Any team in their right mind would be a little intimidated heading to New Orleans. Not only do you have to contend with a solid football team in the Saints - you also have to deal with 76.458 rabid fans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Yet, Josh Freeman and his battling Buccaneers have no fear of the Bayou. Since the teams became division rivals in 2002, Tampa Bay has won six of the last nine meetings in the Superdome, including three of the last four.
Even when the teams are grossly mismatched, as was the case in 2009, the Bucs seem to have the magic elixir to pull out the win.
That season, a Bucs team that finished the season at 3-13 beat a Saints team that went on to win the Super Bowl - preventing them from clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs (at least for a couple more weeks).
Of course as anyone who's played the game would know - while trends are interesting - it has nothing to do with what's going to happen Sunday. The bottom line is the 2011 edition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to sweep the 2011 New Orleans Saints for the first time since 2007.
Can they get it done?
Let's look at the matchup.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Passing Game vs.New Orleans Saints Pass Defense
Josh Freeman and the Bucs' 12th ranked passing game return to the scene of some solid performances by the Freechise. Freeman is 2-0 in New Orleans, has completed over 70% of his passes and 3 touchdown passes.
As with many of his stats this season, Freeman hasn't been quite as effective on the road this season. Free has a 66.5 QB rating with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions.
The Bucs used the bye week to self-evaluate and work on breaking tendencies like trying to force the football in to Kellen Winslow, whose been targeted 58 times this season. Bucs receiver Mike Williams leads the team with 31 receptions and 317 yards.
The Bucs offensive line has been doing the job protecting Freeman, surrendering the least sacks in the NFC.
Freeman had his best performance of the season a couple weeks ago against the Saints, tossing for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns with no picks.
The Saints counter with the 11th ranked defense against the pass. New Orleans can put some pressure on the quarterback with Gregg Williams' various blitz schemes. The Saints have 19 sacks on the season, with Safety Roman Harper tying DE Will Smith with 4.5 sacks.
The Saints secondary isn't taking the football away, only managing 4 interceptions on the season.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Rushing Attack vs. New Orleans Run Defense
After having an inconsistent running game due to injury and lack of physicality from the offensive line, the Buccaneers get a little healthier with the return of LeGarrette Blount. Blount, returning from a knee injury, will for the first time in his young career be shouldering the entire load for the Bucs', as dependable vet Earnest Graham was lost for the season in the Bucs' last outing in London against Chicago.
Despite missing Blount, the Bucs still sustained a rushing attack against New Orleans, as Graham managed 109 yards against the Saints.
Its been a bit of an epidemic for New Orleans, whose had runners go over 100 yards on them in three of their last four games. On the season, the Saints rank 24th in the NFL against the run.
Safety Roman Harper leads the Saints with 47 tackles (36 solo). While linebacker Scott Shanle is tied with rookie CB Patrick Robinson with 3 tackles for loss.
The Saints' Pro Bowl MLB Jonathan Vilma is nursing a knee injury and will be a game time decision.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
New Orleans Saints Passing Game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pass Defense
The last time we previewed this game - for this section we just used two words: Drew Brees. Well, Mr. Brees has been under duress the last few games as his offensive line has struggled to protect the Saints Pro Bowl QB.
19 times Brees has been put on his back and he's been knockdown a lot more than that. While the Bucs inexplicably didn't register a sack against New Orleans in the first meeting, they constantly harrassed Brees and forced him into 3 costly interceptions.
Of course, Brees remains one of the leagues' elite quarterbacks, completing 70.6% of his passes and tossing 19 touchdowns on the season. He remains on pace to breaking Dan Marino's record for yards.
The Bucs' pass defense has been very disappointing. Despite getting a much better pass rush, the unit has slumped to 26th in the league against the pass. Tampa Bay got a boost from the return of safety Tanard Jackson, who in just two games already leads the team with 2 interceptions.
The Bucs pass rush is led by rookie first round pick Adrian Clayborn, whose off to a solid start with 3 QB sacks and multiple hits on the opposing quarterback.
