The 10-5 New Orleans Saints face a familiar foe in the 4-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the two hook up on Sunday. The Saints are looking to break a two-game skid heading into the playoffs while the Bucs are looking to possibly spoil those plans by sending the Saints to some obscure city like Philadelphia to open the playoffs (I kid, Philly).
The Saints find themselves in this position after squandering the lead in the NFC South to the Carolina Panthers in a 17-13 loss. Now the Saints have to hope the Atlanta Falcons beat the Panthers to retake the lead and grab the No. 2 seed in the conference.
But first they must get by a Tampa team that matches up extremely well with them. Tampa is the exact kind of team New Orleans has struggled with the past two games. The Bucs are physical, explosive and very well coached.
But what separates Tampa from the St. Louis Rams, and Carolina, is the inability to rush the passer. The Panthers and Rams are the second- and third-ranked pass-rush outfits, respectively, while Tampa sits 23rd.
Tampa also has a hit-or-miss offense that's quarterbacked by a rookie in Mike Glennon. There will be plenty of opportunities for the Saints to capitalize on mistakes. Conversely, the Saints can drive up the difficulty of the game by becoming too one-dimensional.
The major difference in this contest will be the fact that the Saints are at home. And there's not a team in the NFL that the Saints can't beat inside the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Breakdown of Key Personnel
Glennon is having a really efficient rookie year. He's completing 60 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns opposed to just eight interceptions. He has one of the strongest arms in the league and is a scheme-specific fit in offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's downfield attack. But one must note that Glennon might be the slowest QB in the NFL. At 6'6", 225 pounds, Glennon virtually falls down with a decent gust of wind.
He's coming off of being sacked seven times by the Rams and is ripe for the picking. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette have a lot of pent-up frustration and will take it out on one Mr. Glennon.
On paper, the Bucs have one of the very best lines in all of football. But in reality, it hasn't quite come together for this unit. Former Saints guard Carl Nicks was supposed to anchor the line but has run into nothing but problems since signing as a free agent two seasons ago. This unit can catch fire when the game plan is designed around the run.
They are a physical group of players who are at their best moving forward to run block as opposed to retreating in pass protection. The matchup between left tackle Donald Penn and Galette will be one to watch. Penn is a dancing bear, and Galette has been known to pull out a few spin moves of his own. Watching them "Tango" will be a treat for fans of play in the trenches.
Due to a rash of season-ending injuries, Tampa is down to relying on young back Bobby Rainey to shoulder the load in the run game. Rainey (5'8", 212 lbs) is ultra quick with deceptive power. He's can go inside but is at his best getting out on the edges. He's been hit or miss and feast or famine, if you will.
Rainey has accumulated 531 yards on 139 attempts to go along with five TDs. Behind him sits veteran Brian Leonard, who is good at a few things but great at nothing. Actually, he is an asset in the passing game as he does have really good hands. He knows the system and is a good pass protector.
Tampa must be able to establish the run to have any type of a shot in this game. With the Saints giving up 4.6 yards per carry it may be a foregone conclusion that they will.
Any team that has receiver Vincent Jackson on it has a certified weapon. At 6'5", 230 pounds, Jackson is effective in all areas of receiving. He may be the league's premier deep threat. And he can break tackles at an inordinate clip. He has 74 receptions for 1,189 yards with seven TDs. This is the perfect candidate to get the Keenan Lewis treatment.
Lewis is the Saints' No. 1 corner who's often charged with taking away the opposing team's best threat. In the first meeting Jackson had five catches for 77 yards, but it was a catch that was nullified by an illegal procedure that almost sent the Saints home with a defeat.
Outside of Jackson, the best threat is H-back Timothy Wright. Wright often plays tight end but can be moved all around in an effort to get him a favorable matchup. If Wright ends up with linebacker Curtis Lofton on him, somebody from the Saints' staff should be sued for negligence, defensive negligence.
Lofton has no business covering downfield as we saw him do quite a few times the past couple of games. Lofton has nothing to offer Wright whatsoever. Safety Malcolm Jenkins would be the best bet to defend the 6'3", 220-pound monster.
Receiver Tiquan Underwood is the fastest of them all. Watching him and Saints corner Corey White go at it will be very fun. Tampa is a vertical-passing team that will take plenty of shots through the air.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is enjoying a breakout season with nine sacks to his credit. He may very well be the best 3-technique in the NFL as he seems virtually unblockable at times. Saints guard Ben Grubbs will have his hands full with this beast. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn is a decent player. He's stout against the run and can be a threat to get after the QB.
He should be a much better matchup for Saints left tackle Terron Armstead—who was demolished in his debut last week. But one thing they will present for Armstead is an alignment he has yet to see.
Hopefully, the Saints have prepared Armstead to see wider splits sometimes past the 9's. Running the Wide 9 may be of benefit to an athlete like Armstead. Out there it's more of a speed and quickness thing than anything else. Clayborn is not quick at all, but his counterparts Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and William Gholston are.
By employing a nose tackle, as it does in base situations, Tampa is able to free up McCoy to get after the QB. Despite employing an even-front alignment, Tampa uses a lot of odd-front schemes. This means the Saints offensive line needs to be prepared for everything in the book.
Last season, Tampa led the league in rush defense, but this season it has been susceptible, giving up 4.1 yards per attempt.
But knowing how the Saints operate, they will negate that aspect of offensive football.
Weak-side linebacker Lavonte David is a future star. He's fast, physical and instinctive. He currently has 137 tackles, five INTs and two forced fumbles. The Saints just saw Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly dominate their backfield; they may get an encore performance from the equally capable David.
Fellow linebacker Mason Foster is a tackling machine in his own right. He's a great fit in head coach Greg Schiano's scheme due to his instincts. Both guys can shoot gaps and both are great in coverage.
Corner Darrelle Revis is the premier talent at his position. He's just now starting to get his physical stature back after missing last season with a torn ACL. But there's nothing wrong with his mind, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees needs to be aware of that when testing him.
Revis usually shadows similar to Lewis, but don't expect him to do it this game. Revis may just stay on one side and force the Saints to favor one side of the formation. But as great as Revis has been in his career, avoiding him should not be in the cards.
Revis has been beat on numerous occasions and will gamble provided the opportunity. Rookie corner Johnthan Banks (three INTs this season) has steadily improved. At 6'2", 195 pounds, he's a great matchup for any receiver in the league. He will eventually be a good player, but he should be targeted early and often in this contest.
Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson are two of the most physical players in the league, but if the Saints can manufacture ways to put both in coverage, it will be to their benefit.
The Saints need to force Tampa to become one-dimensional by stopping the run initially. Once Tampa is forced to put the ball in the air, the Saints' ferocious rush will be too much for Glennon to handle.
Running back Mark Ingram should get plenty of opportunities in this one. Tampa is the perfect team to operate with balance against. The Saints should have very little problem with this one if they use their ground resources.
But if not...this may be tougher than we think.