, until this season, he had begun to tail off.
But Jackson's arrival to Tampa has eased the stress on Williams and given him much more freedom to run around the field. With Jackson on the field, Williams can get open in single coverage while Jackson's mired in double-coverage views.
The result has been a Williams re-emergence to the top of the Bucs' offensive usage rate (to borrow a basketball advanced metric). The result is a much-improved offense overall, Williams obviously included.
From a scheme standpoint, the Bucs run a ton of mirror routes—meaning the two outside receivers (Jackson and Williams) run the same route on opposite sides of the formation. For instance, a common route seen on film is two vertical curl routes. This gives Josh Freeman a chance to read the safety and man-to-man coverage and choose the correct receiver.
Because of his speed and natural route-running ability, he becomes a great weapon on such routes. And his subsequent run-after-catch capabilities make him a dynamic player the Saints must slow.
This all means the Saints must not put too many of their eggs into the basket of stopping Vincent Jackson. There must be at least a few eggs also dedicated to slowing the third-year stud. The simple way to do that is to play a two-deep shell and play trail technique in an attempt to bait Freeman into poor choices down the field.
Not that I'm a Buccaneers fan, but it is nice to see the team finally made the effort to add an NFL-caliber running back to its roster. In fact, Doug Martin is one of the few remaining backs who gets about 80 percent of the team's carries (he has 84 to LeGarrette Blount's next closest at 20).
The aforementioned Blount was the best the team could do in previous seasons, but it is clear that Martin is far and away the best Bucs back since the almost legendary Warrick Dunn masqueraded in the maroon and pewter.
To again borrow from the NBA the usage-rate statistic, Martin is on the field and getting the ball more than any other player on the field for the Bucs offense. In other words, the Saints must know where he is at all times.
He may not be the team's most explosive player, but with the plethora of touches he receives, the Saints simply have to know where he is, or the rookie will burn them. He isn't necessarily a big-play back, but he'll use 25 carries to get 100 yards and wear the defense out in the process.
So it's pretty simple, ultimately. Know where Martin is on the field, play the cutback (since that's what he most likes to do) and keep someone on him in the passing game.
Perhaps it is now evident that stopping or slowing the Bucs offense is not as easy as it sounds. With three legitimate weapons and a quarterback with a big arm, explosive plays are bound to come if the Saints defense does not come ready to play with a sound game plan.
Given the utter lack of success of the Saints kickoff-return unit since Darren Sproles' opening-game return against the Packers last year, and accounting for the fact that Tampa has one of the most dominant kickoff-coverage units in the league, it seems fair to say the Saints should just sack any ambitions of returning the ball on Sunday afternoon in Tampa Bay.
Consider the fact that when Sproles takes the ball out of the end zone, he often ends up short of the 20-yard line. That is lost field position, a statistic that figures to impact the outcome of Sunday's game perhaps more than any other statistic.
Sproles must know this in this particular game. He has no chance of making hay in the return game. The team is much better off, in a "complementary football" kind of way, to simply take the ball at the 20 and attempt to go 80 yards every time.
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints have played a lot of half games and even one three-quarter game against Green Bay (the second quarter does not count as a full game). But the team's only victory came the one time they played a full game, which they did in Week 5 against the San Diego Chargers.
Likewise, this young Tampa Bay squad has also played a number of half and three-quarter games. Similarly, they have come up short in many fourth quarters, hence the 2-3 record.
It is possible that the victor in this contest is the one who plays the most well-balanced four quarters of football. Of course, that is all common sense. But occasionally, a team plays one good quarter to come back to defeat a poor opponent.
The Saints are not facing a poor opponent Sunday. In fact, the Bucs are probably much better than their 2-3 record. That means a full 60 minutes of football is likely the only way the New Orleans Saints leave Tampa on Sunday with their second consecutive victory.