2010 first round pick Gerald McCoy returns to the lineup for Tampa Bay.
Advantage: New Orleans
New Orleans Running game vs. Tampa Bay Run Defense
Tampa Bay's inconsistent run defense will get a bit of a break with rookie running back Mark Ingram out with an injured heel. Ingram has been the Saints leading rusher playing solidly and offering a bruising force compared to Darren Sproles change of pace.
The Saints are 11th in the NFL in rushing.
Tampa Bay has definitely improved in their run defense, rising to 23rd in the league against the run. They're led by safety Sean Jones who has 44 tackles. Geno Hayes leads the Bucs with six tackles for loss.
Consistency remains Tampa Bay's challenge, as they've had games where the Bucs have been a stone wall and games where teams have completely torched them on the ground.
The Buccaneers Special teams did a terrific job against Chicago super returner Devin Hester but will be tested once more by the Saints' Darren Sproles. Sproles is deadly in the open field with a combination of speed and elusiveness that along with his diminutive size makes it difficult to bring him down.
He's averaging 26.2 yards a kick return and 9.3 yards a punt.
With kicker Garrett Hartley out for the season with a hip injury, veteran John Carney has done a solid job in relief. Carney has nailed 16 of 19 field goals with a long of 53. Punter Thomas Morstead has had a good year, averaging 49.1 yds a punt and pinning 5 inside opponents' 20.
Tampa Bay kick and punt returner is Preston Parker. Parker has had a decent year, returning 20.2 yards a kick return and 8.1 yds a punt return.
Tampa Bay kicker Connor Barth has been solid, making 13 of 15 field goals with a long of 49. Punter Michael Koenen has been a dramatic upgrade for the Bucs, averaging 46.3 yds a punt and pinning 15 inside the 20 yard line.
Advantage: New Orleans
Raheem Morris is in his 3rd season as Tampa Bay head coach. He's 17-22 with one winning season.
Sean Payton is in his sixth season with the Saints, he is 54-33 with two division championships and his team was the Super Bowl XLIV champions. He was the 2006 NFL coach of the year.
Advantage: New Orleans.
By the Numbers
- New Orleans leads the series 22-17 and they are 12-10 in New Orleans
- Tampa Bay is 10-9 against New Orleans since the teams became division rivals in 2002.
- Tampa Bay is 6-3 in New Orleans since 2002.
- Tampa Bay has won two straight and 3 of the last 4 overall against New Orleans.
- Tampa Bay has won two straight and 3 of the last 4 in the Superdome
- Tampa Bay was the last team to sweep the season series between the two rivals, doing so in 2007.
- Tampa Bay has swept New Orleans twice since 2002, New Orleans has also swept the Bucs twice.
- The teams have split the season series three straight years and five times since 2002.
- New Orleans is averaging 44 points a game at home.
- Tampa Bay is +1 in give/take ratio, New Orleans is a -5.
Outlook: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stare a golden opportunity to take control of the NFC South with a huge road win in New Orleans. As we've mentioned, the Bucs have no fear of going into Drew Brees' house, dominating the series in the Bayou.
Still, the Saints are coming off a terrible performance and seem to be a much better home team than they are on the road. It's the start of a very difficult stretch for New Orleans, who desperately need to win after getting upset by St. Louis.
A loss to Tampa Bay would severely hurt the Saints chances, especially with a rejuvenated Atlanta team on the horizon.
This game seems tailor made for Tampa Bay. The Saints are vulnerable to the run and they Bucs get LeGarrette Blount back in the fold. They have difficulty protecting Brees and the Bucs get Gerald McCoy back.
They have trouble intercepting passes and a newly focused, self-diagnosed Josh Freeman will look to keep that occuring.
The Bucs have pointed all off-season to their division games as to where they need to focus if they're going to win games.
It will be a brilliant chess match between two quality coaches. Ultimately, like the last game, turnovers will likely decide the victor.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 28 New Orleans 21