It’s a new season, folks and it’s finally here. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for the first time in the 2018 regular season against their arch-rivals, the New Orleans Saints. A lot has changed since the Bucs secured a last-minute victory against the NFC South Champions. Can the Bucs pull off another upset?
Bucs Offense vs Saints Defense
In both games last season, the Buccaneers struggled to put points on the board against New Orleans. In the first meeting, Jameis Winston, playing hurt, managed to only go the first half before giving way to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who would throw a touchdown but not generate much else. The Saints Marcus Lattimore shutdown Mike Evans, later resulting in an ugly altercation near the Bucs sideline that got Evans suspended for a game.
New Orleans added to their pass rush in the off-season, drafting DE Marcus Davenport. The Bucs offense is essentially the same, but Fitzpatrick is more versed in the offense and has weeks to prepare for the Saints and offensive coordinator Todd Monken may call plays instead of Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
If the Bucs can get a consistent rushing attack from Peyton Barber, they might be able to stay in the game. In the second meeting, Barber rushed for 71 yds and a touchdown.
While the Bucs may miss Jameis Winston, the 2015 number one overall pick had struggled against the Saints, completing just 54% of his passes, throwing 3 interceptions and a season-low 61.3 QB rating in the two Saints games combined. No defense seemed to befuddle Winston like New Orleans.
Bucs Defense vs Saints Offense
When the Saints drafted Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the NFL draft, few knew he would be the impact player he has become. Sharing a dual back role with Mark Ingram, Kamara 728 yds and 8 touchdowns. Where he really impacted the game was in the passing game, where he nabbed 81 receptions for 826 yds and 5 more touchdowns. Add to that he had a kickoff return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay, needless to say, he’s a Swiss Army Knife type of weapon. With Ingram suspended, Kamara now moves from 3rd down and specialty back to The Guy. It will be interesting to see if he can be as effective in a role where he is the entire focus.
Of course, part of the problem is you can’t just focus on Kamara or Drew Brees will slice and dice you up. The key against Brees is to pressure him. Get him rattled. Get him down. Last season, that didn’t happen often as the 18-year future Hall-of-Famer was only sacked 20 times.
The Bucs spent a ton of resources in the off-season to upgrade the defensive line and the secondary, which desperately was needed for the 32-ranked defense in a 32-team NFL.
If Tampa Bay is to compete in New Orleans on Sunday, the Bucs defense must show it was money well spent.
With Kamara the primary ball carrier, it’s hard to imagine the Saints will still have him as the kick returner. He did a phenomenal job at it last season, averaging 31.5 yds a return. Will Lutz is a reliable kicker with range and Thomas Morstead was a weapon at Punter, pinning opponents inside the 20-yd line 26 times.
The Bucs counter with Chandler Catanzaro, a career 84% kicker with a career-long of 60. Catanzaro also has the ability to put the ball deep in the back of the end zone on kickoffs. Bryan Anger remains one of the best punters in the league but is coming off a bit of an off year for him, while rookie free agent Shaun Wilson won the kick return job in the pre-season. Something to watch for is Desean Jackson – who may return some punts for the Bucs this season as a way to get the speedy wide receiver into the open field more often.
Sean Payton is a Super Bowl winning coach but until last season, had seen the shine dull a bit after three straight losing seasons. The Saints returned to the playoffs last season, stunning the league. Payton is 105-71 in his 11 yrs in New Orleans with 6 playoff appearances, 4 division championships and that 2009 Super Bowl title.
Dirk Koetter is moving into his third season as head coach of the Buccaneers. After a solid first campaign, narrowly missing the playoffs at 9-7, Tampa Bay fell apart in 2017, managing their worst record since 2014 at 5-11.
Every indicator you have points to New Orleans winning this game. They’re a 9 1/2 point favorite, the biggest favorite coming into kickoff weekend. However, something tells me that the Buccaneers have been undervalued and have something to prove. The Saints under Payton are a traditionally slow-starting team, starting the season 0-2 each of the last four years. Meanwhile, the Bucs have started 1-0 under Dirk Koetter in each of his first two years.
This is probably a heart pick more than a smart one, but I think the Bucs stun the world with an upset.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 24, New Orleans 20