3TFO: Buccaneers @ Saints, Week 17
After struggling on the road in recent games, the New Orleans Saints head home to finish the regular season. They get a visit from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3 in their last seven games).
With a loss by the Carolina Panthers and a win themselves, the Saints could still jump all the way up to the No. 2 seed, but if the Panthers win the Saints will be slotted fifth or sixth. With that being the case, the Saints will want to put on a strong showing Sunday before hitting the road in the playoffs.
The Bucs have been playing much better football during the second half of the season and will be looking to play the spoiler role (along with possibly saving Greg Schiano’s job). These two met up in Week 2 with the Saints winning 16-14 behind a dominant performance from Jimmy Graham and their much improved defense.
I took a look back at that matchup to see what players will have the largest impact in this game.
Graham and Sproles vs. Lavonte David and the TB Pass Defense
In the first matchup between these two teams, the Bucs were unable to find an answer for Jimmy Graham. He was targeted 16 times and came down with 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown. Graham currently is our top-graded tight end and his wide receiver-like 1144 receiving yards tops the next tight end by almost 300 yards. While Graham thrived, Darren Sproles was held in check as his 13 total touches netted him 62 yards. Sproles currently carries our top receiving grade for a running back and is yet to drop a pass.
Lavonte David was a big reason for Sproles’ struggles in that early game. David is our top-rated traditional 4-3 OLB and is excellent in coverage. He didn’t just make an impact in the Week 2 matchup with his coverage, though, as his four total pressures (two sacks and two hurries) tied his season high. David will be busy this week chasing around Sproles, Graham, and even Pierre Thomas. There are a lot of questions to be answered in the Graham and Sproles matchups. Will David be able to have the same impact this week? Will David see more time on Graham? Will the Bucs try what the Patriots did and have Darrelle Revis shadow Graham?
Cameron Jordan vs. the Bucs’ Offensive Line
Cam Jordan also had one of his better games in the Week 2 matchup. He put together a sack, three hurries, and three stops in the run game, giving him a +4.2 grade. For the year his grade is fourth out of all 3-4 DE’s and his pass rushing grade of +28.1 is second behind only JJ Watt. Jordan’s 11.5 Pass Rushing Productivity rating and 71 pressures also rank second to only Watt. He did most of his damage lined up on the left side in the first meeting, but has been mostly on the right side for the rest of the season. He will most likely be given the freedom to move around and search for weak spots on the Tampa Bay offensive line.
When Jordan lines up on the left side he will get a combination of Davin Joseph and Demar Dotson. Dotson can definitely hold his own — his +14.5 pass block grade is sixth out of all tackles — but Joseph will be the weak link. He is currently ranked 78th out of 79 guards in the league and has been struggling with both pass and run blocking. When Jordan tests the right side of the Bucs’ line he will get Donald Penn and Jamon Meredith. Penn has been steady this year, grading out positively overall, but most of his grade comes from his solid work in the run game and Jordan could find some success with his pass rush. Meredith, at left guard, has struggled overall, and ranks 64th out of 79 guards.
Tampa Bay Running Game vs. Saints Run Defense
The Buccaneers’ best defense in the first meeting with the Saints was their solid running game on offense; Doug Martin had 29 carries for 144 yards. This kept Drew Brees on the sideline and leveled the playing field a bit. The only chance the Bucs have in this game is with another big game on the ground. Bobby Rainey exploded onto the scene with a great showing (+5.9) in Week 11 against the Falcons. Since that game he has been hovering around average and had his worst effort of the season against St. Louis last week (-3.3). He will need to have a big game this week, but likely won’t be getting too much help from his offensive line. As a team, the Buccaneers’ cumulative run block grade is (-73.6); 29th in the league.
The Saints’ run defense has been hovering around the middle of the pack all year. They are very solid up front as Akiem Hicks, Broderick Bunkley, and Jordan have all played well against the run. In the middle and into the secondary is where things start to get shaky. Both inside linebackers (Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne) have struggled at times and Keenan Lewis and Corey White have also had lapses. The Saints also lost the best run defender in their secondary when Kenny Vaccaro went down for the season. Vaccaro’s +4.8 run grade was fifth among safeties. Establishing a running game will be pivotal for the Bucs and if they are unable to, this game could get out of hand early.
You can follow Chris on Twitter: @PFF_CPhillips