Two of the biggest stories in the NFC South in Week 1 were that New Orleans played good defense and Tampa Bay never was able to get into an offensive rhythm.
Will that continue as the Saints and Buccaneers play one another?
ESPN’s Matt Williamson and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.
Yasinskas: Matt, I have to admit I was stunned by the Saints holding the Falcons to just 17 points in the opener. I saw the Saints in training camp and had serious doubts about whether they had the personnel to run the 3-4 defense successfully, and they have endured several major injuries since then. Yet, the Saints kept one of the league’s best offenses in check. Was this just a fluke or is the New Orleans defense actually for real?
Williamson: If I were an optimistic Saints fan, I would take this stand: The Saints' young, talented three-man defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, looks simply exceptional and fits the new scheme very well. Their secondary is also clearly improved from a year ago -- which isn’t saying much. If I were taking a more pessimistic view on New Orleans’ defense, I would say that Roddy White was a shell of himself and completely ineffectual, and the Falcons’ offensive line might be among the worst in the NFL right now. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I also believe that as long as the Saints’ defense isn’t among the very worst in the league, that this is the team to beat in the NFC South. So, in return, here is my question: Even if the Saints’ defense isn’t noticeably improved and is closer to the 2012 version than what we saw last week, is Josh Freeman capable of exploiting it? Vincent Jackson played a great game in New York, but Freeman has looked terrible throughout the preseason and now into regular-season action.
Yasinskas: After watching Freeman in the New York game, I'm not so sure he's capable of exploiting any defense right now. He never got into any sort of rhythm in the passing game and, at times, look flustered. Over the past few years I've been steadfast in my belief Freeman has what it takes to turn into an elite quarterback. But that hasn't happened yet, and I'm starting to doubt if it ever will. He has plenty of weapons at the skill positions, but it seems like Freeman is regressing, instead of progressing. Speaking of regressing, what's your take on the Saints' running game? Coach Sean Payton has said he wants to run more, but the Saints got very little out of the running game in the opener. Now, they'll play a defense that was No. 1 against the run last season. Can Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas move the ball against the Buccaneers?
Williamson: That’s a great question and I know it is extremely early, but I have forecasted Ingram to have a breakout season in 2013. But I am having second thoughts on that, as he is a volume runner who needs to be fed the ball to be most effective, and I just don’t know if that will ever be the case here, as Thomas is such an effective all-around player and Sproles needs to be on the field. I do think Payton believes in balance and he wants to have a physical offense with a very good interior offensive line paving the way, but running against Tampa Bay doesn’t seem to be the prudent move. Of course, the Tampa secondary is also vastly improved, but Drew Brees is the type of elite passer who just produces no matter the competition ... and can the Buccaneers match up to Sproles and Jimmy Graham? I have my doubts they can. Therefore, I say this is a game Payton puts on Brees’ shoulders -- which is never a terrible idea. Along those lines, the Buccaneers clearly made a concerted effort to improve their pass defense by using numerous valuable resources to improve their secondary. Mission accomplished there. But this pass rush still has to be a concern, and if Brees is given time, he is going to find someone to his liking to eventually distribute the ball to. Brees is a tough guy to sack, but can the Bucs at least disrupt him in the pocket with some consistency?
Yasinskas: One of the few encouraging things to come out of the loss to the Jets was that the Bucs recorded five sacks. Four of them came from the linebackers, which shows a willingness to blitz. But the front four can be more productive and several guys have the ability to bring some heat on Brees. End Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy both have the talent to get to the quarterback. But the real wild card could be Da'Quan Bowers. The team wanted him to start, but he didn't play well enough to earn the job in the preseason. For the moment, Bowers is being used as a situational player. But he has more upside as a pass-rusher than anyone on this team, and this game would be a good time for him to start showing. Brees is tough to slow down under any circumstances, but you absolutely have to have a strong pass rush to have any chance. Speaking of Tampa Bay's pass rush, that brings up another question. The Saints let left tackle Jermon Bushrod depart as a free agent and they've replaced him with Charles Brown. Can Brown be an effective left tackle?
Williamson: Because of their strengths on the interior and the need for the shorter Brees to have a clean pocket up the middle, the Saints construct their protections schemes from the inside out, which makes life for their offensive tackles easier. And, of course, Brees has a great feel for the rush to go along with underrated, but highly effective pocket movement and athletic ability to elude the rush, particularly from the edges. Bushrod never impressed me much, considering some viewed him as a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. In fact, I think Brown has more natural ability when it comes to movement skills and length for the position. Brown played quite well in the preseason and that carried over to Week 1. It appears the Saints just might have found their starting left tackle for the foreseeable future.