The New Orleans Saints head to Raymond James Stadium Sunday with the possibility of falling two games back in the NFC North.
Drew Brees and the Saints' offense have been out of rhythm without running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, both of whom haven't participated in the last two games and are looking to return by Week 8.
Bush and Thomas each bring their own unique set of skills to the offense, and their absences have limited the creativity in Sean Payton's play-calling. Without Bush's ability to create in the open field, and Thomas' reliability in the running and passing game, there is increased pressure on Brees to create down the field, something they haven't been proficient in so far this season.
The monotony of the passing attack has forced the Saints, and Brees in particular, to force plays and press to make plays, especially in crucial junctures in the game.
Last week against Arizona, the Saints cost themselves a victory with two costly fourth-quarter turnovers that led directly to defensive touchdowns, including a game-clinching interception by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with 10 seconds left.
In the '09 regular season, New Orleans had a plus-11 turnover differential to go along with their 13-3 record, not to mention a 7-to-1 ratio in that department during their Super Bowl run. These stats alone show why the Saints are teetering on the brink of mediocrity if they do indeed lose on Sunday.
For the Bucs to win this game, Josh Freeman will have to replicate his performance against Cincinnati (280 yds, 1 TD). The Saints pass defense has been a one of the team's few strengths this season, but the injuries at safety could make them vulnerable to the big play. Rookie Mike Williams and Freeman showed positive signs last week against a tough Cincy secondary, hooking up seven times for 99 yards and a touchdown.
The running-back trio of Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham, and LaGarrette Blount will have to be sorted out and utilized effectively in order to breed success on offense. The Saints run D is beatable, and Cadillac has looked good in spurts for the Bucs over the last few games.
The Tampa Bay defense is built to stop the Saints' new offensive schemes, as the zone will neutralize the downfield game of New Orleans. The run defense, which ranks next to last in the league in yards allowed, needs to keep Payton's group one-dimensional and force them to abandon the run early.
Figure this battle to be a close game, which should scare the Saints considering Garrett Hartley is back. The Super Bowl-clinching kicker has shown an inconsistent leg that culminated in an OT miss from 30 yards out in a loss to Atlanta. On the other side, Connor Barth has shown time again a propensity to come through in the clutch, including his 31-yard game-winner last week.
Can the Bucs beat the Saints? Absolutely.
The question to who will win can only be decided on Sunday.
Jesse Paguaga is a regular contributor to Baseball Digest. He writes as an intern on the Bleacher Report website. Jesse writes for Gotham Baseball, along with Gotham Hoops and Gotham Gridiron. He can be reached at Paguaga@usc.edu and can be found on Facebook and on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/@jpags77