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Sunday, December 29, 2013
W2W4: Buccaneers at Saints

By Mike Triplett

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) will come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome today with the 32nd-ranked offense in the NFL. But they’re still plenty scary because of a defense that ranks third in the league in takeaways (31) and is loaded with star talent in every position group (including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and rising star outside linebacker Lavonte David).

The good news for the New Orleans Saints (10-5) is that they’ll be on alert, knowing how tough this Bucs defense was back in Week 2 when the Saints squeaked out a last-minute 16-14 victory at Tampa.

The other good news for the Saints? They’re playing at home, where they’re 7-0 this season, having outscored opponents 230-108.

Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Lavonte David. You may not have heard much about the Bucs’ second-year outside linebacker – he obviously doesn’t get as much recognition as he should, since he was somehow snubbed in the Pro Bowl voting. But he’s certainly got the Saints’ attention. The 6-foot-1, 233-pounder is only the second player in the past 10 seasons with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions in a season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (along with Brian Urlacher, 2007). And in Week 2, David had 1.5 sacks and two pass breakups against the Saints.

He’ll help to be an equalizer against Saints running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas – and maybe against tight end Jimmy Graham as well. We saw last week how effective great linebacker play could be in the Saints’ loss at Carolina, led by Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

“He is playing outstanding,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of David. “He is very active. He is very athletic. He is a strong tackler. He is having a Pro Bowl season. The culmination of his tape demonstrates that. He is playing extremely well.”

Jimmy Graham. The Bucs have a talented and physical secondary, led by Revis and safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron (who could be out with an injury today). But Graham still managed to have a monster day in that Week 2 meeting – even after absorbing a vicious hit by safety Ahmad Black. Graham finished that game with 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown.

It will be interesting to see if the Bucs decide to use their top corner Revis on Graham at times – something defenses have started to do more often throughout this season.

Graham has still been getting in the end zone consistently since then. He leads the NFL with 15 receiving touchdowns – three better than anyone else in the league. But quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t been able to connect with Graham on as many deep balls as usual in recent weeks.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees completed 13 passes of 15 yards or more down the field to Graham in the first nine weeks of the season. Over the past six weeks, he’s only completed one such throw to Graham.

Overall, Brees threw 10 touchdown passes and two interceptions when targeting Graham in the first nine games. Over the past six, he’s thrown five TD passes and four picks.

Saints’ pass rush. Tampa’s rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has shown some decent poise this season, winning four of his 12 starts. But he’s been getting sacked a ton lately – including seven times last week against the St. Louis Rams.

The Saints rank fourth in the NFL with 47 sacks this year. And two of their young breakout stars – Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette – will have to take advantage of the matchup. They likely will, especially in the Superdome.

Lewis vs. Jackson. The Bucs’ best offensive weapon by far is physical receiver Vincent Jackson. Expect the Saints’ top cover corner, Keenan Lewis, to be matched up against him for most of the day in the game’s most intriguing individual matchup.

Possible milestones. Brees needs 219 passing yards for his fourth 5,000-yard season. No other quarterback in NFL history has more than one. ... Graham needs two touchdown passes to tie the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (2011) for the most by a tight end in a season.