TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the New Orleans Saints this afternoon at 1:00 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs ended a four-game losing streak last Sunday with a 30-27 win over the Arizona Cardinals while the Saints are coming off a stunning 26-9 loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons.
On Tuesday, the Bucs made surprising news by placing cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III on waivers, the result of what head coach Bruce Arians called a “lack of hustle”. Hargreaves was benched during the Arizona game and returned late after an injury to M.J. Stewart. A statement released from general manager Jason Licht said the decision was the result of weeks of discussion. That leaves Ryan Smith as the longest tenured cornerback on the Bucs defense.
Here are three things to watch in today’s game:
- The cornerstones of success?
The end of Hargreaves’ era with Tampa Bay has caused a shuffle in the depth chart for the Bucs defensive backs but there could be a stroke of luck with the return of Carlton Davis, who missed two straight games with a hip injury. On Friday, Arians said there is a good possibility of Davis playing which would boost the young secondary that is going through the usual growth process of mixed results. Like Davis, Jamel Dean is a rookie that has learned on the job, helping set up last week’s victory with an interception off Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray.
The defensive backs will have their hands full again with the Saints prolific passing attack, led by quarterback Drew Brees, who missed the first meeting in New Orleans in early October. On that day, Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw four touchdown passes and wide receiver Michael Thomas hauled in 182 of Bridgewater’s 314 passing yards. The Bucs are still statistically one of the poorer teams in the NFL against the pass and the Saints will want to set up their air attack as quickly as possible.
- Viva la Vita!
One way the Bucs defense can slow down the Saints’ passing game is to make Brees’ day a difficult one. Last week, the Falcons defense blitzed relentlessly and broke through with two critical sacks in the fourth quarter. When the Bucs have had success against Brees, it has usually been because of pressure from the defensive line.
That’s where defensive lineman Vita Vea comes into play. It has taken analysts a while to point out Vea’s contributions on defense but when isolated on film, Vea is seen taking on double blocks and beating his man cleanly more often than not. He is one of the main reasons for the Bucs stout run defense and it has had an effect on the quarterback pressure from the outside as well.
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett added to his NFL leading sack total last week by getting to Kyler Murray. Brees is also a slippery player when the pocket shrinks but with Vea pressuring in the middle, the linebackers may able to take their shots, especially if defensive coordinator Todd Bowles decides to call multiple blitzes.
- Learning how to win.
Through nine games, the Bucs have played to a one-score finish six times, losing four of them. Arians has stated the simplicity of learning how to win but has watched his team self-destruct at the worst possible moments in games. Last week, the Bucs finally had the last laugh in a game that came down to the final possession. In fact, it was three possessions. Jamel Dean’s interception prevented the Cardinals from possibly sealing a win, the Bucs offense drove 92 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown and the defense returned to the field to finish the day with passes defended.
At 3-6, the Bucs playoff hopes are obviously slim but if today’s game goes down to the final minutes in the fourth quarter, it will be a prime opportunity to take a big step forward as a franchise against a team that is the favorite to win the NFC South. The Saints, however, are coming off an embarrassing home loss and will be focused on getting their run to the postseason back on track.