NEW ORLEANS, LA. (WFLA) – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers grand road trip continues today inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the New Orleans Saints. The Bucs are flying high following last week’s stunning 55-40 win over the Los Angeles Rams and hope to even up the standings atop the NFC South against the 3-1 Saints.
The Saints have won difficult back to back games against Seattle and Dallas with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater running the offense while starting quarterback Drew Brees recovers from a thumb injury. Brees is listed as “out” for today’s game but his return to the lineup is imminent much to the delight of Saints fans, scratching their heads after New Orleans won last week’s game without scoring a touchdown (12-10 over Dallas).
For the Bucs, there is a chance for linebacker Devin White to return to the field after missing two games with a knee injury. White was a full participant in Thursday and Friday’s practices and head coach Bruce Arians told reporters that White “moved around really well.”
Here are three keys to watch for today:
1. Can the defense put together a complete game?
Nothing made Bucs fans happier than watching linebacker Shaquil Barrett strip the ball from Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Ndamukong Suh pick up the fumble and ramble for a touchdown. The Bucs forced four turnovers against the Rams and turned all four of them into points. They needed all of them.
By the day’s end, Goff had passed for 517 yards, albeit in an effort to get the Rams back into a game that began with a 21-0 Bucs lead. On Monday, Arians noted that the linebackers could have covered space better, not leaving the cornerbacks in so many one-on-one tackling situations.
The defense, however, has established an identity through four games. The opponent’s running game is the primary target and so far, the strategy has worked. The latest victim is Rams running back Todd Gurley who finished last week’s game with 16 yards rushing. The Saints Alvin Kamara, who has made a living out of running all over the Bucs, rushed for 69 yards against the Cowboys a week ago but failed to reach the end zone.
If the Bucs stop Kamara, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can unleash the blitzes on Bridgewater, the same pass rush that forced Goff into throwing three interceptions last Sunday.
2. Take what the Saints defense provides.
At its most efficiency, the Bucs offense is a real challenge for teams to defend. The improved running game has opened the passing attack creating safe options for quarterback Jameis Winston. Last week against the Rams, Winston threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns on his way to being named the NFC offensive player of the week. With a full allotment of targets, the passing game is difficult to defend. Teams have keyed on wide receiver Mike Evans and been burned by wide receiver Chris Godwin, who had 172 receiving yards in Los Angeles. It is an impressive 1-2 punch that will get even better as the tight ends get more involved. Both tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate had key plays in the Rams game with Brate scoring a touchdown.
While the passing game is fun to watch, the Bucs may want to focus on their own running game as the Saints have shown vulnerability. New Orleans is ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing more than 112 yards per game. The powerful running of Ronald Jones (70 yards rushing vs. Rams) can make a huge difference today, if the Bucs are in manageable down and distance, keeping Bridgewater and the Saints offense on the sideline.
3. Avoid the flags.
So far this season, the Bucs have demonstrated discipline regarding penalties but all three phases of the game were victims of self-inflicted wounds against Los Angeles. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting was flagged for fair catch interference on a punt that moved the Rams to midfield, instead of beginning a drive at their own 35-yard line. The ensuing drive resulted in a touchdown. Running back Ronald Jones had two big runs nullified by penalties, one an illegal shift on the offense. The other, a 54-yard carry wiped out by a holding call. The Bucs wound up with a long field goal attempt, a 58-yard kick made by Matt Gay. And with the Bucs up 38-20, a Kevin Minter roughing the passer call moved the Rams to the Bucs 30-yard line, setting up a 5-yard touchdown run for Gurley.
On Monday, Arians disagreed with the holding call that nullified the big Jones run but acknowledged that penalties are one thing that is keeping the Bucs from putting away games. His phrase “Bucs beating Bucs” is very appropriate for a team that has historically struggled to win close games.
The Bucs and Saints are two of the more penalized teams in the NFL this season with 36 and 38 enforced calls respectively. But for an offensive line that had its share of problems in 2018, the Bucs have only given up yards on three holding calls this season. Only three teams have had less.
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