This game features a battle between two teams that are going in opposite directions. The New Orleans Saints are one of four teams that are on a winning streak of at least four games, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off of a 48-3 beat down against the San Francisco 49ers. Whenever there is an NFC South matchup you know that you’re going to be getting a good game, as four of the top 12 quarterbacks in terms of overall PFF rating reside in the division.
Despite the huge loss, if the Buccaneers were to get the home victory, it would result in a tie at the top of the division with the Buccaneers having the tie breaker due to the head to head victory. On the other hand, if the Saints continue their winning streak then we might see them at the top of the division for the rest of the 2011 season. Here are the matchups that will decide if these two teams will continue going in opposite directions or not.
1) The Saints passing attacks vs. the Buccaneers secondary
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, their weakness on defense lines up with the Saints’ strength. In his worst game of the season, Drew Brees (+34.8) had a passer rating of +5.0. Playing that consistently is unheard of in the NFL, as even great quarterbacks are bound to have an average game over five week. Keep in mind that all of his targets are back after having missed some games with injuries, and a new favorite target has emerged in tight end Jimmy Graham (+10.9). Over the past three games, Graham has been targeted 32 times with 22 catches, 361 yards and two touchdowns. No tight end is even close to him in the PFF pass rating.
On the flip side Tampa Bay is hurting in its secondary. It wouldn’t be surprising if Ronde Barber (-6.1) is given the responsibility of covering Graham on some plays. He has two missed tackles in four of the five games this season, which may lead to Graham getting a lot of yards after the catch. We’ll also see a lot of E.J. Biggers (-1.6), who over the last three games has allowed 14 catches for 208 yards.
2) Freeman passing free
One of the many reasons why the Buccaneers crumbled against the 49ers is that they were able to get pressure on Josh Freeman (+14.6) on over 33% of his drop backs. Of the 12 times Freeman was under pressure, he had six incomplete passes, two completions, two sacks and two interceptions. In general Tampa Bay’s blocking is average, other than right tackle Jeremy Trueblood (-7.4), but they were going up against one of the better pass rushing teams in the 49ers.
This week, they will be going up against one of the worst pass rushing teams in New Orleans. Last week the Saints defense had just six overall pressures in the first three quarters. The only two players that pose any real threat of creating a pass rush is Will Smith (+9.9) and Sedrick Ellis (+5.8) who have identical resumes this season with two sacks, one hit and 11 pressures a piece. Since Freeman will have the time he wants to throw the ball on most plays, the Buccaneers should at least be given the opportunity to keep up with the New Orleans offense.
3) Buccaneers rushing game vs. Saints run defense
One of the bright spots in the Buccaneers offense has been the continued success of running back LeGarrette Blount (+4.7) who will very likely miss this game with an injury. In his place, we will see most of the work load likely go to Earnest Graham (+1.3) who has a significantly lower elusive rating at 11.9 compared to Blount’s 45.6.
While the Saints have been winning, their run defense hasn’t exactly been successful. Free agent addition Aubrayo Franklin (+0.4 run defense) hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was in the 49ers 3-4 defense, while Sedrick Ellis (-2.3 run defense) and Shaun Rogers (-0.5 run defense) are better known for their pass rushing abilities. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma (-6.0 run defense) has been playing as poor against the run as he has the past two seasons.
Because this is a weakness for both teams, something has to give. The Saints have faced runners like DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Forte who have averaged 8.26 yards per carry, but have averaged just 10 rushes each. If a team tried to run the ball more often against the Saints, they might find more success. On the other hand the Saints defense could come out on top against a backup running back.