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Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Orleans Saints face early litmus test against Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2015 at 3:05 PM

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After being outmatched in experience and overall talent during their week one loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Saints return to New Orleans on Sunday at noon with an opportunity to pick on somebody their own size. 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trounced last week by the Tennessee Titans, 42-14, and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston struggled. The Saints have also won six consecutive games over Tampa. The matchup seems to favor New Orleans. So did last year's week two matchup against the Cleveland Browns.

Even as the Saints have not lost to Tampa in three years, Drew Brees has, comparatively, struggled against the Bucs lately. Since 2013, his passer rating against Tampa is just 83.8, and his eight touchdowns are matched by his eight interceptions. That the Saints are undefeated in these games is a testament to just how bad the Bucs have been rather than to how good the Saints have performed against them.

Brees can't afford a poor performance like either of his 2014 games vs Tampa because it would give Winston a chance to match him, and that would lead to unpleasantness. 

ESPN's Mike Triplett quotes a determined Brees: "That's not even an option," the quarterback said of losing to Tampa and dropping to 0-2 for the second year in a row. Obviously, Brees is right. If the Saints want to compete in 2015, going 0-2 is not an option.

Slow Starts Doom the Saints
The Saints have had four non-winning seasons since 2006. In each of those years — 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 — they've started poorly.

It's not that the Saints start quickly in their winning seasons, necessarily. The 11 win 2010 team opened just 3-2, and the 2011 juggernaut of a team was a respectable but not dominant 5-3 at the midway point of the year.

But the Brees-era Saints have never started 0-2 — or even 1-2 — and rebounded to make the playoffs. Every good Saints team since 2006 has won two of its first three. And they can't do that in 2015 without winning Sunday.

What Bodes Well
The Saints should have a few advantages vs the Bucs they didn't have last week against Arizona's smothering secondary. Tampa has no corner like the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, who let Arizona do stuff like this:
The Saints' receivers should thus look a lot better in the Dome. With receivers he can consistently throw to to generate sustained yardage, Brees should have a nice day, despite his recent trend when he faces the Bucs. And a nice day from Brees should be enough to outpace any attempt of the rookie Winston to match him, or of Tampa running back Doug Martin to keep his team in the game.

What Doesn't
The Saints will still be fielding a defense full of youth and inexperience. In Arizona, players like linebacker Stephone Anthony and cornerback Delvin Breaux made both nice plays and big mistakes. It seemed as though the Saints' defensive backs were always close to creating potential game-changing moments, but never quite there.

It was the same along the defensive line. Defensive end Cam Jordan came close to sacking Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, but never actually did it. As a result, Palmer extended plays and found receivers who eventually got open.

Given enough time, Winston will find a way to pick on the Saints' young defensive backs, especially now that dependable veteran safety Rafael Bush is on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. His replacement, Kenny Phillips, will on Sunday experience his first regular season game action since 2012. And long-lost prized safety Jairus Byrd is still nowhere to be found. Rumor has it he's closer to touching the field, but won't be back just yet.

Saints fans'll believe Byrd exists when they see him.

In the end, the Saints should have enough firepower on offense and athleticism on defense, if not experience, to beat the Bucs at home. And they have the feel of a team that just might improve as the season goes on.

If they lose to Tampa, though, future improvement might not matter that much.

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