Gameday!! I don't know that this has ever happened in Saints history, but the Saints will be trying to go 2-0 today with two wins over NFC South opponents. That would be a huge way to set themselves up to start this season if they can pull this game off. I don't expect it to be easy and what makes me most nervous is Tampa's vastly improved defense coupled with how shaky the Saints' offensive line looked last week. On the flip side, I'm feeling pretty defense about the Saints' defense and with the Bucs' offense in shambles this could easily play out like the Falcons game... what I mean by that is low scoring, close, and down to the wire. Here's five things I'm looking for:
1. Can the Saints stop the run again?
You stop Steven Jackson and you slow down the Falcons offense. Check. You stop Doug Martin and you slow down the Bucs offense. That's the goal. Except this time it will pay off even more. Josh Freeman is not Matt Ryan, Vincent Jackson is not Julio Jones, and Mike Williams is not Roddy White. And that's not even discussing tight end. The Saints' defense faced MUCH stiffer competition last Sunday and were able to neutralize them almost entirely by controlling the line of scrimmage. That should be feasible to duplicate this week, but Doug Martin ran for over 1,400 yards last year as a rookie. He's no slouch and he's a better back than Steven Jackson at this point in both of their careers. But if the Saints can stop the run, I firmly believe it will leave this Bucs offense in pieces. Josh Freeman is on shaky ground and placing the responsibility of winning on his arm would pay off huge for the Saints.
2. Does the Saints' offensive rebound from a poor showing last week?
The task doesn't get any easier against this Bucs defense. Gerald McCoy is an awesome and complete player, Lavonte David is an outstanding linebacker, Mason Foster is becoming a force, Adrian Clayborn can rush the passer, Darrell Revis is one of the best cover guys there is, and hard hitting safety Dashon Goldson was a star in the terrifying 49er defense the past two season. That's a lot of talent, much more than what the Saints saw last week. If you take away the scrambles by Geno Smith, the Jets managed 23 carries for 43 yards against the Bucs in week 1. The Saints will need their offense line to perform much better if they're going to be able to establish any kind of game on the ground against the Bucs. The Bucs' pass rush seems much improved, too, so that will be another area to focus on. But I want to see the running game improve and get going this week. It can't be any worse than the showing last week, right?
3. How disciplined are the Bucs?
The Bucs lost to the Jets, despite a horrible performance by the Jets, because of horrific play by Josh Freeman at the quarterback position and penalties. The Bucs lead the league with 13 penalties for 102 yards in just one game. You read that correctly. The Saints' job will be made easy if the Bucs self destruct on their own. I'm curious to see how much they tighten things up after such a sloppy performance.
4. Can the Saints defense continue to get pressure on the quarterback?
You have to stop the run to get your opponent in obvious passing situations, obviously, and once you do that you can get after the passer. The Saints got three sacks against the Falcons last week and with Freeman always getting out of the pocket and holding on to the ball longer, that makes him a high sack candidate if you can get to him and bring him down. But he's not a drop back passer like Ryan who gets rid of the ball very quickly, so in theory sack opportunities should be higher. Anyway, the pass rush was a huge surprise, in a pleasant way, in week one and I'm hopeful that can continue. Rob Ryan's exotic rush packages cause confusion which is a nice wrinkle to his scheme.
5. Can the Saints jump out to an early lead and coast to victory?
The start of this game is more important than others. I really feel like if the Saints can jump out to a 14-0 or 17-0 lead, you'll see the Buc fans turn on Freeman, and the Buc players turn on each other. That would make for a low stress Sunday afternoon. I just sense this Bucs team is wounded and an early blow to their weak morale could send the spiraling. I think the Saints smell blood. I'm really looking for the Saints to come out of the gates firing, and put this puppy away in the first half. If they don't it should be an old fashioned NFC South dogfight to the end.